Most of us have our own preconceived notions about how those fancy televised automobile auctions are run. Some people think that they’re only for rich people, and they sell cars so expensive that many of us would have to take out a second mortgage just to buy one.
We were invited to share in the experience with Barrett-Jackson’s Collector Car Auction, and to see what happens first hand – from the showroom floor, through the end of the auction when the very last car rolls across the block. It’s an eye opener, and we learned a lot more about what Barrett-Jackson calls “The World’s Greatest Collector Car Auctions”.
It all starts with a venue, and Barrett-Jackson currently has four: Palm Beach, Florida; Reno, Nevada; Las Vegas, Nevada; and the grand daddy of them all, Scottsdale, Arizona. We spent three days at Hot August Nights in Reno so we could see what it takes to sell or buy a car at the auction, and we spoke to some key people within Barrett-Jackson. We wanted to know if all of those rumors were true: if you really need to be rich to buy or sell a car at one of Barrett-Jackson’s auctions.
In the late 1960s, Tom Barrett owned a 1933 Cadillac V16 Town Car that caught the interest of Russ Jackson. Although the car didn’t change hands, the two of them began a friendship that would last a lifetime. Being avid auto enthusiasts and collectors of great automobiles, Barrett and Jackson decided to hold a car show in 1967 called the Fiesta de los Autos Elegantes. This event raised money for the Scottsdale Library and the Community Art Center, as well as other local charities.
By 1971 the pair combined their love for the automobile with their skills and held their first classic car auction. This new company began with each of them auctioning off cars from their own private collections. Barrett owned an armored Mercedes-Benz 770K that once belonged to Adolf Hitler, and the 11,000 pound vehicle garnered worldwide attention when it sold for the unheard of sum of $153,000. That sale introduced the Barrett-Jackson name to the world as a premier collector car auction company.
In the 1980s, the collector car industry went through a growth spurt and cars began to sell for more than they ever had. While Jackson collected and restored classic cars for show, Barrett was displaying some of the rarest and best automobiles at each event. It was then that Jackson’s sons, Brian and Craig, joined the team, with Jackson’s wife, Nellie, running the daily operations as Barrett-Jackson continued to thrive.
The 1990s brought about some changes with the company. As it grew, it sadly shrunk in personnel with the loss of Russ Jackson in 1993 and his son Brian losing his battle with cancer in 1995. Craig Jackson would take the reigns in 1995, having worked with the company on a daily basis and helping to run the auctions. Tom Barrett retired in 1997, the same year that Craig Jackson implemented a growth plan that included a partnership with SPEED for the first live airing on national television.
Barrett passed away in 2004, but his name is still a part of this famous organization that ten years later would boast to have the largest television audience in the company’s 43-year history. With technical advances such as the internet, live bidding was introduced in 1998 with bidders from all over the world. Collector cars also began to share the block with musclecars, hot rods, and resto-mods.
In 2005, another huge change took place when Barrett-Jackson became one of the first auction houses to remove reserve pricing, selling every vehicle to the highest bidder. This ground-breaking decision to auto auctions has provided Barrett-Jackson with incredible growth, and sales totals of nearly $109 million in 2013.
Hot August Nights Auction
With an expert staff that includes Craig Jackson, Steve Davis, and Gary Bennett, Barrett-Jackson brought their show to their first Hot August Nights Auction in Reno in 2013, with more than $14.2 million in sales and over 40,000 attendees. 2013 was also the year for the first Barrett-Jackson Cup, awarding $20,000 to the winner, George Poteet, with his amazing 1969 Ford Torino.
We headed out to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center Thursday morning and saw that the entire building was occupied by Barrett-Jackson. Their presence extended from the show floor at one end to the auction block at the opposite end, and in between there were vendors with everything from clothing to pinball machines. Our first order of business was to corral someone from Barrett-Jackson to get some inside information.
We saw a familiar face up on the stage, and motioned for him to come talk to us. It was none other than Spanky Assiter, of Assiter Auctioneers – the official auctioneers of Barrett-Jackson. We recognized Spanky from watching on television, and couldn’t miss his signature eyewear-perched-on-the-forehead; it was a dead giveaway. We asked if we could meet with him, and he greeted us with a smile and agreed to answer a few questions.
