Inside Wealth

How 2013 became the biggest year ever for collector cars

Hard assets: Collecting classic cars

Wealthy car collectors spent like never before in 2013.

Auction sales of collectible cars in the U.S. are set to top $1.2 billion this year, an all-time record that's up 25 percent from 2012, according to Hagerty Insurance, the largest insurer of collectible cars. The 2013 total is nearly double the pre-financial crisis level for car auction sales.

While the number of cars sold ticked up 10 percent, to more than 19,500, the average price per car sold jumped 13 percent to $61,000 from $54,000.

This 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4*S NART Spyder sold for $27.5 million in August.
Source: RM Auctions

The average price, however, masks the huge spike at the top end of the collector car market, where vintage Ferraris, Mercedes and Porsches are regularly fetching eight figures. Four of the top five most expensive collector cars ever sold at auction were sold in 2013.

Hagerty's Ferrari index, which features more than a dozen of the most sought-after Ferraris, soaring 18 percent, making Ferraris by far the most expensive category. But German cars are quickly catching up, with Hagerty's German car index— which includes Porsche, Mercedes and BMW—soaring 33 percent in 2013.

McKeel Hagerty, president and chief executive of Hagerty, said that despite the huge price run-ups, he sees few signs of a bubble in collector cars.

"Supply and demand are still driving prices," he said. "You have more millionaires being created, and a small number of these top-quality cars. It's also generational. The people who made large wealth are at a point in their lives when they want to collect these cars."

He said unlike other bubble periods—like the early 1990s, which was fueled by Japanese buyers—this market is far more diversified and global.

Still, Hagerty said, this year was such a big year for cars that "I wouldn't be surprised" if prices cooled a little next year.

The big news in 2013 was the race between a 1967 Ferrari and a 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R to become the most expensive car ever sold at auction. The Ferrari was expected to win the prize at an RM Auctions sale in Monterey, Calif., this summer. But just weeks before the sale, the Mercedes race car sold at a Bonhams auction for an unexpectedly high $29.7 million. The Ferrari ended up selling just short of that number, for $27.5 million.

While collectible car experts say there are plenty of cars that have sold in private, nonauction sales for more than $30 million, those sales are difficult to verify.

Car sale for $100 million?

Hagerty said there will likely be a sale of a car for $100 million or more in the next three to five years. While there are several cars currently for sale at $100 million or more, none have traded for that amount yet.

"In the next three to five years, we will see a $100 million car," Hagerty said. He added the $100 million sale would likely be a Ferrari GTO—"the holy grail of cars," since only 39 were built.

(Read more: Even Santa can't help now—LaFerrari is sold out)

Here are the top five most expensive cars sold in 2013, and the most expensive cars ever sold at auction.

2013 top five classic car auction sales

  1. 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R—$29,700,000 (Bonhams, July 2013)
  2. 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4*S NART Spyder—$27,500,000 (RM, August 2013)
  3. 1964 Ferrari 250 LM—$14,300,000 (RM, November 2013)
  4. 1953 Ferrari 340/375 MM Berlinetta Competizione—$12,800,000 (RM, May 2013)
  5. 1957 Ferrari 250 GT TdF Berlinetta—$9,460,000 (Gooding, August 2013)

Top 10 most expensive classic cars sold at public auction

  1. 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R—$29,700,000 (Bonhams,July 2013)
  2. 1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4*S NART Spyder—$27,500,000 (RM, August 2013)
  3. 1957 Ferrari 250 TR Prototype—$16,390,000 (Gooding, August 2011)
  4. 1964 Ferrari 250 LM—$14,300,000 (RM, November 2013)
  5. 1953 Ferrari 340/375 MM Berlinetta Competizione—$12,800,000 (RM, May 2013)*
  6. 1957 Ferrari 250 TR—$12,402,500 (Gooding, May 2009)
  7. 1936 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster—$11,770,000 (Gooding, August 2012)
  8. 1960 Ferrari 250 GT California LWB Competizione Spyder—$11,275,000 (Gooding, August 2012)
  9. 1968 Ford GT40 Gulf/Mirage Coupe—$11,000,000 (RM, August 2012)
  10. 1961 Ferrari 250 GT Spyder California SWB—$10,910,592 (May 2008)

—By CNBC's Robert Frank. Follow him on Twitter: @robtfrank.