If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the phenomenal prices that used German cars have been fetching on auction websites over the past several years. What started with the ‘Porsche bubble’ at higher-end auctions has spread to other makes and models with surprising speed. Websites like Bring A Trailer have grown tremendously by offering the coolest, unique, rare, unusual, or otherwise desirable cars of all kinds. Many are fetching prices that no-one could have guessed just a few years ago.
As the most recent example, a low-mileage E30 M3 just set the world ablaze with an eye-watering $250,000 selling price over on BaT. While there are no doubt many lower-production models out there that you might expect to see selling for these high prices, there are just as many selling for far beyond what they should based on how many were produced. Here are a few of our picks.
Volkswagen Rabbit GTI (Type Mk1/A1, 1983-1984)
The Mk1 VW Rabbit GTI is the car that started it all when it comes to the cult of GTI in America. Volkswagen already had a strong offering and many passionate fans, but the GTI was the forbidden fruit that finally arrived on our dealership showrooms in 1983. I would say it arrived on our shores, but the Rabbit GTI was one of many models built in the USA at VW’s Westmorland, PA manufacturing plant. Sure it was a bit watered down compared to the European equivalents, but in the land of smog-choked V8s and sixes from the usual domestic manufacturers, the Rabbit GTI was fast, fun, and relatively cheap. For around $8,000, customers could grab one of the most versatile performance cars ever made, and VW sold tens of thousands of them over a short two-year run.
Like every other economy hatch before it, the Rabbit GTI experienced a pretty steady depreciation rate, fetching minimal money for decades. The Rabbit GTI doesn’t even come up as an option on Kelly Blue Book’s website, but your typical insured value will be just a few thousand dollars at best. Recently, however, decent examples are fetching far more than they have in the past. Even higher mileage, non-original cars that are restored and repainted are selling for relatively massive money, with cars going for $20,000-$30,000 regularly on BaT, or about the same money you’d spend on a brand new GTI.
Porsche 911 (Type 964, 1989-1994)
Porsche 911s have always been expensive to purchase new. Still, over the years, the average 911 Carrera has followed a pretty normal rate of depreciation. At some point, they reach a stage where the average enthusiast can pick up an older model for a reasonable price, put in some elbow grease and sweat-equity, and end up with a fun and timeless sports car. For decades, that held true with even the most popular and loved Porsche 911s trading at average, attainable prices. The not so popular Porsche models? They were even cheaper, and there used to be no Porsche 911 quite so unloved as the 964.
The Porsche 964 suffered from being a bit newer and at the time ‘too different’ from 911s of the past. It’s heavier and more refined than the outgoing 3.2 Carrera and was derided by some of the more influential Porschephiles at the time for having gone soft with ‘luxuries’ like power steering. That, coupled with a notoriously leaky engine case that required a fairly expensive top-end rebuild, meant that the value of used examples was never solid for the 964. They really began to plummet as post-996 water-cooled cars grew in popularity, and the 964 became even less attractive. Savvy buyers could buy a reasonably low mileage 964 coupe for well under $20,000, and higher mileage examples for under $15,000, with plenty to choose from with over 17,000 sold in the USA alone.
All that changed as the Porsche-bubble exploded, with younger enthusiasts seeing the 964 as an attractive and easy way to jump into Porsches, plus it’s the first 911 that you can install coilovers onto as a bolt-on modification. The 964 is also the base chassis for Singer’s reimagining of classic 911s, meaning that even the pool of otherwise beat-down or poorly serviced 964s is extremely shallow. After a brief period where Carrera 2 and Carrera 4 models, not including Turbos or the rare RS America, were touching $90,000 in the most extreme cases, pricing has begun to come back down just a bit. Time will tell if this is for good, or if everyday fans of the 964 will continue to have to look, but not touch, this modern classic.
BMW M3 (Type E36, 1994-1999)
While some may scoff at an E30 M3 selling for more than the price of a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo S, the fact is that particular M3 is a homologation special. It is a car built for competition and then adapted into a road car for the public, so it’s not your everyday German sedan. The parts that set the first M3 apart from the standard E30s of its time are innumerable; in fact, the hood is the only exterior panel shared between the M3 and other more pedestrian models. The E36 M3, on the other hand, is not a homologation car. With the wild success of the E30, of which BMW sold around 17,000 examples compared to the 5,000 required to meet homologation, they had no such limitations with the E36. The BMW E36 M3 has closer ties to the standard model 3-series than any version before or since, being no different visually than a 325is or 318is with the full M-Technic body kit. With that said, the E36 features a massive jump in performance and refinement over the E30, having no homologation rules to satisfy.