Auctioneers do much more than call out the current bid and add a few tongue-twisters to make it sound interesting. While at the helm, the auctioneer has an entire sea of people before them, including several sky boxes with guests and VIPs, internet bidders, the musclecar lounge, and a whole lot of movement in the aisles. For that reason, the auctioneer relies on a full staff of spotters to seek out bidders and help make the calls back to him or her. We couldn’t imagine having to keep track of it all, we couldn’t keep up with them at all.
Assiter said, “Every now and then we miss a bid, but we try our best not to let that happen.” The spotters are assigned to zones, and they have a responsibility to relay bids back to the auctioneer. There are usually about ten on the floor to keep track of the action, some of them quite entertaining and animated.
At the beginning of the Barrett-Jackson auctions, the auctioneers were introduced as they lined up on the stage; at the far end was Spanky who greeted everyone with his arm raised and that familiar smile on his face. He truly loves what he does, and we asked him how he comes up with the lightning-quick tongue twisters. “I just practice my numbers, and after a while you just get used to it and you can add to it,” he told us. What he does up on stage would cause most of us to dislocate our vocal chords, but he’s been doing this for decades and is one of the best out there.
After the auctioneers lined up, members from the Reno National Guard joined the stage as the National Anthem was sung by another of the auctioneers: Amy Assiter. Amy is President of Assiter Auctions, and is also Spanky’s wife. She delivered the the Star Spangled Banner to a standing crowd as she has done at the beginning of every Barrett-Jackson auction for the past ten years. She’s also an automotive enthusiast (it would be hard not to be at this venue) and she and Spanky both have Barrett-Jackson Edition Shelby GT500s. She’s an experienced auctioneer, and has also released her own CD, My Name is Amy, with all of the proceeds going to her charity, Mission: Freedom’s Children.
When we met with Spanky the next day, he introduced us to Gary Bennett, the Vice President of Consignments with Barrett-Jackson. Spanky told us that if there was anything we wanted to know about how the auctions are done, Gary would be the man to talk to. Gary also greeted us with a smile and said he would be glad to talk with us, and gave up about an hour of his valuable time to walk us through the entire process.
If you’ve watched the auction on television before, you’ve likely seen Bennett up on the block where the auctioneers make their calls. You can’t miss him, he’s that guy with the long hair, and he’s typically wearing a smile, a long-sleeve black shirt and jeans. Bennett is involved in every vehicle that gets sold at the auction.
We made references to other types of auctions, and he was quick to tell us, “You can’t even compare Barrett-Jackson to any other type of auction out there.” This is where the assumptions we brought with us were put to rest, and the process of buying and selling came to light.
No Reserve Means Every Car Sells
Bennett, who has been with Barrett-Jackson for 14 years, sat down with us and enlightened us about the auction, giving us candid answers to our random questions about the Barrett-Jackson experience. We asked about reserve auctions, and although some specialty cars might get a reserve based on their high value, the rest of the cars are sold at no-reserve. For those special vehicles that do have a reserve, the reserve is unknown to the buyer and if the car doesn’t sell bidding is closed and they move on to the next vehicle.
Barrett-Jackson Hot August Nights Auction
- 2014 Ford Transit Connect TTN Wagon Van – $100,000 (Lot #3000 – for charity)
- 1933 Ford Custom 2-door Coupe – $100,000 (Lot #728)
- 1932 Ford Custom Roadster – $100,000 (Lot #753)
- 1967 Ford Mustang Custom Fastback – $89,000 (Lot #767)
- 1965 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible – $82,500 (Lot #765)
- 1961 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible – $80,000 (Lot #761)
- 1931 Ford Custom Vicky – $80,000 (Lot #421)
- 1952 Cadillac Custom Topless Roadster – $80,000 (Lot #7001)
- 1966 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible – $76,000 (Lot #730)
- 1971 Chevrolet C-10 Custom Pickup – $75,000 (Lot #699)
These instances, Bennett told us, are very rare because Barrett-Jackson requires all bidders to register. There is a process for bidders, and that includes a deposit of at least $9,000. Bidders are required to fill out a form and provide their Social Security number, as well as a letter from their bank stating that the bank guarantees the funds are there.
