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.
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.
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.
"I decided to look millimeter by millimeter," 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 survive. An original can sell for $500,000; in 2010, a Mille Miglia winner went for $5.6 million.
"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 two million euros ($2.8 million), Schroeder says. That's because the 166's chassis is totally original -- which isn't always the case.
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.
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 knows of one gang that went so far as to source 1920s steel from discarded colonial-era railroad tracks in India to build the chassis of a fake Bugatti, enabling the car to withstand even metallurgical analysis.