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Remember When the Collector Car Hobby had Seasons?

by | March 2015

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Like every year for the past 13, this January I found myself drawn to Scottsdale, Arizona, to the annual car auctions, like the proverbial “moth to the flame.” One night at dinner, friends commented they were continually amazed by the proliferation of car events. This led us to reflect on the depth and constancy of people’s devotion to cars, and how much things have changed over the past decade. We wondered aloud “Remember when the collector car hobby had its seasons?”

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Personal Perspective

We each bring our own perspective to this conversation based upon our upbringing and our particular interest in cars. Some of us grew up attending AACA or CCCA rallies and meets, and others of us were predisposed to SCCA and track events.

Growing up in Massachusetts meant that cars were a summertime avocation. My father, a former Air Force Pilot who collected Porsches, had a firm rule about cars and their road use, saying “When the salt goes down, the cars go up!” This discipline ensured that his cars stayed roadworthy.

In the 1980s our car “season” involved trips to Lime Rock Park, Watkins Glen, Porsche Parades, and the AACA National Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania, each October – events we could reach by road with a trailer in tow.

However, even with only regional experience in the car hobby, I always recognized Pebble Beach and Scottsdale were the two “Meccas” of American car worship, between them encompassing and celebrating the breadth of car collecting from Duesenbergs to ‘Deuce Coupes.’ And it was no coincidence that six months separated the two, offering Northerners respite from the cold of winter.

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Then and Now

Pebble Beach and Scottsdale have their committed followers. One Pebble Beach Judge in 2014 wore a badge indicating his 40th year of service! Local enthusiasts founded The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1950 as an adjunct to the Pebble Beach Road Race, an event sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America and conducted over closed public roads, sometimes referred to as “racing through the pines.”

What has developed in Monterey is nothing short of dizzying: It is now a platform for vintage races, auctions, new-car launches, automobilia sales, rallies, and numerous concours. Historically, organizers used the term “Concours d’Elegance” to describe the high-society display of the newest cars of the day. However, Pebble Beach has been so influential in the car world that now the term denotes classic and collector cars. Ironically, the modern supercars on display in the courtyard of the Lodge are the most traditional form of Concours d’Elegance.

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There is almost a religious zeal that certain patrons have for these “Big Top” events. Ten years ago, while working as an auction specialist, I received a tip that a car collector had died and his collection was to be sold. Speaking on the telephone with the man’s widow, she explained why she decided to sell the cars through Barrett-Jackson, quoting her deceased husband as saying “If it’s at Barrett-Jackson you know it’s quality!”

Like Pebble Beach, it is certain that today’s Scottsdale events bear little resemblance to its progenitor. Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett organized the original auction at Scottsdale in 1967. They presented a car show called “Fiesta del Auto Elegance,” to raise funds for local charities including the Scottsdale Library.

In 1972, the two also held a classic car auction at which a Mercedes-Benz 770K more than tripled the previous auction record, selling for $153,200. (In comparison this year’s top sale, a 1964 Ferrari 250 LM, fetched $9,625,000). This past January, Barrett-Jackson filled a tent more than a half-a-mile long selling not only thousands of cars, but also neon signs, reclining lounge chairs, time-shares, insurance, and more, in what they proudly marketed as a “lifestyle event.”

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Expansion & Evolution

Expansion of the collector car world is happening within and without. As rapid as the proliferation is of new events, the evolution at established venues is even greater. None of the shows at Amelia Island, the Concours of America, Hershey, Quail Lodge, or Greenwich happen without an auction, and tours, art exhibits, modern car sponsorship, and other events fill the weekend. At the highest levels of collecting there are model-specific rallies organized for Ferrari 250 GTOs and Alfa Romeo 8Cs.

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Cars shown on concours lawns also are prominently displayed in automotive and fine art museums, supported by scholarship of specialists, curators, conservators, restorers, writers, and organizations. One, the REVS Institute, is dedicated to collecting, preserving, organizing, and teaching the history of the automobile at universities and organized symposia. It is not only the increasing number of events that is shocking but also the growth, sophistication, specialization, and money that is present in today’s collector car world.

Can we still call it a “hobby”?

Such is the complexity of these shows that print publications such as “Sports Car Market” publish “ride along” guides replete with bar graphs and timelines to help readers navigate the events on the Monterey Peninsula each August; this process requires hard decisions and a degree of “selective negligence,” because it’s impossible to do it all!

The disproportionate increase in the number of events surrounding the big shows has created a false perception of across-the-board growth. Few Antiques or Classics appear at the highline auction houses. There is a clear changing of the guard–and their focus–in the high-end collector car world.

Post-war sports and racing cars from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Porsche lead the international market and the steady expansion of worldwide events. Collectors interested in these cars have found their global audience; some are the benefactors of their car’s great financial appreciation, others are beneficiaries, and still others have been priced out of the market entirely.

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When someone says this hobby no longer has seasons this acknowledges an increase in the number of events staged and strong health of the market driving its development. It also recognizes that people interested in certain cars now have the opportunity to engage with collector cars on a global scale.

The Lifestyle

It is not just the hobby that has changed, but also the collectors themselves: Jay Leno famously quipped that “Pebble Beach is great because it is a place that gives mere millionaires the chance to compete with billionaires.” There is truth to that. And perspective. Jetting to car events around the world is an exclusive privilege, cost-prohibitive to all but the wealthiest participants, and to those who make a living in its service.

For many people, particularly those collecting Antiques and Classics, the hobby is much as it has always been. These collectors attend events they can reach by road. Those who are tantalized by the globalization of the collector car world and able to participate should count themselves lucky for the opportunities available. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and one hell of a ride!

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