“SOLD!” Attending my first classic-car auction

Car enthusiasts and collectors from around the globe have gathered en masse in Monterey, California, for the sixty-first Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance this weekend. One­—or rather, five—of the biggest attractions are the various accompanying auctions that blanket the Monterey Peninsula from today through Sunday, from the likes of Bonhams, Gooding & Company, Mecum Auctions, RM Auctions, and Russo and Steele.

A few weeks ago, I attended my first-ever vintage-car auction at The Inn at Saint John’s, an RM-sanctioned sale that was paired with the inaugural Concours d’Elegance of America in Plymouth, Michigan, an event that was formerly held at Meadow Brook Hall in nearby Rochester.

The strangest and perhaps most interesting car on offer was a 1939 Pontiac whose body panels were constructed exclusively of Plexiglas. This truly unique ride sold for $308,000 and even got some coverage in mass media such as NPR, Yahoo!, and the New York Times. But what impressed me the most was the RM staff’s extreme efficiency at keeping the cars moving across the block. The first car, an fairly unremarkable 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood, drove into the Grande Ballroom through wide double doors, immediately up a short ramp, and onto the stage. As soon as the car was centered on the turntable, its driver keyed it off so that its engine didn’t add to the commotion in the room or drown out the auctioneer’s voice. The Cadillac spun 180 degrees on the turntable and was soon pushed—by four or five workers—off the stage and downhill on the same ramp. Only once it had rolled outside did its driver restart the engine so he could pilot it to a parking spot under a large outdoor tent. As soon as the Cadillac was hammered SOLD—bidding usually continues after the car has left the room—the next offering (a 1974 Triumph TR6) was placed into first gear and swiftly driven into the building and up onto the same stage. That process happened about seventy more times with different cars over the course of the next few hours.

Most auction attendees probably don’t pay too much attention to the staging process, though, because auctioneer Max Girardo is so adept at getting and holding people’s attention. This Australian doesn’t use the double-speak that I’m familiar with hearing at farm and estate sales in rural Michigan. Instead, he speaks the bids slowly and clearly, a cheerleaderlike permasmile on his face, filling the pauses with amusing (and lightheartedly pressuring) comments like these:

“Let’s say $50,000—we’re all behind you!”

“Go on—I dare you!”

“Don’t stop bidding … why would you want to do that?!”

“Bid to your happiness!”

“I would bid again if I was you, sir.”

“I want you to have it. You deserve to have it!”

“The phones are winning. They’re leaving you behind!”

“It’s gotta be worth that … ”

“Why not? Do it!”

“It’s worth your while—I guarantee it!”

“Don’t say ‘no’ today.”

“It’s slipping away from you, sir.”

“It’s only $25,000—forget the million bit.”

Check out the December issue of Automobile Magazine—on sale around Halloween—for contributor Dave Kinney’s extensive report on the auction results at Pebble Beach. He’ll cover the Saint John’s sale in our November issue.

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