I get Facebook updates from Sports Car Market, Hagerty Insurance, and a bunch of writers that I know that attended the festivities in Monterey this past week. Every one of them breathlessly reported the $200 million that changed hands at the auctions. And I’m trying for the life of me to figure out why that’s a good thing.
I’ve been to those auctions, along with a lot of others around the country, including the events in Scottsdale, Arizona every January. I may be the only member of the media in attendance that doesn’t wet his pants when a car sells for a million bucks.
I have a framed memento from my time at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. The art department that I so enjoyed working with put it together for me when I left last year. It’s a month-by-month summary of the covers of every issue of S&E I helped to put out. In 57 months, we ran three covers in which either Monterey or Scottsdale were the featured story. Only one cover referenced the auction total for the weekend. It was my third issue as editor at S&E, and I always felt kind of badly about it because I thought focusing on the sum total of money changing hands at the auctions somehow degraded the fun of just looking at all those cars.
There have always been wealthy people interested in fine automobiles. No getting around that. But when people bought and sold cars in the past, they’d do it either person-to-person, or through a broker, privately. When I buy anything, unless I got a smoking deal on it, I don’t want anybody knowing what I paid for it.
Apparently simply owning a one-off vintage automobile isn’t enough. You’ve got to sneakily raise your bidder’s card into the air, bid unreasonable sums of money, and then put on your best poker face and look like you didn’t really want the car when your outrageous bid comes out on top. And then everybody else with the hundred bucks to get into the event gives you a standing ovation. When it’s all over, you pile into your Prius and head for the hotel, because you need to look like you give a fuck for the environment.
Vintage car auctions have become a spectacle much like Pebble Beach has: for all the wrong reasons. A large number of the people who go to Pebble Beach or to the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale don’t really care much about cars. They’re there because a few really rich, influential people are there, and they feel like they need to put on their best white slacks and go, too. Witness the entourage of sycophants and hangers-on that follow Jay Leno around at Pebble Beach. There are at least as many people willing to shell out $200 a pop to get their picture taken with Jay as there are people who would actually like to get a look at the automobiles.
Millions of people are out of work. Folks who had hopes of enjoying a comfortable retirement are now passing out stickers at the Wal-Mart entrance to make a few bucks to pay for their wife’s medical needs. Those that have jobs are witnessing their purchasing power erode like the dunes on Cape Cod.
And for some reason, all the media wants to report on is how some rarified specimen paid $16 million for a Ferrari. I don’t get it. Given the opportunity to cover these auctions, I consistently would choose to feature the cars that WEREN’T the subject of every other story in every other magazine. What cars sold that working-class schmucks like me and the readers of my magazine would be interested in, and could possibly afford?
You might think this is just sour grapes because I can’t afford the sixteen million bucks for some of these cars, but that’s not it at all. I’ve never, even for a minute, been interested in super-exotics – even Corvettes, for that matter – because they’re just not for me. I get that. They’ve never really been on my radar, and I’m completely ok with that. There are plenty of cars out there for everyone. But what really bothers me is the trickle-down effect of prices that have no basis in any reality other than the world’s most public cock-measuring contest. It has an effect on all of us. If you were interested in LS-6 Chevelle convertibles after the 2006 edition of Barrett-Jackson’s sale of the Truppi-Kling Chevelle, you saw the prices of those cars go into the stratosphere, thanks to the million-plus realized there. Two years later, that car sold for a much more reasonable quarter of a million, but the prices for every other LS-6 never really came down accordingly.
Similarly, the price for every service associated with owning an old car has increased commensurate with the prices being realized at auction. I wanted to have a new set of seats covers installed in my 1968 Buick Riviera. For five years, I received quotes well over $1,000 to do the job, which was $300 more than what I paid for the entire car. I knew the cost of the materials, and I had a good idea how long it would take a skilled professional to sew up a set of covers and I could never make the math work without including a massive premium just because the work was taking place on an old car. Finally, after years of searching, I found a great upholsterer who did the job for $450, cash on the barrelhead. Paint, bodywork, chrome, tires, the cost of owning an old car has gone from just expensive to prohibitively expensive for a whole lot of enthusiasts.
As I waded through my Facebook updates, I couldn’t decide what I cared less about, the top results at the Monterey Auctions or Kim Kardashian’s wedding. Pick your brand of self-obsessed conspicuous consumption.