Where Cars Are Going, Going, Gone

You don't have to be a millionaire -- though it's even better if you are -- to buy a classic at one of the January auctions in Arizona

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For many people a great midwinter getaway might involve a Caribbean cruise or a run down the slopes at a Rocky Mountain ski resort. But if you're a classic car buff, there's only one place to go: Scottsdale, Arizona

For the last two weeks of January, the "Valley of the Sun" becomes home to the largest collection of auto lovers on the planet. Five classic car auctions are now staged in the city from Jan. 15-29, attracting several hundred thousand collectors and fans. "Auction doesn't do it justice," says Craig Jackson, who runs the annual Barrett-Jackson event. "It's a rock and roll concert that doesn't end."

Jackson's show is the leader of the pack and the largest event of its kind in the world. His father, Russ, and his friend and car collector Tom Barrett, staged their initial auction in Scottsdale in 1972. They were the first to sell a vehicle for more than $100,000, a 1939 Grosser Mercedes that once served as Hitler's parade car. Last year more than 200,000 people attended their six-day extravaganza, which generated over $62 million in car sales.


  Barrett-Jackson now has competition from companies such as Kruse International and Silver Auctions, but each of the houses tries to offer something different. Barrett-Jackson's auction has become more a lifestyle event, with 500 vendors selling everything from car-oriented paintings to jewelry. An on-site spa offers massages and facials for bored spouses.

This year Jackson doubled the size of his tent to accommodate the crowd and launched a new magazine, The Barrett-Jackson Experience. Admission tickets run from $10 to $50, depending on the day. Over 1,000 cars will be offered for sale. It can also be seen from home on Fox's Speed Channel.

Over at the stately Arizona Biltmore hotel, RM Auctions tries to run a more exclusive affair. RM focuses on the higher-end of the market, offering just 100 cars, several dozen of which come with asking prices over $300,000. Its auction is conducted during one four-hour period by English-accented auctioneer. A $60 purchase of RM's catalog admits two people, but RM partner Mike Fairbain admits he doesn't encourage spectators to attend. "We're not a circus," he says. "Our clients don't want it to be."


  Somewhere in the middle lies Russo and Steel's auction. Held in North Scottsdale, just off the 101 Loop, this event features a circular stage, lighting, and music. The auction, which recently added a third day, will feature about 300 cars, mostly European sports cars and American muscle cars from the 1960s. Attendees need to fill out a form to qualify for admission, which costs $100 for two people and involves showing a letter of credit from a bank. Once inside, though, the food and drinks are complimentary.

Silver Auctions, at the Fort McDowell Casino, will offer 500 or so more affordable rides, a lot of them Corvettes and Camaros from the 1960s and 1970s. Admission tickets to their three-day auction are just $15 per day. "Silver is where you can still buy a car if you're not a millionaire," say Noel White, the company's director of market research.

It's "star" cars that still attract the crowds though. Barrett-Jackson's auction will feature the 1967 Shelby GT500 that rocker Sammy Hagar drove in his I Can't Drive 55 video. He'll drive it onto the auction block at the show. Barrett-Jackson will also have Elvis Presley's 1960 Mark V Limo. RM Auctions is selling the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 made famous by Sean Connery in the James Bond flicks Goldfinger and Thunderball. It has a fully functional tire slashers and retractable bulletproof screens, but it shoots only sparks. It's expected to sell for more than $1.5 million.


  What drives someone to pay millions of dollars for four wheels and an engine? In the early days of the auctions, bidders bought the classic cars they dreamt of owning when they were kids -- a Packard, Bugatti, or Duesenberg. That's still true today, but a new generation of boomers is now buying muscle cars. Last year 36 cars sold for more than $1 million each.

"Nobody needs a 400-horsepower, gas-guzzling engine," says Stuart Snedecor, general manager of Russo and Steele's auction. "But everyone wants one." And almost everyone who does, will be in Scottsdale in January.

Christopher Palmeri is a correspondent with BusinessWeek in Los Angeles.

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