Jalopy Jealousy: Is Your New Car Worth It?

Car envy — that feeling of desperate desire when your dream car pulls up alongside you and your rusting, less-than-trendy jalopy.

No matter what they drive, most drivers have had car envy, but doing something about it can be expensive.

Oddly, the car you covet may look a lot like the car you traveled in as a kid. Retro cars are back, or coming back, in droves — but without the retro sticker prices.

The original Ford Thunderbird sold for $2,695 in 1955. Today's T-bird won't leave much change out of $40,000. But the consumer price index reveals that $2,695 in today's terms should only come to $17,879.

So, has the price of cars outstripped inflation, or are buyers just prepared to pay whatever it costs for the cars of their dreams?

ABCNEWS.com used some of the latest cars to emerge from the auto time tunnel to see how much bang there is for the bucks being laid out on new cars.

This week's international auto show in New York City also offered an insight into the appeal of flashback fashion on four wheels.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

J. Mays, the head of Ford's Living Legends division is at the forefront of retro vehicle production. He's the person behind the new Thunderbird and the upcoming GT40, a throwback to the race-winning Ford of the 1960s.

Mays says a significant chunk of the higher costs go on environmental and safety features unnecessary in decades past.

"There's no such thing as a bad car today … no car is unreliable or unsafe," Mays says. He points to tough government requirements and a discerning public who can pick and choose from dozens of auto deals offered every year by manufacturers.

"Fit, finish and quality, onboard navigation systems, lighter-weight materials, architecture, crash ability, airbags … none of these were an issue in the '50s and '60s," Mays said.


Before working for Ford, Mays was with Volkswagen and was one of the key designers behind the "new" Volkswagen Beetle which sold well above its sticker price when it launched because of huge demand in the United States.

Now, four years after the "new" Beetle was introduced, Volkswagen is forced to offer rebates and special financing deals to draw buyers in. But Mays says, from a manufacturer's viewpoint, this is a good thing.

"The worst-case scenario is that the cars sell at a premium for three years and if they have to rebate them after that, the company is still ahead."

But even then, are the "new retro" cars, with high research and development costs, worth it to auto companies?

"There's an immeasurable amount of influence these cars have as goodwill ambassadors that replace millions of dollars in advertising every year," Mays told ABCNEWS.com. He said the cost was easily recouped in sales and the indirect influence such cars had on exposing the brand.

Mini Me?

Perhaps one of the biggest buzzes of the New York auto show this year is over the MINI Cooper … a new generation of the classic Mini Cooper that was named the car of the 20th century. The original British-built Mini was not sold in the United States in significant numbers, but today has a cult following among the owners of the roughly 12,000 Mini Coopers registered with U.S.-based enthusiast clubs.

"We believe there are about 12,000 Minis in the States today …. which is impressive considering only 10,000 were officially imported," says Michael McHale, spokesman for the new MINI. McHale says private enthusiasts probably imported the others.

Owners of the "old" Mini have included entertainers Peter Sellers, Tim Allen, Ringo Starr, Bill Cosby, James Garner, Steve McQueen, David Bowie and Frank Sinatra.

McHale says it's difficult to compare the costs of the old Mini to the new MINI. At $700, the 1959 Mini Cooper came with no options whatsoever, not even heating. Today's MINI has an air conditioned glove compartment.

He says money spent on environmental issues also pushed new car prices beyond inflationary rates. "The new MINI is 25 times cleaner in its emission discharges than the old Mini. It gets a four-star rating in crash tests — all these improvements cost money in production."

Perhaps ironically, the tiny new MINI is being marketed to a very different driver than the Mini of yesteryear, which was aimed at families looking for an economical vehicle during an era of high fuel prices.

"We have become richer as a society, you can now afford cars for different things," McHale says. As a consequence, he expects some of the new MINI buyers to purchase the $17,000 car as a third vehicle for their garage.

"Households can now afford cars for different things — a commuter car, an SUV or minivan and a fun car; that's where the Mini comes in."

And it seems that cars like MINI Coopers and Ford T-birds are high on the list of cars to covet. Waiting lists mean people won't be driving their new cars for months and as the envy factor kicks in, those lists are only expected to grow.

MINI dealerships even have waiting lists for test drives with potential drivers booked in for specific windows of time. The high demand means there is no negotiation on price.

Make Room in Your Garage

Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, agrees with the growth in three-car garages. He said there was data indicating people were increasingly buying third cars and that significant numbers of new car sales were taking place within six months of people buying new homes as their lifestyles changed.

"The three-car garage is a strong growth area we're very interested in," Taylor said.

He also endorsed auto manufacturers use of "retro" cars such as the Mini and the Thunderbird to promote their brands.

"Flagship cars bring people into dealer showrooms and if they're cars that are on a platform they'll continue to produce anyway, then the startup cost can be justified," Taylor said.

As for the cost of "now" versus "then" on cars, Taylor says the costs that push today's sticker prices well beyond inflationary increases are almost entirely a result of environmental and safety requirements on the modern auto.

"However, the U.S. is going through an era [with luxury cars] that is similar to the 1920s and 1930s when you had cars like the Duesenberg and the Cord."

Taylor said car purchases in that era were booming as buyers sought out the best available. He said cars like the "new retros" were achieving similar adoration and that household incomes were strong enough to drive sales to the point where waiting lists would remain long on niche cars like the Ford Thunderbord and the more expensive luxury vehicles like Ferrari.