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Spending a Day at Barrett-Jackson

The Auction at the Heart of Car Culture


Cars By Photo by Andrew Connor

L
iving in New York City is hell if you love cars. Sure, there are institutions like Classic Car Club Manhattan, the New York International Auto Show or… well, that’s about it. It’s expensive and a pain in the ass to own and park a car here and even if you did you’ll be going well out of your way and paying tolls just to get some quality behind-the-wheel time. If you want to own a classic car here it’s even tougher: you’ll want to park that baby indoors (unless you don’t care what happens to it or are just okay with losing a lot of sleep worrying about it). In short, if you’re a car person in New York be prepared to pay a price. Unfortunately for me it’s one I simply cannot afford.

Being an enthusiast in general has been even harder lately because, in light of recent scandals and technological innovations — the future is autonomous, the EPA wants to ban race cars, the Land Rover Defender is no more, and so on — we gearheads seem to live under the (perhaps overblown) fear that there will soon be a day when cars are not just going to become obsolete but illegal. And while everyone else has prepared themselves for the #disruptors to disrupt, for Uber to continue to leave its mark on commuting culture, for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop to whisk us away and for public transportation to (hopefully) someday become more reliable, I, like most enthusiasts I know, try to cling on to what I love even in the face of progress.

But as pessimistic as I may get about the future of car culture, my mind has been at ease ever since I left the confines of New York City to visit Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale, Arizona auction. There are plenty of automotive auctions: RM Sotheby’s, Gooding & Company, Bonhams among others. They all offer beautiful, rare and historic cars but to me they fail to truly capture the essence of automotive fandom. Elite seven and eight-figure cars are all well and good — they haunt our dreams and they represent some of the finest work in automotive history — but their exclusivity and high-class status don’t represent the entirety of the hobby. Barrett-Jackson, on the other hand, is an entirely different experience.

Barrett-Jackson is certainly every bit as prestigious as any other auction. The headline “Salon Collection” is a compendium of pre-war, mid-century and modern cars that sell for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, and go across the auction block at night on Saturday, the auction’s penultimate day. But it’s just a fraction of what Barrett-Jackson has on offer. All told, the entire auction is comprised of about 1,500 cars, 74 acres of event space, 350,000 visitors, hundreds of pieces of automotive memorabilia, food stands, vendors and attractions that come together for an entire week.

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Barrett-Jackson thus eschews the navy-blazer-and-straw-hat image of other high-profile automotive concours and auction events for something resembling a county fair. Outside the main auction hall and display area for the high-dollar cars, attendees eat at BBQ and deep-fried food joints, and peruse the wares of vendors selling everything from knife sets and hot tubs to neon signs and diecast car models. Visitors can sign up to ride shotgun with a professional driver in a Challenger Hellcat, attend symposiums on collecting cars or even watch professional bull riding.

The auction’s festival image is the brainchild of the auction house’s chairman and CEO Craig Jackson, who took over his father’s business in 1995. Before then, since it was founded in the ’70s, Barrett-Jackson was just another auction house selling pre-war vehicles. But Craig Jackson’s vision was to turn Barrett-Jackson into a “lifestyle event,” a spectacle of sorts that appeals not just to car lovers who flock from all over the country both to bid and to watch, but even to non-car enthusiasts.

Barrett-Jackson thus eschews the navy-blazer-and-straw-hat image of other high-profile automotive concours and auction events for something resembling a county fair.

Every day, for an entire week, bidding starts at 8:30 a.m., sharp. The morning’s opening lots are vintage toys, signs, furniture and other automotive novelties that will continue to roll across the block for the next two hours. Cans for oil and antifreeze circa the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s sell for under $100 while rare signs and furniture can sell for hundreds, even thousands. The stands are practically empty, with only prospective buyers occupying the cavernous space.

At 10 a.m., cars begin to roll across the block and seats begin to fill with more bidders and spectators, albeit slowly. Admittedly there’s not much to see here this early in the day. Early mornings are comprised of Barrett-Jackson’s pedestrian offerings: the obscurities, mass-market classics and late-model sports cars that sell for peanuts. One of the day’s earliest lots is a clean 2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK430. The bidding takes just a couple minutes. “Sold, for $11,000,” the auctioneer proclaims, banging his gavel as bidding peters out. In the calm and unpacked auction hall in the early morning there’s a lack of fanfare for this relatively mundane machine when the hammer drops.

But therein lies the beauty of Barrett-Jackson. Just about anyone can come, register to bid and potentially walk away with a pristine classic, no matter their budget. While collector car auctions are content selling millions of dollars of what are essentially automotive art pieces to dukes, sheikhs, barons and czars, the breadth of the cars being auctioned brings out anyone who cares about cars, from average Joes to celebrities worth millions. Each has their eye on something and each has a chance to win.

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Throughout the day, spectators and bidders ogle the cars on display, some with the intention of bidding and others merely with passing fancy, but every car is a conversation piece. Middle-aged men fawn over their automotive heroes; young fathers quiz their children on the different makes and models; wistful enthusiasts reminisce over “the one that got away”; fans (and Burt Reynolds impersonators) form a crowd several people deep around the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am.

“Car coming through!” shouts a man sporting a Barrett-Jackson polo shirt, snapping everyone out of their automotive fantasies and clearing the way through the tents for cars that are soon destined for the block. The entire day cars roll in and out of the tents before and after they get sold. Once they’re out of the tents they accumulate in a staging area where prospective buyers can look under the hood and inspect closely before bidding starts. Once they’re auctioned off they return to the tents until the owner has settle their paperwork.

Faced with the automotive isolation of New York it’s comforting knowing that there are thousands of people out there passionate enough to make a pilgrimage to Scottsdale just to see and bid on a collection of special cars.

As day turns into night the values of the cars rise, escalating from everyman classics to expensive restomods and rarities. And as the stands begin to fill with thousands of spectators, the energy in the arena grows. The cars being sold may no longer be a realistic prospect for most of the attendees at Barrett-Jackson; at this point in the day each auction lot is more a spectacle than it is a sale.

The hall briefly becomes quiet, then the lyrics from the Smokey and the Bandit theme song fill the hall: “Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin’; We gonna do what they say can’t be done…” The film’s Trans Am, which had drawn such a crowd in the tents, rolls across the stage, as those in attendance cheer while Burt Reynolds himself steps out from the passenger seat and addresses the crowd. “It’s great to be here…especially with all the women.” The crowd goes wild.

And as the auctioneer spouts his rapid, singsong chant, the bids increase in five-figure increments and the crowd continues to watch with amusement and enthusiasm. As bids escalate, the lights in the auction hall begin to flash and spin. When the price finally climbs as high as it can go, the auctioneer bangs his hammer and shouts a fervent “sold!” while the attendees clap and cheer.

Faced with the cars and the crowd of Barrett-Jackson, it’s impossible for me not to feel good about being a car guy. Even when dealing with the automotive isolation of New York it’s comforting knowing there are thousands of people out there passionate enough to make a pilgrimage to Scottsdale just to see and/or bid on a collection of special cars. That events like Barrett-Jackson exist as a service for the diehards serves as a reminder that the automotive landscape may be changing, but the love of cars is undying.