To find fakes, call vintage-car Sherlock Holmes

-A +A

SOMETHING was wrong. The BMW 328 Roadster had been sitting in Norbert Schroeder’s Dusseldorf, Germany, garage for three days, and its owner was growing impatient. Schroeder had already inspected the car once without finding anything amiss. Yet he could feel it in his bones: Something wasn’t right.

“Focus, Norbert,” he told himself. “Focus.”

Schroeder, 53, doesn’t wear a deerstalker hat or smoke a meerschaum pipe. Yet he’s the closest thing the classic-car world has to a real-life Sherlock Holmes, Bloomberg Pursuits reports in its Summer 2014 issue. He works for TUV Rheinland Group, a German technical-testing company, as a vintage-car appraiser and restoration consultant. His specialty is authentication: proving that a classic car is what a dealer or owner says it is — or, increasingly, disproving it.

In 2013 alone, classic-car values increased 28%, according to the Luxury Investment Index maintained by London real estate brokerage Knight Frank LLP. Many sought-after models, such as a 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4 or a Ferrari 250 Testarossa, have seen auction prices triple or quadruple during the past decade. As prices have soared, so, too, has the number of fakes.

“In the 1990s, I used to find one fake car every five years,” Schroeder says. “Last year, I found eight.”

A car’s coachwork — the distinctive design and shape of its exterior — is what makes it recognisable to a layperson. For an appraiser such as Schroeder, however, the key to identifying a classic car is its chassis. And it was to the BMW’s chassis that Schroeder returned.

Millimetre by millimetre

“I decided to look millimetre by millimetre,” he says.

The 328 is a sporty, open-topped racer that Bayerische Motoren Werke AG produced from 1936 to 1940. Modified versions chalked up wins at a number of the era’s pre-eminent European races, including France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and Italy’s Mille Miglia. Of the 464 produced, only 180 are thought to have survived. An original can sell for US$500,000 (RM1.67 million); in 2010, a Mille Miglia winner went for US$5.6 million.

Schroeder knew that on an authentic 328, the gearbox attaches to the chassis 3cm behind the first set of crossbars that create the chassis’ signature A shape. The attachment point was exactly where it should be. But as Schroeder felt for the threading used to bolt the gearbox to the chassis, he discovered something strange: It wasn’t there. Instead, the gearbox had been welded in place.

“Aha! There is something wrong!” he recalls thinking. Schroeder had just uncovered another fake.

While restoration has always been a legitimate part of the vintage-car market, the issue can be devilishly complicated. When I meet up with Schroeder on the floor of the Techno Classica Essen, one of Europe’s most important vintage-car fairs, he shows me a 1951 Ferrari 166 F2. The vehicle, one of just three built, is worth at least €2 million (RM8.35 million), Schroeder says. That’s because the 166’s chassis is totally original — which isn’t always the case.

Schroeder has even come across cars where the left side of the chassis is original and the right-hand side is a reproduction. Before the 1970s, splitting up a race car’s chassis and creating two or more new vehicles around it was not uncommon. As long as part of the chassis is authentic, a car can generally claim to be the genuine article.

The issue comes down to transparency — telling a buyer exactly which parts are original and which are restored or new — and the seller’s intent.

Twitching antennae

“The fraud lies in holding it out to be the real machine when you know it is not,” says Martin Emmison, a lawyer who specialises in collector-car cases at Goodman Derrick LLP, a London firm. Emmison notes that many counterfeits begin life as legitimate replicas before being passed off as originals by unscrupulous dealers.

As a rule, Schroeder’s antennae begin to twitch whenever he is confronted with a model he knows is easy to knock off using an authentic but much less expensive chassis from a model of similar vintage. A Ferrari hardtop can be turned into a more desirable Ferrari Cabriolet, and a road car like a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera can be made to look like a Porsche 911 Carrera RS race car, its much more valuable cousin.

Uncovering a fake requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of classic cars and can turn on the smallest of clues: Schroeder recently discovered a counterfeit Mercedes 300SL Gullwing (the real deal is worth about US$1.2 million) because of a slight aberration in the font used to stamp its vehicle identification number. Also suspect are sellers who are vague on a car’s recent ownership or who claim to have discovered the chassis of a famous race car that has been missing for decades.

Schroeder estimates that he inspects at least 200 cars a year worldwide and has learned to trust his instincts. — Bloomberg

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 27, 2014.