When contemplating the purchase of an everyday second hand car there are certain attributes that we all seem to focus on while sifting though the pile of possibilities. How many miles has it done, what service history does it have, how many owners has it had? It’s a shorthand way of determining a car’s quality that we have all become familiar with. It doesn’t always work but it’s reliable enough to have become a rule of thumb.
Of course classic cars are an altogether more complicated buying proposition with a myriad of factors to be considered before something can be determined to be good, bad or mediocre. Most classic cars can’t be accurately described in less than a thousand words much though auction houses might try. However over recent years one particular trait has assumed so much importance that cars without it are dismissed without a further thought. Classic car buyers now scan sale descriptions for the magical words “numbers matching” and if they can’t find them they move on. Numbers matching has become a sine qua non and values reflect that. The influx of new money into the classic car world over the last five years has had something to do with it and buyers increasingly find comfort in ticking boxes like “numbers matching”. I wonder if many really understand why.
So what really do we mean by “matching numbers” and what exactly are we all inferring from it?
In the current vernacular it generally means that the car’s engine number and gearbox number match those that the factory records show were on the car when it was delivered. The inference taken is that the engine and gearbox are the exact same as those that were delivered with the car. Numbers matching seems to be used as a measure of a car’s authenticity.
To some extent this is fair, but I would argue gauging authenticity is a lot more involved than that. Sure, matching numbers will mean that the part that the number is stamped on is original but what about everything else? Mechanical parts inevitably wear out and need replacing, so what have they been replaced with? As stocks deplete, original parts are becoming seriously expensive and less than rigorously restored cars may have had short cuts taken. To judge the mechanical authenticity of a car you need to look at a lot more than just the serial numbers.
Moreover, the overall authenticity of a car is about much more than its mechanicals. A Porsche 356 with all of its original bodywork and interior still intact but an engine that was swapped at some point in its life can be far more authentic than a gleaming numbers matching bauble that’s been restored from a corroded wreck. This might sound obvious but it’s something many have lost sight of. Many buyers demand authenticity but without appreciating what authenticity really is.