The first Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction was held in the fall of 1971 in a field adjacent to the Safari Resort on Scottsdale Road. Cars such as a pair of Mercedes-Benz 770 Phaetons, assorted Duesenbergs, Packards and classic Cadillacs, as well as a couple of nice Woody wagons – their wood-trimmed flanks still intact, drew the attention of bidders and spectators alike.
They also drew some live national news coverage -- not from Speed Channel, but with respected newsman Roger Mudd reporting from the anchor desk in New York City on the auto auction action out in the still pretty wild west.
When that first Barrett-Jackson auction was held, Craig Jackson was a 12-year-old whose father put him in charge of parking cars – those being auctioned and those being driven to the auction by bidders and spectators.
The cars being auctioned were fascinating to the youngster, but Jackson never forgot the cars that were in the bidder and spectator parking lots, cars such as Pontiac GTOs and Chevrolet Chevelles and Plymouth ‘Cudas. Those so-called Detroit muscle cars were the daily drivers of car enthusiasts in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One of those enthusiasts was Craig’s 26-year-old brother, Brian.
“I grew up hanging out with my brother and his buddies,” Craig remembers.
‘They drove Camaros and ‘Cudas and all of those kinds of cars.”
Those who drove Detroit muscle cars loved driving them, and loved being seen driving them. Perhaps more importantly, those who didn’t have Detroit muscle cars wanted one. No, let’s rephrase that: They coveted one.
“My brother was a true baby boomer,” Craig Jackson says. “He graduated in the early 1960s, right around the era of America Graffiti.”
That 1973 movie not only established George Lucas’ role as a Hollywood film maker, but memorialized the innocence of the hot-roddin,’ rockin’ ‘n’ rollin,’ teenage cruisin’ culture of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, an era shattered into a new reality by war in Southeast Asia and gunshots from a school book warehouse into the Presidential motorcade through Dallas.
The “muscle car” was launched in the fall of 1963
amid a cloud of blue-white smoke generated by the rubber peeling off the rear tires of what looked pretty much like your box stock 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans, except for the twin air scoops on its hood and the GTO badges on its grille and rear flanks.
Faced with a challenge on two fronts -- new federal safety regulations and the small and fuel-efficient compact cars being imported from overseas -- Detroit automakers had retreated from their horsepower race, and that included factory-backed involvement in auto racing. That not only frustrated powertrain engineers, but left marketing departments to find another way to appeal to that segment of young customers who inherently understood what the Beach Boys were singing on the B side of Surfin’ Safari. That, yes, indeed, 409, “she’s real fine.”
For a moment, we need to shift into Reverse and go back to the mid-1950s when Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen became general manager of General Motors’ Pontiac division, with Pete Estes as chief engineer and one John Z. DeLorean as Estes’ top aide (and yes, this same John Z. DeLorean would later apply his name to the stainless steel-bodied and Irish-built DeLorean car).
The new trio running Pontiac developed the “Wide Track” image for their division’s cars and it translated into sales successes that got Knudsen promoted to run Chevrolet, GM’s largest and most important division. Now Estes was in charge at Pontiac and an eager DeLorean became chief engineer and… and suddenly GM decided that horsepower needed to be reigned in and big powerful V8 engines should go only into big heavy cars that really needed such motors.
But DeLorean and his team devised a way around the rules. They discovered that they could wedge the 325-horsepower, 389-cubic-inch V8 from the big Pontiac Bonneville into the LeMans’ engine bay. But getting the engine into the car was just the first step. Now they had to get it through the production process.
First, they discovered that GM’s rules-making bureaucracy likely would overlook their maneuver if the modifications they wanted to make to the cars – in addition to the engine, they’d insert a three-speed and floor-mounted shifter, tweaked the car’s suspension to carry the larger engine, enhanced the steering gear, upgraded the tires and bolted on a dual exhaust – were offered only as a customer’s option, not a separate model.
Then, to make sure the proverbial rug wouldn’t be pulled from beneath their masterpiece of cunning and deceit, they pre-sold 5000 such optioned out cars to Pontiac dealers, thus constructing a business case the bureaucrats couldn’t invalidate before production began.
Though this new and more powerful Pontiac wouldn’t be a separate model, they made sure car enthusiasts would notice. First, they added the GTO badges. GTO was short for Grand Turismo Oomologato, as in the name of the famous Ferrari racecar of an earlier era.
Next, Pontiac advertising wizard Gordon Wangers recruited a band, Ronny and the Daytonas, to record a song about the car. With a catchy tune and lyrics tweaked by Wangers himself, Ronny and his group sang out the words “turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO” and the record, Little GTO, sold more than a million copies and was played some seven million times on radio stations across the country.