Bennett said that every bank letter is verified, and only then will that person be allowed to bid. If the bank doesn’t verify their letter, the bidder is asked not to participate in the auction. This is done to protect the seller, and to assure that when the bidding starts, only those who are sincere about purchasing the car will bid on it.
If bidding does stall a bit and the seller tries to get the crowd going by bidding on their own vehicle, Bennett said they will stop the auction and warn the seller not to bid on their own vehicle. If that happens, Barrett-Jackson will offer the vehicle to the prior highest bidder to keep it fair. He also said there have been times when a bidder might feel like he’s bidding against an owner trying to drive the price up. Out of courtesy for that bidder, they’ll stop the auction and let that bidder know who he or she is bidding against.
Bennett said, “It’s not anonymous, everything is live. Real bidding is crucial to the success of Barrett-Jackson.” It’s a fast-paced environment, but they’re not afraid to slow it down to keep people assured that everything is on the up and up.
Bennett is very particular when it comes to vehicles that cross the block. He said there have been times when a seller feels that their vehicle is worth a certain amount, and statistics show that the particular make and model has never sold for that much. He said he has turned away cars with unrealistic expectations. “One of our biggest challenges is managing sellers’ expectations,” he said.
Prime Time Vs. Non-Prime Time Positioning
There’s a science to selling cars at Barrett-Jackson, and the “first come first served” rule doesn’t apply. Bennett said, “We know through historical data what hours do the best. We build around those hours and get a mix of cars. A lot of thought is put into the docket and every piece of the mosaic complements every other piece.” There are some auction houses that mix things up and when they have something exciting they might follow it with something not so exciting.
A lot of thought is put into the docket and every piece of the mosaic complements every other piece. -Gary Bennett
They will try to position vehicles with more value throughout the day, and not just towards the end of the auction. The science behind it is designed to keep the auction alive, whether they’re selling a blown street rod or grandma’s unrestored Buick with less than 80,000 miles.
To keep some of the regular bidders accessible to the spotters, there are some reserved seats up towards the front, and the sky boxes are VIP only. But Bennett assures us, those seat are not doled out to anyone who has a lot of money, those seats must be earned through reputation and continued participation with Barrett-Jackson.
They also try to promote the vehicles that draw bigger crowds, and since that promotion and advertising goes out prior to the auction, there are occasionally situations where a vehicle shows up and wasn’t represented properly.
Bennett said, “We had a car that was supposedly a high profile car. It was in three pages in our catalog as well as a cover car, but when we inspected it we found that it was not as we were told – so we pulled it.” He feels it’s their responsibility to make sure the buyer is buying what is advertised, and they want to represent it accurately. “We have a duty to do it right, we refuse to participate if they don’t make changes to represent the vehicle correctly.”
Going Across The Block
We picked two vehicles at random to follow across the block, and wanted to talk to the seller and the buyer, if possible. With over 400 vehicles, we knew we would have to take our chances, and that Barrett-Jackson, by law, cannot give out the names or contact information of either the seller or the buyer. So we camped out at each vehicle throughout the day Thursday to see if the owners were going to be nearby.
The first vehicle we selected was Lot #388 – a rare, numbers-matching and unmolested 1971 Chevrolet Corvette coupe. The car has a pop-out rear window and T-tops, and is powered by a 350 SBC with 270 hp backed by a 4-speed manual transmission. It included factory air conditioning, power steering, and four-wheel disc brakes shrouded by factory Rally wheels.
With the Vette, we were able to meet with the owner and talk with him a little bit about the car, and his experience with Barrett-Jackson. Jim Taylor lives in El Dorado Hills, Nevada, and brought along six cars and one Harley-Davidson to sell at the auction. Taylor has sold cars before at Barrett-Jackson auctions, and is satisfied with how things are done there, which is why he continues to come back. He likes the Reno auction, “It’s the perfect venue for an amateur car collector because it’s not as big as Vegas or Scottsdale,” he said.
Taylor currently has a garage with what he calls his top ten vehicles, and he needed to get rid of a few cars. He took on this Corvette and a few others when a friend going through tough times called on him for some help two years ago. Being a good friend, Taylor helped out and bought a few of his friends’ cars and took them off his hands. Since Taylor loves driving these cars, he said, “Whatever doesn’t get driven doesn’t stay in my top ten,” and that’s why the Vette was at the auction with the other cars.
