The auctioneer barks out escalating bids, pointing at the rare prize—a one-of-a-kind 1970 Plymouth ’Cuda convertible—parked center stage with television cameras focused on its radiant orange, polished-to-perfection paint job. As the price climbs, the audience stares at two massive video screens flanking the stage to offer a larger-than-life view of the classic muscle car and its immaculate Hemi engine. Within minutes, the venue—a nine-story, 120,000-square-foot tent in Scottsdale, Ariz.—fills with cheers as the auctioneer slams the gavel and declares, “Sold for $2 million!”
Although the price is extraordinary, the excitement is repeated more than 1,000 times during the annual Barrett-Jackson auto auction, known as The World’s Greatest Collector Car Event.
“I fulfill dreams,” says Craig Jackson, president of Barrett-Jackson Auction Co., which started the show in 1971. “Those dreams happen in that magical environment called Barrett-Jackson.”
Each year, special events facility WestWorld is transformed into an automotive paradise for more than 200,000 car enthusiasts ranging from jet-setting billionaires to blue-collar workers. They come to see, sell and buy some of the world’s most-desired automobiles.
“It’s the Super Bowl of car shows,” says Scottsdale resident Ken Berger, standing next to his 1967 Pontiac GTO before it goes on the auction block. “What’s nice is that people can walk around and see the cars and take one home with them. I’ve bought a few over the years. Of course, I have to sell one before I can buy another. There’s real passion for these cars. Everybody had one in high school, or their buddy had one. It’s emotional. If we wanted to be sensible, everybody would be driving a Toyota,” he says, laughing.
Last year, bidders from 50 states and 14 countries watched as 1,084 cars crossed the auction block, bringing in more than $100 million during the nine-day event.
A partnership begins
Barrett-Jackson was born from the camaraderie of car collectors Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett. “Tom advertised a car that my husband Russ was interested in,” says company matriarch Nellie Jackson, 87. “We went over and looked at it and became friends.”
In 1967, Russ and Tom collaborated to raise money for the Scottsdale Library by hosting a car show called Fiesta de los Auto Elegantes. In 1971, the two combined their names and experience to create the Barrett-Jackson Auction Co., and added an auction to that year’s Fiesta, offering 150 cars that fetched more than $600,000. The event grew steadily, and by 1990, more than 60,000 spectators were attending Barrett-Jackson.
The partnership came to an end in 1993 when Russ Jackson died, and his long-time partner Barrett retired the following year. In their place, Russ’s sons Brian and Craig Jackson assumed the company reins. “When my father passed away, I took over more of the operations, and my brother dealt with the cars,” says Craig, 47, who grew up around the event. “In the early years, I ran some of the different crews, the really glamorous ones like the trash crew,” he says with a laugh. Despite its early success, Craig’s grand vision for the company often was at odds with Brian’s strategy. “My brother and I butted heads on occasion,” Craig says.
Everything changed in 1995 when Brian died of cancer. “Ultimately, on his deathbed, he said, ‘You know what to do, just go do it.’ So he basically told me that I was right with most of my thoughts and that I should just go with my gut. That was a hard thing for him to admit, but it was something I needed to hear.”
Craig wanted to make the auction a larger-than-life event and brought in the most sought-after cars, improved the staging and in 1995, introduced online coverage. Two years later he put the auction on The Speedvision Network, becoming the first-ever collector car auction to be televised live. In 2001, Scottsdale officials proclaimed it Barrett-Jackson Week to honor the event, which drew 150,000 car fanatics who witnessed the sale of the star vehicle from the Batman Returns movie—the Batmobile. This year’s auction, with all of its excitement and spectacle, will be broadcast live on the Speed Channel.
“Barrett-Jackson has evolved sort of like Vegas has evolved,” Craig says. “You don’t just go to a car auction to buy a car; it’s a whole lifestyle, the atmosphere, the experience, making it as much fun for the wives as it is for the husbands, adding fashion shows and charity galas. This year, the auction is going to have 40 hours of live TV. Think about that, how many events have 40 hours of live television?”
Despite its phenomenal growth, the auction has stayed close to it charitable roots and last year raised more than $2.5 million for children’s charities.
“We’re helping make kids’ lives better,” says Craig, who works closely with Childhelp USA, a nonprofit organization working to prevent and treat child abuse. “We help Carroll Shelby’s foundation for kids that need transplants. And for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, we raised over $500,000. That will grant a lot of wishes. In fact, we’ve even had two kids whose wishes were to come to Barrett-Jackson. It gives you a feeling that it’s not just about making money, it’s about making a difference in our world.”
Living out their dreams
Attendees Andrew and Constance Laux drove 2,900 miles from their home in Long Island, N.Y., to attend last year’s auction. Along the way, they pulled a trailer carrying their red 1970 Plymouth Hemi ’Cuda.
“It’s been a dream for my husband, who just turned 50, to come to Barrett-Jackson,” Constance says. “We watch it every year on TV, and we’ve come with the best car we could find. And we’re here at the best show in the world.” For their efforts, the Lauxes’ car sold for $189,000.
For Jim Rozum, 56, and his son Chris, 31, the event is a time to bond. “It’s an opportunity for us to spend some time together,” Jim says. “We really enjoy coming out here. This whole place is full of car people. You see all ages here—young, old. Everybody enjoys cars.”
The pair hauled Chris’s 1965 Ford Mustang GT convertible from Mitchell, S.D., and sold it for $66,000. “It spent two years in a storage shed,” Jim says. “We were down here at Barrett-Jackson a year ago, and Chris says, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we fixed up my Mustang and brought it down here next year?’”
“He knows every bolt on that car,” Chris says.
Jim believes the auction’s allure stems from being around cars that remind people of their youth. “People are buying the cars that they grew up with,” he says. “That’s why you see the cars from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that are so popular here. When this Mustang was new, I was 15 years old. I remember sitting in one at the dealership pretending I was driving it.”
After years of organizing the show, Craig Jackson says he’s found that The World’s Greatest Collector Car Event is living up to its billing. “A lot of people tell me, ‘You have no idea how much it’s meant to us to have my son and I watch this auction and bond with each other,” he says. “I’ve had families who’ve come out to the auction, who said this is their dream come true.”
Nellie Jackson, who continues to work at the company’s headquarters in Scottsdale, says she’s heard just about everything. “A couple had twins,” she says, “and they named one Barrett and the other boy Jackson. Isn’t that great?!”
“That’s very fulfilling, hearing those kind of stories,” Craig says. “Just knowing that you’ve changed people’s lives.”