The Barrett-Jackson auction at Scottsdale is one of those uniquely American events. When you go to Pebble Beach it has a European feel; lunch at the Lodge is all fishy things on crackers. But at Barrett-Jackson your nostrils are filled with the scent of American carnival food: funnel cake covered in powdered sugar, hot dogs on sticks, and 44oz Big Gulp drinks. Just walking around the venue is enough to give you diabetes.
And it’s not just the drinks that are oversized: the boobs, the blonde hair and the wallets are all big, too. The buyers at the Scottsdale sale are self-made millionaires – burly, blue-collar guys spending trucker money or air-conditioning money or lumber money. It’s a real spectacle, and it’s a whole lot of fun.
The number of vehicles going over the block is completely overwhelming. The bidding starts early in the morning and doesn’t stop until late at night, and the action is so breathless that I found myself saying ‘I think I’ll head back to the trailer for a minute. I need to sit down.’ There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the order of the lots, either. A Duesenberg will come in, then a Ferrari – and then suddenly the Batmobile will show up.
Bruce Wayne’s car went for $4.6 million in front of a standing-room-only crowd, reminding me of the classic auction trick: get the buyers all worked up with a four- or five-million-dollar car, and suddenly the Fiat Jolly that follows reaches $30,000 because, compared with the million dollar car, this is a bargain.
The event is televized, and you see people on cellphones taking calls from their buddies back home. The moment they’re told ‘Hey, you’re on TV right now!’ they look up to catch themselves on the big screen and give their friends a wave. I like these guys. They’re not the Wall Street types looking for a way to blow their latest bonus; they’re hardworking, self-made men buying the cars they couldn’t afford in high school.
Muscle cars are the real bread and butter of Barrett-Jackson. Anything with a Hemi or 440 fetches big money, as do Mustangs, and anything else with Carroll Shelby’s name on it. Shelby is the god of Barrett-Jackson; maybe these buyers aren’t quite as successful, but they can identify with him, because he, too, was a regular guy made good. Auction a Panhard Dynamic here and it might as well be a boat anchor. You’re not going to get anything for some weird-looking foreign car that nobody has ever heard of. But if it’s a convertible with a Hemi and a four-speed? Oh my god, it’s crazy money. It’s Ferrari money.
When you get a bidder’s pass you’re also given ten free drinks for the day… which means the buyers are liquored up and spending big. I’ve never bought anything at Barrett-Jackson myself, but I’ve sold some cars. I auctioned my tractor last year. It was a New Holland Boomer compact I used to move cars around the garage; I got President George W Bush to sign it and we auctioned it off for a charity that helps wounded veterans. It went for $500,000.
One time a guy came to my garage and he asked me to autograph his Corvette valve cover – that big plastic piece that fits over the engine. ‘Sure,’ I said, and signed it. A little while later I’m watching a Barrett-Jackson sale on TV, and the ‘Jay Leno Edition Corvette’ rolls across the screen. They open the hood of this blue Corvette and there’s my signature. ‘Produced with Jay Leno’s consent,’ they announce, and they’re including a picture of me with the President and a hat and a golf jacket with my name on it. I’ve never played golf in my life.
After watching some poor guy pony up for a ten-year-old Corvette, I called Barrett-Jackson and said: ‘Listen, they never made a Jay Leno Edition Corvette. All I did was sign some valve cover and somebody put it on the car and stuck it in the auction.’ To their credit, they called the buyer and bought the car back from him, and then later sold it as a regular Corvette. I guess the whole thing was somewhat flattering, and it was hilarious to be sitting there watching TV and seeing the ‘Jay Leno Edition Corvette’ cross the block.
The Scottsdale auction takes place in the middle of the desert in Arizona. Driving out there feels like driving through Kuwait: there’s nothing for miles and all of a sudden, ta-dah! This big tent city pops up in front of you. It’s an appropriately crazy location for a crazy event – I think the total sales are something like 0million – that everyone should experience at least once.