The USA was handed the short end of the stick, per usual, with the S50B32US/S52 engines producing only 240 horsepower compared to the European sibling’s 310 ponies. Despite this, the E36 M3 was an absolute winner in every sense of the word. Ultimately over 30,000 E36 M3s were sold in the USA, with strong sales following near-unanimous positive reviews from media outlets along with a more flexible demeanor, with convertibles, sedans, and optional ‘lux’ packages broadening the appeal. The E36 M3 has also proved to be one of the most reliable performance cars ever built, and it is not uncommon to find examples with near or over 200,000 miles that are still in good shape.
Despite high mileage and a relatively high number produced between 1994 and 1999, E36s have rebounded rapidly from just a few years ago, with more desirable color combinations fetching far more than you might expect. The current highwater mark, if we exclude the legitimately low-production and ultra-exclusive USA-only E36 M3 Lightweight, is just under $60,000 for a 19,000-mile Technoviolet coupe. While that is low mileage to be sure, it is also more than $20,000 over the sticker price when new. With the current pricing trend for low mileage cars, you can see why people with 100,000+ miles ask a premium price for their E36 M3s.
Volkswagen R32 (Type Mk4, 2004)
The Mk4 Volkswagen R32 is the first of two limited-production all-wheel-drive R-line versions of VW’s venerable bread-and-butter Golf hatchbacks. It is a car that very nearly wasn’t imported into the states, and it was only by the demand of enthusiasts that it was put on sale here. It was a success, with all 5,000 units selling out more or less within the year. While it was not as fast as its direct competitors, cars like the WRX STi and Lancer Evolution, it was far more refined. Borrowing heavily from the Audi TT parts bin, the R32 had improved front suspension geometry over the standard Mk4 GTI, an independent rear suspension, Haldex all-wheel-drive, and of course, a glorious 3.2 L VR6 engine. R32s came in silver, black, red, or blue, and only with a manual transmission. From day one, the R32 became ‘the’ VW to have in tuner circles.
The interesting thing about the Mk4 Volkswagen R32 is that it’s still a reasonably young car, just barely over 15 years old at this point. Thanks to being a fairly reliable performance car, and a joy to drive, there are plenty of R32s that have 100,000 or more miles on them. For a brief moment, values of these well-maintained higher mile cars dipped to the point that they could be found under the $10,000 mark. However, that didn’t last long, with most cars on the market these days solidly in the five-figure range unless they have serious problems. Well maintained lower mileage R32s are more often near or above $20,000, and the best examples can sell for $30,000-$40,000. The Mk5 R32 that followed, while still selling out all 5,000 allocated examples, has never seen the retained value of the Mk4.
Perhaps that will change for the Mk5 R32 as time and nostalgia build them into something more than the sum of their parts, much like the other cars on our list. I guess that’s really what it comes down to for any of these. While it’s easy to dismiss a ‘common’ car like the Rabbit GTI or E36 M3 as not being worth the seemingly inflated pricing that people are willing to pay, the fact remains these have always been magical cars that fans have fervently followed for years. That they fetch a premium is not new; it’s simply the increased competition to own a piece of that magic that has only recently become a thing and driven prices ever higher. While that’s great news for sellers and speculators looking to cash in, it also means fewer and fewer enthusiasts can purchase and enjoy these great cars for themselves, at least not without ponying up a substantial amount of money for the honor.
What do you think? Are these prices going to continue to climb? Are these climbing prices excessive, or is this simply a case of the market finally realizing these German classics’ true worth? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
FCP Euro's Event Director by day, writer and contributor by night, and wanna-be race car driver on the weekends. Nathan has been working in the VW and Audi performance aftermarket for nearly two decades, and dabbled with Porsche and BMW. He also used to write under the pen-name of Alex Rogan for magazines like Eurotuner, Performance VW, Total 911, and European Car. He has a Cornflower Blue Rabbit Edition GTI daily driver which is surprisingly still mostly stock, and a Mk5 GTI track car which is mostly not. ••• Instagram: @njbrown55