x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Barrett-Jackson antique car auction is a sad circus of metal and broken dreams

The car auction in Phoenix, Arizona, doesn't impress David Booth's sensibilities.

The Barrett-Jackson auction in Phoenix, Arizona, was a tawdry affair, despite the $2.6 million sale of a Tucker Torpedo. AP
The Barrett-Jackson auction in Phoenix, Arizona, was a tawdry affair, despite the $2.6 million sale of a Tucker Torpedo. AP

Watch the Barrett-Jackson antique car auction on any channel around the world that monitors all things automotive and you might be convinced that it's a high-class affair. A rare Tucker Torpedo goes for US$2.6 million (Dh9.5 million), red Ferraris draw collective gasps from the well-healed audience and the whole enterprise can gross as much as Dh370m in just one week of gavel-pounding.

Up close and personal though, it's a far more tawdry affair catering more to the American muscle car crowd than a classy Eurocentric clientele.

Indeed, an entire carnival has built up in Phoenix, Arizona, around the auction catering to the thousands who throng here for its voyeuristic pleasures. There's a martini-tasting contest that is far more about the hostesses and what they are wearing than it is about the quality of the "shaken, not stirred" libations. Every form of pub grub - the greasier the better - is present and accounted for and if there were just a demolition derby, the whole circus would be a redneck's dream come true. Goodwood, this certainly is not.

Wander onto the stage in one of the preliminary days when the more pedestrian (read cheaper) auctions take place and the event really does feel like a cheap cattle call of automotive chrome.

The cars have as little as 45 seconds on stage to impress prospective clients. And, like some trashy display of flesh, the cars' owners are encouraged to flaunt their engines as provocatively as possible. In fact, most of the cheaper cars arrive on stage with their hoods and trunks already released so that they may be stripped bare in as little time as possible.

Then, and this happens a lot more frequently than appears on television, if the car fails to excite the crowd, it's less than ceremoniously hustled off the stage.

Indeed, on the Wednesday night I attended last week, about five AC Cobras (or replicas) appeared on stage in quick succession and so bored the audience that the last barely hit the US$30,000 (Dh110,200) before being bum-rushed into the car park. This despite the auctioneers' best efforts to build its provenance by claiming that former baseball great Reggie Jackson once sat in its front seat.

And the locals appear to be totally jaded. The poor guys shuffling the cars on stage look bored out of their minds. Same goes for the guys polishing up the gleaming chrome; you'd think they were waxing up an '85 Chrysler K-Car for all their enthusiasm. Oh, occasionally, something unique might get everyone excited, but that's usually because of the money changing hands and nothing at all to do with the actual car itself.

Right after the aching silence that greeted those five Cobras, a resto-modded (a restoration adding a few, usually value-reducing, modern touches) 1948 Chevrolet delivery truck wowed the crowd by vaulting past everyone's expectations to fetch an incredible US$97,900. Just to show you how capricious the whole affair is, five years previous, the very same truck sold for just US$61,500. As far as I know, there hasn't been a run on 1948 Chevy delivery trucks.

And this perhaps leads to the most dispiriting part of the Barrett-Jackson auction. For the automotive voyeur (that would be me, as I can barely afford the tyres off some of these cars, let alone the whole thing), the staging grounds where you can inspect the cars is a veritable playground of automotive customisation and restoration. Sure, there's lots of awful stuff such as a Corvette festooned with "customised" tail fins and the like, but, occasionally, some Pontiac GTO or '57 Bel Air is just so tastefully rendered that it makes you wonder how someone can part with something so beautiful.

For even the trashy here is meticulously crafted. The copper and beige 'Vette that so offended me might have been a Kim Kardashian look-at-me too far, but at least the paint was exquisitely applied.

It's important to remember that the cars on sale here are not just lot numbers nor just some huckster's attempt at making a quick buck. Most were, at one point in time, someone's dream car with parts to be sourced, long hours of dirty, thankless restoration and, most of all, hard-earned money spent on cars that can never hope to recoup their owners' investment of time and money.

Yes, a few sellers, especially those auctioning off rare and collectable vintage rides, might have made a profit at the 2012 Barrett-Jackson. And, yes, the Phoenix auction is a veritable playground for the automotive voyeur. But watching all those pretty cars being churned over like so much scrap metal just made me sad.