Gavin Magor contributed to this report.
Some might take it as a sign of depressed times that the car fetching the top price at the "no-reserve" Barrett-Jackson Palm Beach Collector Car Auction this month was a 1969
Camaro. But maybe the $500,000 that changed hands signals that times aren't as bad.
Even with nameplates like
available, American cars dominated the big-bucks side of the three-day event in Florida. Of the dozen cars receiving the highest bids, six were Chevys, including two Corvettes. Three were
, joined by a California-assembled Ford-powered Shelby. An
442 and an Indiana-built, V-12-powered 1934 Auburn 1250 Salon, once owned by actor James Cagney, rounded out the U.S. domination of the 12 highest-priced cars to cross the auction block.
This 1969 Chevrolet Camaro RS/SS received a top bid of $500,000 at the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction in Palm Beach, Florida.
Although the location name is associated with the mega-rich, the Palm Beach auction attracted buyers and sellers representing a cross section of car lovers from blue collar to white shoes, including big names like auto-world icons Carroll Shelby and Rick Hendrick. This delighted Barrett-Jackson Chairman Craig Jackson, who told
that his job is to sell quality cars that are saleable, and this requires a diversity of vehicles and bidders.
The auction was fully consigned, with more 100 vehicles turned away. A total of 487 vehicles changed owners for a total consideration of slightly more than $20 million. Although high-rollers bid 29 cars to more than $100,000 each, including 10% buyer premiums, a total of 202 went for less than $25,000 apiece. Half the vehicles fetched less than the median price of $30,800.
The inventory was enriched by 115 "legacy" vehicles offered by ailing
, many of which were prototypes and specialty cars such as pace cars for major auto races. Many of these were snapped up by collectors for museum or dealership display.
Jackson said the overall attendance was 14% higher than in 2008. The 1,000 authorized bidders had higher lines of credit than those at last year's Palm Beach auction.
Bidders filled the South Florida Expo Center for the 2009 Barrett-Jackson car auction.
The hands-on auction-house chief and car collector said that, despite the bad economy, only about half a dozen cars were considered "cheap."
Jackson said Oldsmobile 442 "muscle cars" from the 1960s and '70s, along with "resto-mods" (older cars close to their original appearances but fitted with late-model chassis components, drive trains and conveniences), are "must haves." Uber-wealthy investors with Ferraris and Bugattis, along with a group of NFL players who attended the Palm Beach auction, have taken an interest in these "affordable" cars.
The only foreign-built offerings to draw six-figure bids included a 1958
XK150 S Roadster and three beautifully restored
, completed specifically for the auction. They prompted spirited bidding wars, much to the delight of the non-buying crowd. Those who question the investment value of cars should consider that the immediate profit margin on at least one of these vehicles was in excess of $60,000.
The high prices were a disappointment for bargain-hunter Bob Morris from Virginia, who only recently became a collector but has already purchased 20 vehicles, including a
Darrin, an Austin-Healey 100 and a Jaguar XK-150 S.
Morris said too many bidders get carried away with emotion, but his strategy is based on knowing what he's prepared to pay and sticking to it. He looks for investment-grade vehicles he can drive and isn't afraid to put some miles on his purchases before restoring them to "concours" condition. Following his own guidelines, Morris bought a bargain-priced restoration
TR-4A for $37,000 when the bidding stalled.
Typical of many car enthusiasts of somewhat more ordinary means who are loyal to Barrett-Jackson auctions is Cheryl Muhr of the Denver suburb of Littleton. Along with her husband, John, she has been regularly attending the firm's giant Scottsdale, Arizona, auctions, the world's largest, since 2002.
At the couple's first Palm Beach auction, Cheryl stayed close to the couple's fiberglass-bodied Corvette-powered 1933 Ford roadster, answering technical questions from prospective bidders. In the best tradition of a car salesperson, she assured prospects that it was only because of the high grass on which it was parked that it looked as if the car's nose would scrape the pavement on bumps.
The Muhrs acquired their hot rod three years ago at the Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale auction for $47,000 and late last year decided to replace it with a "muscle car" of more recent vintage where they could join groups with similar vehicles on "power trips."
Prospective bidders told the Muhrs that their roadster would likely fetch between $38,000 and $70,000. But the actual bidding stalled in the mid-$30s before a couple of competing buyers gradually lifted it into the low-$40s. The action slowed again until the auctioneer cajoled them to the mid-$40s, at which point his rapid-fire monolog couldn't coax them any higher.
Asked how they felt about giving up her roadster for $45,000, Cheryl Murh said because she sold it through Barrett-Jackson, she was confident it would find a home with a true car lover. The Muhr's main interest at that point was in planning a strategy to buy a muscle car --probably at a Barrett-Jackson auction.
Richard Widows is a senior financial analyst for TheStreet.com Ratings. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, Widows was senior product manager for quantitative analytics at Thomson Financial. After receiving an M.B.A. from Santa Clara University in California, his career included development of investment information systems at data firms, including the Lipper division of Reuters. His international experience includes assignments in the U.K. and East Asia.