Back to the Future: Barrett Jackson Circa 1985


While prepping for SPEED’s broadcast of this year’s Barrett Jackson Collector Car Auction in Scottsdale, I came across an article I wrote back in 1985 (at least I think it was 85, I forgot to put a date on it). It was never published because I couldn’t convince any magazine editor that the Barrett Jackson auction really was a big deal (apparently I was right..).

1985 Barrett Jackson Auction Catalog
1985 Barrett Jackson Auction Catalog

What’s really interesting is how little things have changed. Most of what is described in the story from 28 years ago is still true today. The cars are different (there’s still a raging controversy about the Eva Braun car) as are the prices. The flea market is long gone. Nearly all the cars sell without a reserve. But Barrett Jackson’s Scottsdale auction is still a three-ring circus. So dial your flux capacitor back to 1985 and enjoy my impressions of that year’s greatest car show on earth.

They call it an auction, but that’s an understatement.

The Scottsdale 80’s Classic Car Auction is really more of spectacle, a sort of circus. But this circus does not stop at three rings. The rings here go on and on, complete with ringmaster and clowns. It all revolves around one thing, the instrument that brings them together, the car.

Make no mistake, the main reason people have come is to buy and sell cars. Sellers hoping to reap outrageous profits, buyers hoping to buy incredible deals. All of that does happen, but there is so much more that goes along with it.

Ring number one is, appropriately enough, under the big top. The mammoth tent where the actual auction takes places is a constant stream of cars and a constant stream of patter.

“It’s the only car like this I’ve ever seen,” auctioneer Mark Gellman starts with, and suddenly the numbers fly.

“Ten thousand dollars, I have ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand five, ten thousand five, ten—five, ten—five, ten—five, There! l have ten thousand five hundred! Eleven thousand, eleven, eleven, eleven, eleven, eleven, how about eleven thousand dollars?

You can’t hear everything he says, but then you don’t have to. Your overloaded brain simply picks out the key numbers.

It is auto buying in a frenzied state. By now you are supposed to have kicked the tires and slammed the doors (gently, of course). Just the same, the auctioneer still invites you up to the platform to see and touch the buy of the century It’s an enticement to drag you into the fevered pace.

1985 Barrett Jackson Auction Catalog
Big Cars Ruled the Day in 1985

“This car has less than a thousand miles on it. Its 35 years old and still brand new!” All around the car are ringmen, guys like Jim Higgens or Red Flemming. They scan the crowd, searching for that nod, that wave, that sign that you’ve joined in. But they do more than simply pass on bids, they plead with you. They know you want that car. When they sense you’re hooked, they run to your side, imploring you that it really is worth jumping the bid another $500 you that it is just another thousand dollars.

“I’m the seller’s ambassador, an extension of the auctioneer,” Says Tim Scowden, an auctioneer himself. “I just find out much he really wants this car.”

Rignmen like Scowden throw their hands into the air when their “friend” has moved the bid a little higher. You’d think the car was being bought for them. It’s their elation when you buy; their rejection when you turn it down.

“Am I a good salesman?” responds Scowden.”You show me anyone else who can sell ten to fifteen thousand cars a year and get top dollar.

All the while the patter goes on. “Someone‘s getting a terrific buy here…”

“What kind of bid is that? We’re selling the car, not renting it…”

“Don’t lose it for $250…”

The crowd is a mixture of serious buyers and casual browsers. The serious have come to add to their collections, or perhaps to start one. The browsers are there to marvel at the machinery. They stare at the chrome and paint and dream about which one they’ll own someday.

The buyers sit in the bidder’s section. It seems no two are alike. Some have the latest price guide, with yellow highlighter marking the important spots. Some are never far from a leather briefcase or monogrammed satchel, no doubt containing the funds necessary to secure their purchase. Just as many carry nothing at all. They either know about the cars and know where they can find the money, or they just don’t care. After all, what’s 75 thousand dollars if you just can‘t live without it?

The browsers sit in the bleachers behind the bidders. They paid six dollars to watch the man from the Midwest pay $360,000 for a 1930 Rolls Royce. It‘s probably as close as they’ll ever get to owning one.

