MAKING BARRETT-JACKSON WORK
Published on Fri, Nov 17, 2017
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Brian Kennedy, PhD
LAS VEGAS—The sound gets you first. And it’s not just one sound, but a din, a wall of sound: the prattle of the auctioneer, the constant chatter of the crowd, the buzz of nervous excitement. A major car auction like Barrett-Jackson overwhelms the senses, excites the mind, and could, I imagine, take a while to process.
I’ve read the advice many times in magazines and heard it on car auction TV coverage: don’t expect to make a purchase at your first auction. Go to the event, scope out the scene, figure out how things work. Then maybe buy. First time around, it’s all just a little bit too overwhelming.
Like everyone else, I told myself that advice was for amateurs, but that I’m a pro—after all, I’ve watched dozens of these things on TV. So I headed to BJ’s Las Vegas auction on Oct. 20th primed. And while I wasn’t actually there to bid—I was on a press pass, not a bidder’s number—I can see how the advice of the seasoned is to be heeded. This is a show like no other, and just like anything that you see on TV and then go to live, the real thing is way more fun, way more bright, way louder, and way better than the television can show.
Go to one yourself and see. Just give yourself time before you try to jump in and snag a dream car, or a bargain, because being in the thick of the action is a little like being in a combat zone—there’s a lot more to process than the first-timer can manage.
That’s not to say it’s not fun. The moment I entered the Convention Center area where the cars are held before and after they sell, I knew I was in the best, biggest car show I’d ever seen. Those of you who read my coverage of the LA Auto Show every year know my lament—why can’t it be like I just stepped into the past and could actually buy all the cars I’ve only ever seen in pictures?
Barrett-Jackson Las Vegas was exactly that. It took me hours to tour all the vintage goodies either readying themselves for sale or post-block—they’re all there together, with the ones sold marked on the windshield to indicate price. I circulated about seven or eight times, each lap seeing something I had not. I read the prices on the sold cars. “Rats. Should have had that one!” And looked at those still to go up later on the Friday I was there, or on Saturday. “Wonder if that’s going to be a bargain?” I know from watching that the best cars run on the last day. The most expensive ones.
But back to the layout of the auction. A huge area spread with cars is what I first saw. Then there was a vendor area with everything from garage lifts to jewelry. Then more cars. Then the auction area.
It’s like a bullring, surrounded on three sides by risers, a central seating area full of people with bidders’ passes. I didn’t measure it, but it felt football-field big, with the auction block—really a narrow strip crowded with people and with barely enough room for a car to go past—at the front.
The place was so huge, I wondered how anyone could be seen to register a bid. As you likely know, bidders’ assistants roam the floor and the far-end “skybox,” using a combination of sounds, hand gestures, and flag waving to indicate the amount of cash someone is willing to be parted from in order to have the car in contest at a given time.
If you think that’s a focused process, think again. More like organized chaos. But it works, incredibly efficiently. And most people, despite the din, looked like they were quite enjoying the experience. Come to think of it, it’s kind of like a circus. Just when one act is concluding, a new one, just as thrilling, and oftentimes more so, comes out to take its place.
But maybe you’re not into spectacle and just want to go get yourself a car. That’s quite possible. It happens hundreds of times a day as the metal rolls past the auctioneer’s hammer. But be forewarned. There are things you have to know in order to do well.
Here are six lessons that I hope you enjoy, not to mention learn from:
1. It’s all so big.
If you imagine the bidding process to be a moment of quiet contemplation while you figure out whether the machine up for bid is for you, you’re all wrong. The auctioneer starts the patter when the car is announced, there’s a brief description of the car (read from the same information as is in the full-color catalogue), and it’s go-time.
I have no idea how a bidder shuts out the hub-bub that surrounds every moment of the auction. For instance, I watched as a 60-ish looking couple sat huddled with a catalogue. They started bidding on a 1971 Dodge Charger SE, talking to each other. The assistant came over, gesturing to the block to record their further bids. He had a way of yelling to the block that somehow cut through the multitude of background noise, his voice carrying a couple of hundred feet, at least.
The couple seemed to get into a zone, as if they couldn’t hear anything around them. The bid went against them. It came back to them. They ended up buying the car. “It’s her birthday today,” the man said. Later, I talked to the woman, who said that they had decided prior to the auction what their max number was on the car. They weren’t going to go any further. And they got it right on that number. They paid just under $35K, including commission.
But this leads me to my next point.
2. You’re not really going head-to-head with your competition.
TV makes it look like a bidder is dueling with his (or her, but let’s be real—most of the bidders are men) competition, and it is true in a sense, but only in the superficial sense that someone else, perhaps hundreds of yards away, is trying for the same car. The individual bidder, though, is concentrated on only two things—what the auctioneer is saying, and what the bidder assistant is asking for and telling him. That’s either, “Give me another bid,” “You’re not the high bidder right now,” or “The bid is with us.” He’s almost never looking at the person trying to outdo him. The process is about the bidder and his budget more than a competition with someone else, or at least, that’s how it feels.
Lot #381, a 1969 Camaro Z/28, seemed reach its max at $57,000. The auctioneer wasn’t happy with that. He waited. Someone went another $500—there was a big groan in the audience. Then suddenly, the number went to $60,000 off the auctioneer’s lips. Nobody went there. But it did have an interested buyer at $58,000. The big chief, Craig Jackson, said after, “Give them a hand. What a great bidding battle.” But in the thick of the moment, the relationship in the room is bidder-to-block more than bidder-versus-bidder.
3. The whole thing happens so fast
The cars come through a three-lane staging area, and then narrow to a single lane to go to the block. Potential bidders can get a look at them, up close, generally with the hoods up, at this point But this is no time and place to be doing your research. There’s no time at this point. This space is more for a confirmatory glimpse.
For instance, I spied a blue Mustang convertible in the staging lanes. “Get a numba in ya head, Get a numba in ya head,” I heard in a thick New York accent as it rolled up. I started my watch. The car was described, and the bidding began. It quickly went to $40K, then 42, 43, and the auctioneer looked for $45,000. Someone read out a few more specs. The auctioneer asked for $44,000 and got it, then $45K. The car was rolled off the block, and $46,000 was bid. The hammer fell.
This took a minute and fifty-nine seconds.
Afterwards, the “pick a numba” guy and perhaps a brother, plus a scantily-clad girlfriend, were pawing over it. Their numba had apparently been the right one. The car presented as a GT, but no claims as to that were actually in the description, if you read it carefully. It was, apparently, an A-code, and so could have been authentic as a GT, and even if not, this is a rare-ish car, though it was knocked down by the unattractive fawn interior. I doubt any of that matters to these bidders. And they did look happy. Did they pay too much? Maybe a little. But they’re in the ballpark.
But compare this to a nicely restored and pretty well painted gold 1967 Pontiac Firebird that looked ready to drive, and which sold for about $30K, and you might wonder which is the better way to go. It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison because the Pontiac was not a convertible, but it was a very much more striking car, to my eyes. And I’m a Mustang guy.
For a more direct comparison, Mustang Fastback #484 sold at $32,000 plus fees, and it had crazing in the paint, rear window molding that was chipped, a windshield that hadn’t been out, with rubber degraded, black dots on the front fender, and a poor presentation under the hood. Makes the other Mustang look like it was priced just about right. More on Mustangs below. Go to Part Two by clicking here. Got something to say? Add your Facebook comment on this article here.