30th January 2020

Matching Numbers, the numbers of the beast

Few words cause as much of a consternation in the classic car world as ‘matching numbers’. For rare and sought-after machines, in particular, fitment of the original chassis and powertrain can determine values and pique the interest of determined collectors with access to vast funds – for the right car.

With the amount of matching numbers orientated high court squabbles taking place on the rise in recent years, it’s an ideal time to look at the importance of cars being in their original state. Importantly, nothing is sacred: even the world’s most expensive car, a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that sold for £37m, is currently going through a high court case as two parties argue over a gearbox with six-figure sums involved. A rare 911’s originality, or alleged lack of, has also recent made the broadsheets in the wake of a near-half-a-million-pound UK sale and it’s not uncommon in the US, either.

Originality is a minefield that goes some way to explain the seemingly inflated sale prices of the ‘original barn find’ classic. From the amount appearing on sale, for a while over the last few years it seemed that every UK farmer had at least one E-Type or Aston Martin tucked away under a haystack and half-a-dozen chicken eggs. The more of the barn that came with the car, the higher the price. The reason? The chase for elusive originality.

Classic cars have one thing in common: they’re old. How they’ve been cared for has a huge bearing on potential value, and provenance helps fill in the gaps and ensures that nothing untoward has happened over the last 50 years or so. Suspicious-looking VIN plates, scratched or obscured engine and serial numbers, or unexplained lack of paperwork are warning signs that things are amiss. Of course, a lot can happen in half-a-decade and everything can have an honest answer, but originality provides assurance and this is where projected value is based. Some enthusiasts see matching numbers as being especially important for vehicles that were once more commonplace, highly interchangeable and prone to modification, but now hold a premium: Minis and RS Escorts, for example.

While originality matters for investors and collectors of high end vehicles, is it so important for enthusiasts who want to get out there and use their prized assets? Not so much. However, on that note it is not uncommon for the ‘matching’ engine to be sat in the corner of an Austin Healey owner’s workshop, for example, to avoid wear and necessitating a non-original rebuild that could be deemed to detract from its future value. This can even be the case for classic competition cars. If you’re buying a more modern car then a new engine or key drivetrain component is seen a huge bonus, but the classic market is highly nuanced at whatever price-point you are looking to buy in.

Owners often go to great lengths to track down and reunite their car with its original engine and gearbox, as is the case with the Ferrari 250 GTO sale, and there’s an argument that – value aside – sentimentally it’s good karma and a fitting way to continue your car’s tale. Then, of course, there’s the proliferation of classics that have been fitted with replacement engines, modern engines and powerplants from entirely different manufacturers. These have a value of their own, but none that will match that of the timelessly original, sympathetically maintained matching numbers collectors’ piece.

What’s your view on the matching numbers argument? Are they ‘only numbers’, or do you have a carefully stored old side-valve tucked in the corner of your temperature-controlled storage facility?