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After getting his teeth cleaned one evening in 1976, Elvis Presley told his dentist he had a surprise. The King took Lester Hofman, D.D.S., to the parking lot, pointed to a silver Cadillac Seville with a burgundy vinyl roof and announced that the car was a gift—a token of appreciation for maintaining the trademark Elvis smile. On Jan. 22 the Presley Cadillac—complete with papers in Elvis' name—changed hands again, this time for $35,200, as one of the highlights of the largest and gaudiest annual car auction in the U.S.
Every January, thousands of collectors gather in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the Barrett-Jackson auction, the main stop on the winter auto circuit. The family-run affair melds the gasoline-fume intoxication of the Daytona 500 with the daffy hedonism of a Las Vegas floor show, decorated with a sprinkling of nouveau riche glitter. As Barrett-Jackson Chief Executive Officer Craig Jackson said, reclining in his customized RV, "This is capitalism at its best."
The Arizona crowd is far removed from the popped-collar elite who gather in August for the more refined Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance on California's Monterey Peninsula. Compulsive car collector Jay Leno once noted that the typical Pebble Beach customer is clad in Ralph Lauren (RL), while the Barrett-Jackson attendee is a "John Deere tractor distributor with the gold chain and the 28-year-old wife with the big boobs." Or, put another way: "We're an aspiration-lifestyle destination event for a much wider audience, especially people getting started in collecting, or who just want to come look at the cool cars," said Steve Davis, Barrett-Jackson's president, who wears wraparound sunglasses indoors and fist-bumps at every opportunity.
Regardless, the cars sell. This year the six-day sale moved more than 1,200 autos, boats, and tractors for a total of $70 million, up 3 percent from 2010. Among them was the 1963 Pontiac Bonneville ambulance that purportedly transported John F. Kennedy's casket from Air Force One to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, and later to the U.S. Capitol. The battleship-gray ambulance sold for a cool $132,000. (The vehicle's provenance is in dispute, but Barrett-Jackson claims to have paperwork and other evidence showing it's legit.) Of less historical significance—but still the focus of intense collector fascination—was Sylvester Stallone's black 1956 Ford F-100 pickup, which commanded an identical $132,000. It may be the only star of The Expendables that came out looking good.
Although privately brokered deals account for the vast majority of transactions—including many of the most expensive—public auctions like Barrett-Jackson are the most visible barometers of the collectible car industry's health. Barrett-Jackson (no relation to this reporter) takes in about $150 million a year in corporate revenue, according to Vice-President Gary Bennett, a former architect from Tulsa whose long graying hair tumbles down his back. The company sells sponsorships to carmakers such as Ford Motor (F) and General Motors (GM), licenses its brand for clothing (short-sleeve shirt: $50), and charges admission ($15 to $55 at the door) to its events.
Barrett-Jackson, which is privately held, runs three auctions in addition to Scottsdale: Palm Beach, Fla., in April; Orange County, Calif., in June; and Las Vegas in September. The January event, however, remains the company's flagship. "If you love anything with an engine, as I do, this is the place in January," said Bennett's wife, Muffy.
The tradition dates back 40 years to the Fiesta de los Autos Elegantes, a modest auction co-founded by Craig Jackson's late father, Russ. The current incarnation sprawls across a nearly 200-acre expanse packed with barbecue stands, neon-decorated auto memorabilia, and oil paintings of long-legged fantasy babes bending over the hoods of Mustangs and Hemi 'Cudas. Virtually everything is for sale. More than 230,000 people attended this year, the vast majority as paying spectators, not bidders or consignors. The opening-night gala offered stiff cocktails, gourmet sushi, and a classical ensemble playing a thunderous version of Led Zeppelin's Kashmir.
Connoisseurs of the classics could find a 1938 blue Buick Brewster Town Car straight out of Dick Tracy ($60,500), a winsome 1941 GMC Suburban Woody Wagon ($110,000), and a dark-green 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn Mercia Special ($99,000). Barrett-Jackson's specialty, though, is 1960s Detroit muscle: noisily powerful, big-block Camaros, Corvettes, and Chevelles. Many bidders were looking for modest coups. Jonathan Liebelt, 40, walked away from his ninth Barrett-Jackson auction with a screaming-orange 1969 American Motors AMX Coupe, believing the vehicle was "seriously undervalued" at $29,150. (Buyers pay Barrett-Jackson a 10 percent commission on top of the bid price; sellers pay 8 percent.) Liebelt said he looked forward to showing off his AMX back home in Aberdeen, S.D., and then eventually reselling it for a profit. "If you get a good price to start, these cars only appreciate in value," he said as well-wishers slapped him on the back.
The auction resembled an old-style Chicago commodities-trading pit. One group of bidders huddled on the auction block, studying the cars as burly handlers wearing black gloves rolled the vehicles by. Other potential buyers were scattered around the audience. Bidders indicated interest with gestures to runners. The runners used guttural exclamations and elaborate hand signals to convey dollar amounts to relay men, who sent word to the chief auctioneer, Spanky Assiter. When he was unimpressed with what was being offered, Assiter goaded the crowd: "Testing, testing, can you hear me?" he asked, tapping the microphone.
Wayne Halabura, a 56-year-old homebuilder from Saskatoon, Sask., designs one-of-a-kind hot rods as a hobby. He brought his latest work to Scottsdale: an award-winning handmade reproduction of a 1932 Ford roadster crafted over a period of 10 years. "I'm not emotional about selling it," he said about the steel-body, roofless beauty. "I do this for the challenge." The two-seater with an all-aluminum stroker engine sold for $346,500.
Others in the arena admitted to more ambivalence. Steve Cole of Brentwood, Tenn., restores autos for Alan Jackson, the country music star, whose 1993 hit, Chattahoochee, recalls the fogging up of a certain old Chevy. The singer sold four cars from his personal collection this year. One, a 1965 German-made Amphicar 770, has white-wall tires for driving on land and boat propellers for traveling on water. The two-door curiosity can do 70 miles per hour or seven knots. After spirited bidding, the amphibious convertible, with its aqua paint job and apricot upholstery, sold for $123,200. "I love restoring cars for Alan Jackson," said Cole. "But he is breaking my heart selling this one."