It wasn’t too long before Pontiac promoted the GTO to a separate and distinct model and the other Detroit automakers rushed to pump up and pump out their own “muscle cars” – the Oldsmobile 4-4-2, the Chevrolet Chevelle SS, the Buick Gran Sport, the Ford Torino GT, the Mercury Cyclone, the Hemi-equipped Dodge Charger and Plymouth Barracuda and Road Runner.
Muscle cars may not have had the best brakes. Muscle cars may not have turned on a dime. But muscle cars were blistering fast in a straight line, and muscle cars made wonderful sounds and smoke and, yes, they were fun. Fun to drive. Fun to see. Remember those cartoon-graphic decals, aimed, says Jackson, at what he calls a “certain audience.”
And then – poof! -- it was over.
The muscle car era lasted only a decade. Very early in the 1970s, even more stringent pollution rules, increasing insurance premiums and the oil embargo each played a role in the end of the party.
“Actually,” Craig Jackson remembers, “Pontiac started it and Pontiac closed it out. First there was the 1964 GTO, and then it finished with the 1974 Trans-Am Super Duty.”
But as early as the mid-1980s, Craig Jackson was convinced
that muscle cars would become as significant to future car collectors as the pre-war classics were to the World War II generation.
He spoke about his anticipation in an interview with a national car collector magazine, “and I got flack within our company,” he remembers two decades later.
“I grew up watching Tom Barrett selling all of those classics,” Jackson says. “There were a lot of people back then from the World War II generation.”
But Jackson recognized that there would be even more baby boomers who soon would be of the age and financial health to start collecting cars, and that they wouldn’t necessarily want the same cars that their fathers and uncles and grandfathers had pursued.
A generational shift was taking place in the collector car marketplace.
Among the things Jackson discovered was the fact that while there may have been only 550 Duesenbergs ever built, the number of Hemi ‘Cudas wasn’t that much greater and that before too long there would be a lot of baby boomers who would want them.
Not only would the boomers want muscle cars, but for the most part they also were redefining, or at least expanding the definition of what they’d accept as a muscle car. For many of them, it wasn’t just the original muscle cars, but also muscled-up pony cars such as Shelby Mustangs and big block Camaros, and even cars such as Chevrolet Corvettes and Dodge Vipers and Shelby Cobras because, while technically “sports cars,” they were very much Americanized sports cars, more about muscle than finesse.
A sad irony, Jackson says, is that it was one of those life-changing, you’ll never forget where you were when you heard the news events – the terrorist hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001 -- that triggered the baby boomer generation into its all-out pursuit of the muscle car.
“After 9/11, people realized we may not live forever,” he says. “The attitude is ‘I’ve worked hard my whole life. I’ve always dreamed about doing this [owning and driving a real muscle car]. Now is the time to do it. Tomorrow may never come’.”
Or as one collector car auction veteran put it, the attitude is: I’ve always wanted a Hemi and now I’m going to have one!
“We’re experiencing a generational and monumental shift in the collector car hobby,” says Steve Davis, executive vice president of Barrett-Jackson.
The baby boom generation now has both the time and the money to put into car collecting, and the cars they want are muscle cars. And it’s not just the life-long car guys who want them. Because of Speed channel’s extensive television coverage of the Barrett-Jackson auction, and a myriad of other television programs that feature muscle cars, more and more people are being exposed to the hobby. They may not have hung out at their local garage as teenagers, but they’ve been able to watch and to learn from their living rooms, and now are ready to participate in person.
And just as baby boomers have not been content to idle their way through their careers, they also are redefining “retirement.” They plan to stay active, and that doesn’t mean they want to sit around and simply look at a muscle car parked in the garage. They want to drive, and to participate in events, whether a local cruise-in or the Woodward Dream Cruise, vintage racing or road rallies such as Arizona’s Copperstate 1000.
“It doesn’t have to cost you seven figures to have a collector car that you can enjoy,” says Craig Jackson. “You have cruises and road rallies and vintage racing.“
And, he adds, you don’t have to have a car with matching numbers to go to a cruise-in and have a good time. However, you would need such a vehicle should you want to display your muscle car on the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach some year.
So here we are, at the 36th Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction, and just as at the first one, there will be a Duesies and a Packard or two, and maybe even some Woodies rolling across the block, and they’ll command big bids. But the frenzy figures to focus on the muscle cars.
And when he’s not up on the auction block, don’t be surprised if you spot Craig Jackson out in the parking lots, checking to see what we’ve all driven to the event and making some mental notes on what that might mean for the future.
Larry Edsall is editor-in-chief of www.izoom.com, an auto enthusiast website, and author of the new book, Barrett-Jackson: The World’s Greatest Collector Car Event.
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