4 February 2015

Scottsdale And America’s Love Affair With The Automobile

We Americans have always had what we describe as a “love affair” with the automobile. The sheer scale of the place has always made car ownership a necessity- remember that the distance from Seattle to Key West, Florida is the same as from London to Kabul, Afghanistan.

And every January, thousands of us descend on Scottsdale, a suburb of Phoenix, Arizona to celebrate that love in the best way we know. In cavernous halls draped with stars & stripes, the crowds jostle for position to see the brightly lit stage. Finally, the PA booms into life and the stars of the show emerge from the wings to a flurry of camera flashes. But this isn’t a festival or a movie awards gala- it’s the Scottsdale Auction Week, a mid-winter classic car sales extravaganza. Each year, Bonhams, Gooding & Co, RM and Barrett-Jackson, plus a host of other smaller auction houses, present the world with classic cars worth tens of millions of pounds.

Barrett-Jackson is the best known and the largest of the six auctions with about 1,600 cars sold over six days. It takes place in a massive tent that looks like a cross between a Zeppelin hangar and a James Bond movie set (it’s actually probably considerably larger than the actual Bond set at Pinewood Studios). One can easily imagine about fifty Tescos fitting comfortably inside. Before you even approach the auction block, you first have to walk about ¾ of a mile through vendors. And not the usual autojumble stuff that one is used to seeing at the NEC—at Barrett-Jackson, you can purchase everything from a New Zealand safari to Botox injections as well as the more prosaic life-sized Elvis mannequins.

The highlight of the sale was the uniquely American General Motors Futureliner bus. GM built twelve of these magnificent streamlined art deco buses in the 1930s as part of a massive public relations campaign called the GM Parade of Progress. The buses toured America along with exhibits and concept cars up right until America’s belated entry into the Second World War in 1941. The campaign resumed after the war and continued until the 1950s when the Futureliner buses were discarded. Barrett-Jackson sold this particular bus for £2.7 million.

One of the other uniquely American aspects of Barrett-Jackson is the profusion of what they refer to as a “Restomod.” These are essentially 1950s and 1960s American cars that have been restored and modified (hence the name) with modern mechanicals. It’s generally far more extreme and far less faithful (and tasteful) than what Eagle does with E-types.

Although 1950s and 1960s Americana is the most visible expression of America’s love affair with the automobile, there were plenty of other cars to get excited about. Among the least expense lots were a 1976 Jensen GT, the estate version of the Jensen-Healey, an absolutely gorgeous 1984 Alfa Romeo Spider with zero rust and perfect paint and a Brazilian VW-powered oddball called a Puma GT. It looked like a cross between an Alpine A110, a Porsche 911 and a 246 Dino. All of these sold for less than £6,000.The total sales just at Barrett-Jackson came about £86,000,000. That’s not a misprint: £86m.

The Russo and Steele auction that takes place just a few miles from Barrett (run not surprisingly by and ex-Barrett employee) has similar cars in a more intimate surrounding. The auction block looks like a boxing match should be taking place with grandstands on all four sides and the cars coming in from underneath one of the grandstands. The bargain of Russo was a lovely rust-free Arizona Datsun 260Z that someone positively stole for about £7,300. A fine Valentine’s day gift that would have made.

The three catalog sales of Bonhams, RM and Gooding and Company sold vastly fewer cars than either Russo or Barrett but at a far higher average price. These three big guns vied for the absolute high sale, and not surprisingly everything in the running had a Ferrari badge. Gooding had a LWB 250 California Spider, Bonhams an ex-Scuderia Flipinetti 275 GTB/C and RM a mid-engine 250 LM. Per the pre-sale estimates, all had the chance of breaking the $10 million barrier but none did, all selling near their low estimates. It wasn’t a reflection of the car’s quality so much as the ambitiousness of the estimates combined with a top of the market that is becoming ever more rational about what it pays.

The sixth of the Arizona sales is arguably the most fun. Silver Auctions (named for the founder Mitch Silver) is the home of the least expensive cars on auction. It’s located about twenty miles from downtown Scottsdale at a casino run by an Indian tribe. Nearly anything can show up from a very Inspector Clouseau-like Citröen 2CV Truckette to what might have been one of the best (and certainly most American cars) sold anywhere—a magnificent 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville that was completely original and amazingly well-preserved. Built at the height of the tail fin craze, it’s Concorde wing-like fins stand over four feet off the ground. It sold for just £22,500. On a price-per-tonne basis, it may have been the best deal there and just the thing for a Route 66 trip. The Mother Road as it’s known here passes through the top of the state of Arizona on the way to its terminus in Chicago some 1,700 miles to the east.

By the end of the week, a huge $292.8m worth of cars had changed hands, an increase of $44m over 2014. About 70% had achieved only the bottom half of estimate or worst, but a lot of the headline no-sales were at prices that would have sold even six months ago at Monterey. How these figures affect the UK market remains to be seen, and we’ll probably have to wait until Race Retro at the end of the month to see the first indications. Meanwhile, the dust will have settled in the Arizona desert, and once again peace will have descended on the wild west.

Rob Sass is VP of Content at Hagerty, and a regular contributor to various motoring and national publications including the NY Times, Car & Driver and Autoweek.

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