1985 Barrett Jackson Auction Catalog pagee
I should have bought all of these at 1985 prices!

The cars lining up for the auction block are as different as the people who fill the tent. There are the obvious classics, the Duesenbergs, the Bentley‘s, or the Cadillac V-16 that sold for $260,000. Then there are the cars that only seem to be there so the owner can say he was part of the auction. Like the 1962 Mercedes that sold for $1400.

Most of the cars being sold have a reserve. That’s the lowest possible bid the owner will accept. But the bidding starts a lot lower, to get potential buyers hooked on the excitement of playing the game. Sometimes, to add to the frenzy, the owner will lift the reserve, or the auctioneer will conveniently “remember” it’s been lifted. That usually happens when it looks like the car won’t reach the desired price, but will still bring a good return. It always rekindles the bidding. In fact, it’s not unusual for the final price to go past the reserve. It’s just another tool of the trade.

The auctioneer’s know how to eek every ounce out of potential buyers. “Drive it away!” they announce. But as the car is being rolled off the platform, the bidding continues. Time for the hold-outs to jump in. It looks like they’re rushing along to the next car, in reality they’re rushing along to the highest bid. It works.

Outside the cars are lined up in rows. There seems to be at least one of everything, Mercedes Gullwings, Auburn Speedsters, T-Birds, Stingrays, vintage Fords and fire trucks. Originals and replicas, all side by side.

There are true classics and then there are celebrity cars. Like the 1971 Rolls Royce once owned by Michael Jackson’s family. Some cars are both. Take Eva Braun’s car for instance. The 1939 Mercedes 540K is a classic in its own right. Throw in the fact that it was once supposedly owned by Hitler’s mistress and the price goes through the roof. A touch of infamy brought the car’s final bid to $195,000.

There is a sort of hierarchy with the arrangement of the cars. The closer to the big tent, the greater the car’s value. That’s why Mussolini’s 1939 Lancia Parade car is under the canopy near the tent entrance, while the 1958 ford is rows away. You know the Ferrari GTO is really a Datsun based replica because the real thing would be a lot closer.

The talk surrounding these cars is specs and memories. For some its details. How big, how powerful, how original. For others it’s the story of their cross-country trip in a 1931 Ford “just like that.” A seasoned veteran of auctions points out to a friend a car that’s been on the circuit for a while, with a price that‘s artificially high.

There’s also a touch of sour grapes. Like the fellow who passed the Kreuger modified Ferrari 512 complaining how difficult it would be to wash.

Hispana Suiza J1 Town Car
Hispana Suiza J1 Town Car sold in 1985

The sales are not limited to just cars. Trailers, art, and accessories abound. Whether you’re interested in a Mercedes tie, or a 42 foot enclosed trailer to haul home your latest acquisition, both can be had. You can have a personalized painting of your pride and joy Porsche, or a limited edition print of Ferraris at speed. There’s even a small lettering shop operating out of a truck, pumping out show-cards as fast as its owner can paint.

And then there’s the flea market.

Just outside the entrance to the auction, is a vast expanse of car parts, memorabilia and miscellaneous. Need a taillight for a 54 Buick? How about the front body clip from a 58 Ford pickup? Some of the parts look like they’ve seen better days, but they’re original, and that in itself is enough to give them value.

If you can’t afford the real thing inside the auction, you can buy a miniature outside. The folks from Automobilia International will be happy to sell you one. Their specialty is model cars, the hard to find kind. Where else can you find resin kits from overseas, or a Bugeye Sprite model that hasn’t been produced for more than 16 years?

The flea market is a friendly group. A lot live from show to show, happy to sit and talk Mustangs or models.

And still the auction has so much more. The Super Bowl on the big screen TV, the wheeling and dealing, the constant waxing and polishing.

And all the while, the drone of the auctioneer continues in the background.

“The owner just lifted the reserve. This car is going to sell today!”

“It’s gotta be worth $50,000!”

“We‘re only at the price of a new Chevy!”

1985 Barrett Jackson Auction catalog front page
1985 Barrett Jackson Auction front page

Promoters Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett claim this is the biggest classic car auction in the world. They claim Saturday’s sales total of more than seven million dollars is a new record for one day. They claim to have sold the most expensive cars ever, and at the same time the best deals. They claim a lot of things, most of which are probably true.

Either way, it doesn‘t really matter. It’s like the Ringling Brothers Circus claiming it’s the greatest show on earth. When you’re there, you can’t help but believe it is.


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