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Calif. Car Enthusiasts Stake Claim to Auction

Event* The annual Barrett-Jackson sale in Arizona attracts throngs of Golden Staters, who have helped make it the biggest such gathering in the U.S.


The address is Arizona but the crowd is heavily Californian at the nation's biggest auction of collector cars, sports cars, hot rods and American muscle cars.

Called simply Barrett-Jackson, the four-day event in Scottsdale draws upward of 150,000 enthusiasts and this year offers everything from a 1926 Packard roadster to the original factory prototype of Irvine car builder Steve Saleen's 550-horsepower S7 super car.

When the event kicks off tonight with a black-tie party for 5,600 registered bidders and sellers, one of them will be Beverly Hills car collector David Sydorick, who calls Barrett-Jackson "an annual winter pilgrimage to Arizona and the sunshine." Originally specializing in high-priced classic cars from the pre-World War II era, the 31-year-old auction now offers more contemporary vehicles. This year's catalog is a feast of American metal from the '30s through the '80s and includes a collection of NASCAR memorabilia.

"It's difficult these days to sell million-dollar cars and easier to sell $100,000 cars," Sydorick said, a nod to the a recession can have on even the very wealthy.

But Barrett-Jackson isn't just about wealth. It draws a mixed crowd, and many of the cars sold go for prices that aren't far removed from what the local used-car dealer might charge.

"Finding those bargains is one of the reasons you go," said Bob Johnson, a Georgia car collector who turned his hobby into a business a decade ago and now scours the auction circuit seeking vehicles to sell from his 18,000-square-foot showroom in Gainesville, just northeast of Atlanta.

Bargain-basement deals are getting rare, though.

Barrett-Jackson charges sellers as much as $1,000 to put a car on the block, Johnson said. That, along with auctioneer's fees that can be as much as 8% of the winning bid, have pushed up prices in recent years--a critical point because sales at Barrett-Jackson often become the benchmark for collector-car pricing.

"But they get the buyers with the money, and they get the best cars, and that's why the buyers keep coming back," Johnson said.

Auction President Craig Jackson said this year's auction will have more than 800 cars and more than 4,000 registered bidders, who pay $200 each for the privilege. Last year, with a record 850 cars on the block, Barrett-Jackson reported that 702 were sold for a total of $26.7 million, including commissions and fees. That's an average of just more than $38,000 per vehicle.

In addition to the generally high quality of cars offered at Barrett-Jackson, one draw is that many are offered with no seller's reserve--meaning there's no minimum bid.

"That's important to a lot of guys," said Sydorick, whose last purchase at the auction was a 1953 Chevrolet pickup truck he bought in 1999 for a friend. "It's the way you can sometimes get a deal."

Jackson said that although spectators and bidders come to Barrett-Jackson from all over, including Asia and Europe, "the vast majority of registered bidders are from California. There's just such a huge car culture there," plus the proximity.

Car auctions that feature lots of exotic metal and wealthy bidders tend to attract spectators who come just for the excitement and the chance to see and be seen. "They come for the atmosphere and to see the cars and people and to go to the parties, and some of them come back as bidders. Most of the registered bidders started out as spectators," Jackson said.

Last June, the company began a second U.S. auction at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles to take advantage of the area's concentration of auto collectors. Jackson said it will be an annual event. Barrett-Jackson also stages a vintage race car auction every other year in Monaco in conjunction with the Historic Grand Prix street race there.

But Scottsdale is the centerpiece. The auction grounds occupy almost 150 acres of desert--two-thirds of it parking for spectators who come for one or more of the four consecutive days of 9 a.m.-to-10 p.m. auction activity.

The main auction tent is a behemoth, 1,000 feet long and 140 feet wide.

Cars to be auctioned in the main tent first are on display in a quartet of smaller tents--each covering 40,000 square feet--and the whole complex is surrounded by tents, kiosks and stands erected by some 500 vendors.

Jackson won't say how much it costs to stage the auction, except that "it's in the millions." The company employs a permanent staff of 30, and the payroll swells to 300 during auction week, he said.

Johnson, the Georgia collector, said he's part of the growing crowd that shows up the week before to hit several smaller auctions that have sprung up to take advantage of the Barrett-Jackson crowds. In all, there are five collector-car auctions in the Scottsdale area over the course of the week.

But the party atmosphere that makes the week so much fun for so many also can take its toll.

Johnson said he took in $140,000 from cars he sold at Scottsdale auctions, including the Barrett-Jackson last year. But he spent $160,000 adding to his collection.

"I always buy more than I sell, that's the stupidity of this hobby. That open bar they have there kind of dulls your senses," he said with a chuckle. "Those boys aren't stupid. They give away $100 worth of liquor and get $1,000 worth of commissions."

Still, Johnson says he wouldn't think of missing a year.

"It's the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Indy 500 of car auctions," he drawled.


John O'Dell is editor of Highway 1.

He can be reached at

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