Taylor began his love affair with the automobile when he was about 13 years old. He was mowing lawns and liked a Mustang a customer had in her yard, and made a deal to mow her lawn and earn money to buy the car off of her. He now runs a rental car business and has been into collecting cars ever since he was a teenager. He said he did drive the Vette, but not often enough for his top ten, and had to let it go.
He also told us that he wouldn’t feel right about selling the car if it wasn’t drivable, so he always makes sure that any car he sells is capable of keeping the smile on his face. “When I’m not out doing donuts or burnouts, we take the cars for a drive,” he said. We asked what he was hoping to get for the Corvette, and he was hoping for $30-35,000, noting that if the car sells for less, then that’s what it’s worth to the buyer, and he’s okay with that.
The second vehicle we selected was Lot #358 – a 1950 Studebaker Champion 2-door coupe. It’s a bright yellow hot rod with ghosted flames, a custom interior with a roll cage, and a 400 cubic inch small block under the hood. The part of the car that stood out the most was the massive set of Mickey Thompson tires on Pro Star 15-inch aluminum wheels. Stuffed between those steamroller tires was a Franklin quick change Grand National rearend sitting on adjustable coilover shocks.
While we did get lots of pictures of the car, we never did manage to find the seller or get a chance to talk with the buyer, so we followed it across the block and watched the bidding go higher. When the hammer finally came down, this mean Stude brought in $22,000, which was a pretty fair price. We did talk to a couple of potential buyers, one of them told us that $20,000 was as high as he was willing to bid. He liked the car because his father had one – that he rolled – and it reminded him of it.
There were a couple of other people who took an interest while we were on the stage with the car, but it ended up going to a bidder out in the audience somewhere and we never did see who made the final bid. The Studebaker rolled across the block on Friday, and went out the back door with a new owner.
When it came time for Taylor’s Corvette to hit the block, we followed his car up the ramp and onto the block with him. The bidding started like it does for most cars, with the auctioneers and spotters encouraging more bidding. They’ll stop about midway through the bidding to give a more detailed description of the car, and to let everyone know where the current bidding lies based on the estimated value of the car. It may seem like a ploy to get more money, but it’s really more a part of the excitement and camaraderie that goes on at Barrett-Jackson.
Some of the spotters have whistles and feed bids back to the auctioneer, and others like to holler out. It gets rather comical at times, and confusing, because as we’re all aware the auctioneers talk ridiculously fast. It’s difficult to keep up with the bidding, but entertaining all the same. The bidding continued after a brief description of the Corvette, and the price rose steadily until the hammer dropped.
There were people up on the block checking out every inch of the car, but once the hammer dropped that was a sign that the bidding had come to an end. Taylor’s matching-numbers ’71 Corvette fell slightly shy of his goal at $28,800, but he was happy and enjoyed the experience just the same. He watched the car roll off the block, and still had that great smile on his face – the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction is exciting and contagious.
Everyone was having a great time and although Taylor had five more cars and a motorcycle to sell, he assured us that the transport trailer wasn’t going home empty. He picked up another car and decided that he was going to take it home, paint it black, and see if it has what it takes to make his top ten. We ran into him a couple more times on Saturday, and we made another friend in the collector car industry. We’ll try to follow up with him and see how the new car fares… but we suspect he’ll have to get rid of at least one of his cars because he only has room for ten, so he tells us.
For us, it was a busy but enjoyable three days spent with Barrett-Jackson and Hot August Nights. The only thing left for us on Saturday evening was to hang around and find out which car was chosen as the second Hot August Nights Barrett-Jackson Cup winner.
If you’re interested in attending a Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, be sure to check out their website for upcoming auctions and events. And remember: you don’t have to be rich to feel like a rock star at Barrett-Jackson.
Check out the bidding action in the video below, raising money for the Darrell Gwynn Foundation as the bidding reaches $100,000 for a Ford Transit Connect TTN van that has been modified for the disabled. And don’t forget to check out the huge gallery at the bottom from Barrett-Jackson’s Hot August Nights Auction.