Jackson made car auction an American icon

March 14, 2005|by JASON STEIN/ Wheelbase Communications

He doesn't profess to own any crystal balls, but Craig Jackson could easily be classified as somewhat of a fortune teller.

How else do you explain the ability to sift through 5,000 vehicles a year only to select the ones that will fetch the best price at auction?

Or how do you explain Jackson's ability to see the potential in a business that was virtually spinning its wheels in the mid-1990s, but, with the help of his tenacity, is roaring once again?

Jackson saw more than a future in the car auction business; he saw an empire.

Like the trainer who can find the hidden possibilities in a journeyman boxer's left hook, Jackson can find the shine in old cars. That clairvoyance has made Jackson's family empire, the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction and Exposition, a powerhouse, although that wasn't always the case.


The business was in a slump a decade ago as market sales plunged. However, Jackson's ability to see the potential has made his auction(s) into the often-described "Super Bowl of car auctions."

This isn't just any car auction.

Held every January in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Ariz., it is now a five-day venue that transcends the definition of an automobile auction, a place where people with the means and desire usually wind up with a bit of history, or happiness . . . or both.

This year, the Barrett-Jackson found more than 90 percent of its 900 cars new homes, while total sales volume approached $50 million thanks to the bidding of 4,000 people in front of 200,000 spectators.

There is glitz. There is glitter. There is the affable and burly Craig Jackson in the center of it all, his hair combed back and his smile wide.

"I can't think of anyone who comes even close to (Jackson) in being able to determine what will be hot six to nine months out," Keith Martin of Sports Car Market magazine once told Millionaire Magazine. "If you're going to go to one car event in your life, this is it. There's nothing like it on the planet."

Classics, muscle cars and hot rods, the auction has it all. And Jackson, 45, gets most of the credit, even if many saw the auction as a huge debt in 1995 when he began running it.

At the time, Jackson was picking up the pieces of a family business originally begun by his father, Russ, and Russ's friend Tom Barrett.

It seems both were drawn together by an ironic circumstance. In Scottsdale in the late 1960s, Barrett was selling his 1933 Cadillac V-16 Town Car. Jackson was an interested buyer. Although the sale never happened, Jackson and Barrett decided a car auction might be a good way to start a business after they combined to organize a small classic-car sale in 1971 and Barrett sold his Mercedes 770 Phaeton for $153,000. An idea was born.

Over the next two decades, Barrett-Jackson grew into something that was larger than life, a must-attend event for anyone interested in the car market. Their high-water mark came in the early 1980s when the auction began to attract multi-million dollar totals for collections of Ferraris and Bugattis.

But when the market turned south, the prospects looked dim. Suddenly, the circuit had lost its luster. When Russ Jackson died in 1993 and Tom Barrett retired in 1997, Craig Jackson saw a better way. With limitless energy and a strong will to make it work, Craig Jackson took over and immediately saw the need for corporate sponsorship and a marketing plan.

He enlisted the help of Speed Channel, car-wax legend Barry Meguiar and auto giants such as DaimlerChrysler.

He also changed the process, removing "reserves" (the minimum amount the seller would accept) from the sale.

The result was the rebirth of a legend.

"It's all around the love affair with the car," Craig Jackson once told in an interview about the auction. "It's the one auction in the world that is an event within itself that really sets the standard, that is the barometer for what car prices are going to be."

Jackson said the addition of six million TV viewers has brought the hobby into the living rooms of the world, showing people the passion and enthusiasm that collectors share.

Internet live bidding was also added and attendance seemed to flourish.

Away from the camera, Jackson is hard at work. A lifelong collector himself, he grew up around cars, refurbishing them and pounding them into shape in his father's garage. These days his team combs through some thousands of vehicles before narrowing it down for the auction.

"We pick out according to what we think the marketplace wants," he told "We really try to keep our finger on the pulse of what car collectors today want and what they're going to want in the future."

His finger is there on the pulse, a place it has always been.

The Barrett-Jackson empire has never been better because of it.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at :

Copyright 2005, Wheelbase Communications

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