“I’ve got two. I’ve got two. Who’ll give me 210…210…210…now 220.” The chant is hypnotic — and effective, the audience responding with increasing fervor. Bidders hoist paddles, raise their hands, tap their foreheads or give other subtle signs that send the figure on the video tote board jumping up another $10,000 at a time.
The object of desire is a red-and-cream 1938 Lincoln Zephyr V-12 street rod, the most eagerly awaited car to roll across the stage at this year’s Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction. But before the four-day event is over, 762 sought-after automobiles will go on the block, generating a record $38.5 million in sales and commissions.
Now in its 33rd year, the Barrett-Jackson Auction is the king of classic car sales — “In a league of its own,” declares McKeel Haggerty, head of Haggerty Insurance, one of the largest collector-car insurance companies.
While the Barrett-Jackson may be called an auction, that’s only part of what will draw 180,000 people to the edge of the desert in Scottsdale, Arizona this unusually cold and wet weekend. Those who choose not to bid will find plenty of other things to keep them occupied inside a tent large enough to envelop an aircraft carrier — everything from model cars to automotive art, as well as massage chairs, cowboy boots, and slot machines.
“It’s more than an auction. It’s a massive happening,” laughs the legendary writer Brock Yates, who’s here to anchor fifteen hours of live auction coverage on the Speed Channel.
Like Yates, most folks have their eyes on center stage, and the fast-paced bidding for the Lincoln Zephyr. “I expected it to be the star of the show, but I never expected the price to climb this high,” admits the ringmaster of this automotive circus, Craig Jackson, as he eyes the action from his perch alongside the auctioneer.
As the bids hit $200,000, the audience lets out a collective gasp. For a moment, things seem to pause. But in the background, one of the auction’s employees is working the phone, trying to encourage an unidentified sports star who is calling in his bids.
“A man of your status needs this,” bellows the auctioneer, nodding towards Tony Gullo, a Texas collector who’d come on stage to get a closer look at the car. Meanwhile, a “grinder” has stepped in-between Gullo and the Zephyr, hoping to coax him to up the ante.
Gullo’s eyes dart back and forth, especially when two new bidders in the audience start dueling it out. But Gullo holds firm, despite the look of desire in his eyes. “They really put the pressure on you,” he says, but he’s out of the action this time.
“Four hundred. Do I have 410? Four hundred. Do I have 410? Four hundred once, twice,” and with the clack of the gavel and cheers from the crowd, the Zephyr has a new home.
Though the hot rod ultimately will draw the year’s top bid, it only seems to whet the appetite of the 3009 bidders who’ve registered for this auction. As the gavel falls, one car after another has soared past its original estimate. Nearly 98 percent of the cars brought to the Barrett-Jackson this year are sold, an all-time high.
Tricks of the trade
Over the years, Craig Jackson and his team have learned plenty of tricks to keep bidders motivated. For one thing, the vast majority of sellers agree to eliminate the reserve, the minimum price they’ve set. “It gets people motivated,” says Jackson, since they think they might wind up with a bargain. “There are lots of great cars here, but no deals,” counters Gullo, though he does wind up driving off with a ’53 Studebaker.
The Barrett-Jackson has also become a popular place to people watch. Former baseball superstar and avid collector Reggie Jackson is a regular, whether bidding or selling off a car he’s grown tired of. This year, comedian Tim Allen bought a Hemi pickup hotrod for $80,000.
The cars are undeniably the stars, though, and with so many rolling across the block, it’s easy to find something that draws your interest, from a rare, ’37 Cord 812 at $324,000 to a ’67 Shelby GT500 Fastback. Yet regular Barrett bidders have watched the auction evolve in recent years. Where classic pre-War collectibles once dominated the offerings, the focus today is on hot rods, muscle cars, and “resto-rods,” which have modern mechanicals under their classic bodies.
On the off-hours, when the TV lights are turned off, one will find the occasional, affordable Mustang or ’Cuda — and, surprisingly, quite a few Ferraris. Once the darling of the auction circuit, regularly commanding million-dollar bids, nearly half the Ferraris at the Barrett this year went for less than $50,000.
But whatever one hopes to get, patience is the key. If you’re too anxious, you could wind up in a bidding war with the likes of Richard Berry, the 40-year-old Florida heir to a Yellow Pages publishing empire. In quick succession, he snaps up four Callaway Corvettes for a cool $682,000. Berry also keeps busy bidding by phone at the RM Auction, where he grabs a Type 30 Bugatti offered up by actor Nicholas Cage.
Where sports fans might have the World Series or Super Bowl, classic car hobbyists have their own special weekend in metro Phoenix, the Barrett, the RM and the Russo and Steele auctions all going off simultaneously. But none rival the Barrett-Jackson, where sales jump a solid $10 million over last year’s figures. The final gross of $38.5 million appears to be a world record for an automotive auction, while records are shattered in a number of individual auction categories, as well.
As the weekend winds down, even the normally glib Jackson has trouble coming up with an explanation. There was certainly no shortage of cash, he suggests, noting that bidders have to go through a credit check, and collectively, they posted credit lines worth $415 million. “There was more than the normal” amount of money flowing into the tent from European and Japanese buyers benefiting from the weak dollar. And, of course, there was all that TV coverage — which also propelled Speed Channel to its own, best-ever ratings.
Whatever the explanation, Jackson is not one to sit back and let things come to him. He’s already begun planning the ’05 event, which will likely grow to five days. And he’s got some big things in mind.
In fact, you won’t have to wait a whole year. In a surprise announcement, General Motors’ Jon Moss reveals that the automaker is planning to sell off part of its vast and fast-growing collection of concept vehicles and race cars. Sixty will be auctioned at the Barrett-Jackson sale in Palm Beach this coming March. Another 120 will go on the block in Scottsdale next January.
In June 2002, the first-of-its-kind auction of 51 unique Ford Motor Co. concept vehicles in Dearborn, Michigan raised nearly $4 million for charity. Nothing if not competitive, Craig Jackson expects that GM’s fantasies in chrome will boost the take of the 2005 Barrett-Jackson to yet another world record.