What’s your investment strategy? Is it the stock market, real estate or maybe just an old fashioned 401k? For some well-to-do car enthusiasts, it’s classic cars. The best way to buy an investment car is at an auction. Well, maybe not the best way, but definitely the most fun. If you are a reading this blog you have probably seen car auctions on Motor Trend’s cable channel or NBCSN. They’re usually on once a month for two or three days during the summer. There are a bunch of different auction houses like Mecum, Barrett-Jackson, Gooding and Bonhams that all have their specialized automotive portfolios from American muscle to high-end European exotics.
I don’t remember when I started watching auctions but soon realized it was the reality TV I’d been looking for. It wasn’t just the cars that had me entranced, it was the spectacle -- watching incredible cars go across the auction block while people with draft beers bid on vintage cars. The surprising thing is you don’t have to be uber wealthy to buy a car at an auction. They have something for everyone. It could even be John Voight’s Chrysler LeBaron convertible! That’s John Voight the dentist, not Jon Voight the actor.
A couple years back Mecum Auctions came to Chicago. I decided to go and see what kind of cars they had on tap for the day. It was a Sunday, the last day of the auction. When I showed up it was slim pickings and most of the interesting cars had gone off on Saturday night. It was not the chaotic and wonderful environment I had seen on TV and I realized not all auctions generate the same buzz or sense of occasion.
I had been considering going to the pinnacle of all car auctions in Scottsdale, AZ which runs in early January and goes on for an entire week. This is especially appealing for a Chicagoan looking to get out of the frigid winter and maybe rub elbows with some C-List car celebrities. Most refer to it as just Barrett-Jackson, but all the major auction houses are there. Barrett-Jackson just has the largest coverage with an over-the-top circus atmosphere. With a little nudge and offer to come along from my Uncle Dave, I decided to visit the desert and check out this automotive phenomenon. We headed out on a Thursday to meet my brother and some of my uncle’s vintage racing friends. The agenda was simple: relax, talk cars and drink cocktails. However, there was a real concern in the back of mind that I would get caught up in this fantasy and come home with an expensive souvenir.
Once there, it was better than I could have imagined…Comic Con for the car nerd. It's mind blowing how many amazing cars you see just driving around Scottsdale. You don’t have to go into an auction to catch a glimpse of your dream car. The parking lots are filled with modern exotics like McLarens and Lamborghinis, some subdued air-cooled 911s, and a ton of classic muscle cars. Maybe this is common on the west coast, but in the Midwest, you don’t see this kind of talent driving around very often.
However, if you want the real experience you pay the entry fee ranging from $20 to $40 which will get you full access to the most incredible car show you’ll ever see. A ticket is accompanied by a detailed catalog that showcases the lot numbers, detailed pictures, and a suggested sale price.
Inside is where the real fun begins. Attendees can wander the tent villages with a (very costly) drink in hand, walking around and chatting with other enthusiasts. It’s hard to not fall in love with these machines even if you’re not a hardcore car person.
By the end of the long weekend we spent over 36 hours observing the handful of auctions around Scottsdale. They all have their own philosophy for setting up a unique spectator experience from the flamboyant and over the top Barrett-Jackson to the low-key and restrained Bonhams. It doesn’t matter what you prefer because there is something for everybody. For me, the essence of this weekend was pretty simple: I just wanted to see cool cars.
Surprisingly, I didn’t come home with an expensive souvenir. Maybe next year?