Put Down the Hammer

How the Barrett-Jackson auto auction is muscling through the recession

If the collector-car auction scene is any indicator, those with money to drive are recovering from the economic malaise that crushed car values in 2008. Either that, or they collectively decided to go out in a haze of burning rubber and one big, fat carbon footprint.

Starting last year, collector-car auctions began setting sales records. Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale, Ariz., auction, for example, climbed from $63 million in 2009 to $70 million. That’s good news, as the auction action returns to Mandalay Bay on Sept. 22-24 for a fourth installment, hoping to improve on the flat sales of 2009 and 2010, which each produced $23 million. To commemorate the final stop on the company’s 40th annual nationwide circuit, three 1971 vehicles from its special anniversary collection will be on the block: a 1971 Plymouth Road Runner, a 1971 Ford Mustang Boss and a 1971 Chevrolet Corvette.

Who are Barrett and Jackson?

Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett were two car fanatics from Scottsdale, Ariz., who in 1967 produced a car show and, four years later, launched their company’s first car auction, featuring classics from their personal collections. Family members of the late duo maintain the collector car-auction company bearing their names.

Last year’s recap:

More than 51,000 enthusiasts attended last year’s auction, in which a 2008 Bugatti Veyron Supercar sold for $770,000.

This year in Vegas:

More than 675 cars will be on the block at Mandalay Bay. Among the expected highlights will be Barrett-Jackson President Steve Davis’ personal 1964 Ford Fairlane 500, with proceeds from the sale benefiting the Armed Forces Foundation.

Event details:

Gates open at 8 a.m. each day, Sept. 22-24. Automobilia Auction begins at 9 a.m., Collector Car Auction at 11 a.m. Tickets, available on Ticketmaster.com, are $15 plus fees, $10 for children, students, military and seniors. A three-day admission package is $40. Visit Barrett-Jackson.com.

American muscle cars were the favorites during the pre-recession era, with values on pushrod iron from the 1960s and ’70s peaking in the six-figures before crashing. Today, muscle cars (along with other categories) are rebounding, but the sales dockets are not nearly as dominated by muscle as in the early part of the decade.

Two categories are filling the gaps and fast becoming auction faves: pickup trucks and “survivor” vehicles. While you might wonder why the lowly pickup truck has been elevated to collector status, it actually makes sense. Most pickups were relegated to hard-knock, workaday tasks, and subsequently most were driven into the ground. To see a common and pedestrian vehicle of years past exactly as it left the showroom (or better) can be a thrill—especially in Las Vegas, where pickups were the vehicle of choice until the 1980s. This might be why, as of this writing, no fewer than 45 pickup trucks will be available to bidders at this year’s event, including a pristine pair of stoic Ford F-250s (1969 and 1970), and a rare 1956 Studebaker hauler.

Survivor vehicles hold similar appeal. A “survivor” is typically a low-mileage classic that has been driven, but exceptionally well-cared for, by one or two owners. Survivors are unrestored and therefore have not suffered the indignity of shoddy workmanship or low-budget restorations. An example of nice survivors at the Vegas auction are a 1965 Ford Thunderbird landau coupe described as “100 percent original,” and a white 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III—a Casino-style classic blessed by being held by one family since it was new. Survivors such as these hold no surprises—no hidden Bondo, no rust, no chopped-up door panels holding cheap speakers—but possess a wealth of authentic patina, and therein lies their appeal. A survivor feels as real as a rotisserie restoration feels like an untouchable museum masterpiece.

It wouldn’t be a Las Vegas event without a celebrity connection, and Barrett-Jackson upholds the expectation. Strip performer Criss Angel has placed seven vehicles from his collection up for bid, including a 1969 Camaro, a 2006 Viper and a 2010 Campagna T-Rex—a bizarre, hand-built 4-by-4 that must be seen to be understood. A 2001 Chevy conversion van built to haul Shaquille O’Neal around Hawaii—complete with a projector that displays HD video on the windshield—will also be available, as well as a 1968 Corvette from Sylvester Stallone’s garage.

As with most multiday auto affairs, Barrett-Jackson provides more than just the main auction. Collector cars are a lifestyle, and activities over the three days will range from elaborate nightclub parties to family-friendly exhibits, test drives and events.

According to the website, consignments are sold out, but tickets are still available. The SPEED channel will broadcast 19 hours of live coverage if you can’t score one.