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For What It’s Worth: Pricing Your Used Car

Bob Timmermann, Senior Librarian, Science, Technology & Patents Dept.,
Classic Car

As the numerous TV programs like “Antiques Roadshow” or “Pawn Stars” tell us, people have a great desire to find out what their stuff is worth. As librarians, we’re usually not qualified to make a judgment on most items. However, thanks to some reliable reference sources, the library can almost always give you a fairly good estimate of what a used car is worth. Enter the Kelley Blue Book.

According to the company’s own history (http://www.kbb.com/company/history/), the Kelley Blue Book was started by, unsurprisingly, a man named Les Kelley, who set up a used car lot in Los Angeles back in 1918. Kelley was pretty successful at his business and eventually started expanding and asking other dealers for cars. This led him to acquiring a good knowledge of what different cars were worth. In 1926, Kelley published his price list as the Blue Book, trading off the name of numerous other publications that used that color to denote quality.

While we wish we had a Kelley Blue Book from 1926, we do have them back to 1950. The March-April guide from that year, looks not too much different from today’s guide, aside from the 63 years worth of wear on it. In 1950, the Kelley Blue Book was published not far from the library at 1221 South Figueroa, the site of the present Convention Center/Staples Center complex.

The 240-page book just has prices for American-made cars and only for cars going back to 1938.  Ford, GM, and Chrysler cars dominate the guide, reflecting the control they had on the automobile market of the time. Smaller manufacturers like Studebaker, Hudson, Willys, and Nash are also priced. Truck prices appeared in the back on yellow paper.

It isn’t until 1953 when imported cars start to appear in the Kelley Blue Book. A handful of British-made Fords have prices along with some Jaguars. Later in the 1950s, Volkswagens would lead a wave of German cars into the marketplace. And in the 1970s, Japanese cars would make their appearance.

For many years, the Kelley Blue Book was sold only to other used car dealers and to public libraries. It was difficult for the general public to actually buy one. Some volumes from the 1950s include instructions suggesting that dealers destroy their old volumes after they get a new one to prevent any problems. However, for the past decade consumers have been able to price their used cars on the company website (http://www.kbb.com/car-values/).

Kelley does not have a monopoly on the used price guide. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has also produced a price guide, which is more commonly used on the East Coast. The library has copies of this guide back to 1975, although more recent ones are listed as “California Edition” in part because of the higher prices that automobiles in California bring because of air quality control devices required here. (Some would argue that what Californians pay extra for air quality control is made up for with a much smaller risk of rust due to the warmer weather here.)

Over time, the car price guides have expanded to cover cars that price some of the same cars that appear in the 1950 guide. Except, these cars are now “classics” instead of “used.” The 1950 Blue Book for example lists a 1946 Buick Roadmaster Sedan (pictured at the top of this article) for a price of around $1360. The current Kelley Blue Book titled Official Guide for Early Model Cars would price that at $23,900 if it were in excellent condition. (If you’re adjusting for inflation, it costs close to twice more now than it did in 1950, but you also have to take into account that it’s very hard to keep a 67-year old automobile in excellent condition.)

For people who have more unusual cars, there are some other price guides that may help you out (you have to request them at the reference desk of the Science, Technology & Patents Department):

CPI: Cars of Particular Interest Collectible Vehicle Value Guide: This source is for the person who doesn’t buy used cars on the lot, but rather on the auction block. Do you want to buy yourself a 1957 Maserati Zagato Coupe in excellent condition? Well, I hope you brought $1.65 million with you.

Hemmings Motor News: This is not a price guide per se, but rather a monthly compilation of classified ads for all sorts of cars and parts and accessories from all over the United States. You may have a 1966 Mustang with an immaculate paint job, but if you can’t find the parts to make the carburetor work correctly, you may find the resale value of your vehicle dropping sharply.

The Truck Blue Book: Ever wondering how much that old Mack Truck in the front yard is worth? This book can tell you. And we won’t tell local authorities that you’ve parked a massive truck on your lawn either.

Remember with all these price guides, they just provide a starting point. The Kelley Blue Book has charts to add or subtract from the price of the car depending upon other factors like mileage and accessories. Also the condition of the car is something that the buyer and seller have to agree on. So while price guides for cars try to provide a more precise, somewhat scientific method of estimating a car’s value, there is still a lot of subjectivity involved. Even if you’re looking at a 1980 Ford Fiesta, valued today at the nice price of $625.


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