I like auctions as much as the next guy. In fact, I probably like them a little more than that-a good thing given my day job. But even for me, an hour or so at a time is about all I can take of the cacophonous babble emanating from most auction podiums.
But I put in 15 hours in the Barrett-Jackson tent this year, as part of the live broadcast of its Scottsdale auction on the Speed Channel. Along with host Bob Varsha, and co-hosts and commentators Brock Yates, Alain DeCadenet, Rick DeBruhl and Mike Joy, we did our best to predict, examine and analyze the action for the television viewers at home.
And the number of viewers was huge. According to Nielsen ratings over the three days of the broadcast, more than 6.2 million adults watched the show, with an average of 587,000 households tuned in at any given time. This led to a Saturday rating of 1.12, an 18-percent increase from 2003 and the highest Nielsen rating for any Speed Channel show all year, similar to the numbers that NASCAR qualifying sessions pull.
These large figures played a key part in the surge in both interest and prices we saw at this year's event. Craig Jackson and his team of Steve Davis and Tim McGrane did all the preparatory heavy lifting, consigning 762 cars (most at no reserve) and using their efficient marketing machine to register more than 3,000 bidders, each with a pre-approved line of credit.
Last year, a similar combination led to sales of $28.5 million-an impressive result, but far below 1990's B-J record of $37 million. However, when the last exhaust fumes had cleared the tent this year, the record had been surpassed: 744 cars hammered down for a total of $38.5 million.
As impressive as these overall results are, from our eye-in-the-sky perspective in the broadcast booth, even more remarkable was the near non-stop excitement. When the bright TV lights came on, the already active block simply exploded, with prices reaching stratospheric levels.
HI MOM, I'M ON TV
We pundits have been musing about the B-J prices, not so much for the exceptional cars like the $432,000 Zephyr or the $216,000 Hemi 'Cuda coupe, but for the lesser ones. It was the attractive but not exceptional cars, like the 1953 Corvette that brought $210,600 and the 1969 Camaro Z/28 coupe at $120,960, that caused our internal price guides to overheat and start smoking.
According to Barrett-Jackson, more than 40 percent of the bidders were first-timers. One assumes these are successful guys (nearly all were men), and that if they went to the trouble to get a $200,000 or $300,000 line of credit approved by their bank, they came armed for bear, ready to take something home.
I would further hypothesize that they were drawn to Barrett-Jackson by the opportunity to flaunt their success to millions of onlookers by buying a collector car on live TV. SCM has editorialized in the past that it's easier to buy a $50 million G5 executive jet than it is to get a car accepted to Pebble Beach, or to achieve a class or best-of-show win there.
Building your business and selling it for $100 million might get you a story in the local business news, but buying a 1965 GTO convertible for $75,600 during prime time at B-J tells several million car enthusiasts that you're a player.
BUY THIS ONE FOR THE FOLKS AT HOME
Then there's the most important part of the mix, the 3,000 registered bidders.
It's a huge number-three times the total number of bidders for all the Monterey auctions combined. At most European sales, if they get 100 registered bidders into a room, the auction company is ecstatic.
So with 3,000 bidders chasing less than 800 cars, the end result is spirited activity on nearly every car. On the popular models offered during televised prime time, there were often four or five bidders chasing the price higher and higher until the hammer fell.
For an auction neophyte, it's reassuring to look across the auction block and see another guy just like him, a real guy, not a chandelier at the back of the room, bidding directly against him. These bidders all had A-type personalities, and at some point the egos and desire to "win the car" kick in. That's when we get to watch the shootout at the Barrett-Jackson corral, certainly better television than reruns of Gunsmoke. The effect on prices is obvious: They jump from the expected to the stratospheric.
BUT WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW
The question I've been asked most often since then is, "Are these prices sustainable?" The definitive answer is, to paraphrase our Legal Analyst John Draneas, "Yes and no, and it depends."
Without doubt, if you had hauled the B-J inventory off to another auction on another weekend, without the 3,000 bidders and the TV lights, the results would have been a price-shattering bloodbath. At a laid-back regional auction, a 1970 Barracuda Hemi "clone" that had only two semi-interested bidders chasing it wouldn't have much of a chance of getting to the $121,500 it made at B-J.
But the buyers at B-J were less concerned about "buying right" than they were in getting the car that they wanted, right then, on TV, to take home to their friends.
That bodes well for the collector car industry. As much as SCM preaches research, using price guides and the like, at the same time we encourage enthusiasts to simply buy what they want and can afford. After all, cars are investments in pleasure more than they are financial instruments. So long as the new owners feel they are getting a good return for their newfound televised notoriety, so long as they enjoy their cars when they get them home, and so long as they get the high-fives they expect from their friends, we would go so far as to say about the Barrett-Jackson results, "Well bought, with no harm done."