In the aftermath of what has been potentially the hottest week in recent Belgian memory, we were treated with much lower temperatures and an all-grey skyline whilst travelling to the city of Aalter, a smaller city about 20 minutes outside of Ghent. We were on our way to an early morning sit-down with Xavier Molenaar, none other than the founder of Oldtimerfarm. In recent years this company has successfully manifested itself as one of the country’s major actors in the classic car marketplace.
Arriving on location is somewhat of an experience. After passing through a narrow alleyway we find ourselves in front of a seemingly gigantic warehouse full or classic cars. Resting outside are a wonderful pair of 964s and, we must add, a very seductive 308 GTS QV. Quite the welcoming committee. We could hardly wait to make our way inside through the shimmering garage door opening, which was inviting us in to gaze upon the seemingly infinite collection of classic vehicles.
Oldtimerfarm has around 500 cars in management, most of which are offered for sale whilst the remaining cars are kept in storage. A collection of such proportions requires a lot of space, which in the case of Oldtimerfarm is more of an industrial experience over a romantic one. What you see is what you get. It runs like a red line through the young company’s rise to prominence in the European classic car market. And there definitely is a whole lot to see.
“I grew up around classic cars thanks to my father, who was a passionate collector. At a certain moment his collection started to grow out of proportion, which made us decide to sell a car before adding further ones to the collection. The one little car at the back of the barn, that was the one that had to go of course.”, says Xavier. “That was the first car I had to sell, back in 2003. Looking at how classic cars were sold in those days, I first reverted to posting classifieds in the specialised press. That was the way to go, although eBay was also growing in popularity at the same time.”
Having studied the classic car market for a case during his MBA curriculum, Xavier concluded that the industry was in need of further professionalisation. “There were a lot of passionate people who lived for the cars they were selling, don’t get me wrong. But they could hardly be labeled professionals. Other sellers were mere car dealers looking to make a good deal.” This was clearly before the value explosion of classic cars that we have become used to today. “Nobody was talking about speculating those days. Cars were already expensive, but there was much less intent to search for short-term value increases. People were already happy to sell their classic cars with a small profit. It was more about the passion than about the profit.”
The downside, however, was that a buyer’s passion was easy to take advantage of. In the current market the cars with a high price need to justify their premium, with proof of matching numbers or other ways to show evidence of their immaculate service history. In the early 2000s this was less the case, and that was an opportunity for Oldtimerfarm. “We wanted to avoid the overly romantic context in which classic cars were sold. We wanted to sell more efficiently; by providing the most complete and comprehensive information about the cars we had on sale. That’s why we turned to eBay, initially. We added 55 photos to our first online ad, just to give an indication of how we aimed to be complete in the information we provided.”
The goal was as complex as it was ambitious: getting customers to make their purchase decision before contacting Oldtimerfarm. “Not easy, especially not in the classic car market. But at the time I assumed that it could be possible for people to purchase classic cars online, just like they would buy antiques, or a book. We had to come back on that initial thinking, yet our philosophy still remains the same today: we provide as much information about each car as possible, good or bad, from the very start.”
Even if a strategy is built with the best intentions, it often needs updating when confronted with potential shortcomings. Sometimes this happens the hard way, and that was not different for Oldtimerfarm. “We once had a customer threatening with legal prosecution because we had sold him a roadster with only 2,000 kilometers on the odometer. The car was in mint condition, but the odometer only counted 5 digits. It had been our second sale, and it was immediately the last one we ever did without having the car in our own management. No more brokerage. That’s when we took our first 5 cars in consignment.”
After managing sales on top of his daytime job for the first couple of years, Xavier jumped fulltime into Oldtimerfarm in 2005. It wasn’t planned. “At first I combined Oldtimerfarm with my job as an SAP consultant. I never enjoyed the job, so early 2005 I decided to switch to a career as a management trainee in a family-owned SME working my way up the ladder initially as a salesman. It was all about hard selling, and that was not a match. I was fired before completing my first six months on the job, which made me join Oldtimerfarm as fulltime employee.” An unexpected turn of events, as life tends to happen unexpectedly. “We were selling cars but making virtually no money. It was a very difficult time.”
Such a drastic change was unexpected and extremely difficult, and it didn’t take long before the temptation to move back into consulting was there. “I still had a good contact with my old boss who had moved to a new management consulting firm. He was also passionate about cars. He persuaded me to go back into consulting with the understanding that if ever push came to shove, I would go back to my fulltime position at Oldtimerfarm.” And so the golden cage returned. “I worked very hard, because our business was really booming at that time. In four years our organisation grew to 50 consultants”. But the call to return to his passion remained.
“In 2009 the firm wanted to expand further to 100 consultants, and I was asked to jump onboard but to work exclusively for the firm. And so I decided to return to Oldtimerfarm as a fulltime employee, joining my brother who had kept the business running the past years. As there was no room to pay me a salary when I came back on the team, we decided to scale up our operations.” Today Oldtimerfarm has 12 employees on top of the management structure and is selling around 400 classic cars per year.
Since 2013 Oldtimerfarm also offers its customers with restoration and maintenance service. “We started our in-house atelier to further differentiate ourselves since market values for classic cars had drastically increased. It became our most complex project to date and it has cost us a handful the past 4 years, but it gives us the expertise we want to give our customers about the cars they have or want to buy.” Because what you see is still what you get. “We want our customers to be happy about their trip to Oldtimerfarm; be it because they get a fair assessment of the car they are looking to buy, or because they found another contender within our large collection on display. They will find what they were looking for.”
At the time of writing, Oldtimerfarm is offering over 20 Porsche 911 models for sale through 911 Vintage. Quite the number, especially looking at all the different brands that the company has in its portfolio. Needless to say that they keep a close pulse on the market. “The past six months we’ve sold less Porsches and Ferraris as the market for both brands has cooled down. But we’re still selling, rest assured. A cooling down of the market makes more sellers revert to dealerships that provide expertise, such as Oldtimerfarm. It also corrects for speculation, leaving the market back in the hands of passionate people. These people bought their cars because they love them. Even if values are down, they will still keep their cars. They don’t need the money. Speculators will be urged to sell to recuperate their investment. Both trends are an opportunity for Oldtimerfarm to get more customers. We’re not unhappy about that.” The future remains bright indeed, and while it remains a daily struggle to win in the classic car market, we are convinced we will keep hearing from Oldtimerfarm in the near future.