Car auctions shift into overdrive

Every January, old-car enthusiasts around the world turn the spotlight on Arizona, and this year, the game is bigger than ever.

With another top-quality Scottsdale auction entering the fray, the Valley now hosts seven collector-car auctions, with six of them held during the same week.

As many as 3,500 special vehicles worth hundreds of millions of dollars will be put up for sale. Some of the cars are certain to run into seven figures. There are auctions for everyone from the gearhead hobbyist selling his restored Mustang to the millionaire collector and celebrity buying one-of-a-kind Ferraris or rare muscle cars.

Headlining the festivities is the sprawling, week-long Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Event, which begins Sunday and runs through Jan. 20. More than 250,000 people attended last year.

Because the Scottsdale auction enjoys the reputation of being the national barometer of collector-car values, its sales are closely watched around the globe. Barrett-Jackson's annual auction of muscle cars, hot rods, sports cars, '50s cruisers, classics or whatever else comes over the block sets the tone and prices for the coming year.

This year, more people will be watching the selling prices because of the downturn of the real estate market, the sinking value of the dollar against foreign currency and the recent softening in prices for American muscle cars, the hottest part of the market for the past few years.

The January 2007 auction reflected the stagnating prices for popular muscle cars of moderate value, about $50,000 to $150,000, so this year could show whether values have reached a tipping point toward decline. Or not.

Last year's Barrett-Jackson also saw the highest price ever paid for an American collector car at auction, $5.5 million for Carroll Shelby's personal 1966 Shelby Cobra 427 "Super Snake" supercharged roadster.

The muscle-car values vary widely depending on the quality and rarity of the cars, said Dave Kinney, veteran collector-car auction watcher and publisher of the Cars That Matter price guide.

"Some of the hard-to-find collectibles have stayed up, and some of the midmarket cars have taken a big hit," Kinney said.

As usual, Barrett-Jackson has responded to the ever-changing landscape of old-car desire by tweaking its mix of auction cars. For instance, there has been an upswing during the past two years in interest and prices for classic cars, the grand pre-World War II automobiles such as Duesenberg, Packard, Bentley and others.

"They've (Barrett-Jackson) changed their mix of cars, which seems to be more classics, less muscle, which is returning to their roots," Kinney said. "It will be interesting to see if they can get the level of excitement back to where it's been on cars that are removed a generation or two from what they've been selling the past few years."

Italian exotics, such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and vintage Alfa-Romeo, are also on the rise, so more of them will be seen on the auction stage, he added. And once again, Barrett-Jackson will have several unique American concept cars, like those sold in recent years for more than $1 million.

With every car at Barrett-Jackson sold on the block at no reserve, which means there is no minimum price to buy, the reverberation of each sale can lift or deflate prices for that type of collector car across the country. Although, sometimes, it's just a case of two guys battling it out over something they both desire.

Such was the case with last year's surprising high result for a 1967 Amphicar, a little oddball craft that can drive on a road or sail in a lake. Two bidders pushed the final sale up to $93,500, more than three times the going rate.

Amphicar owners everywhere rejoiced, and the cars now often appear at major auctions where excellent examples sell in the $50,000-to-$60,000 range, about double the price before the Barrett-Jackson sale.