There’s a pretty good chance you were in the room or watching via live television when Ron Pratte bought Carroll Shelby’s personal 427 Super Snake Cobra… or the 1949 MG TC that was the first car Shelby ever drove in a race… or the gigantic GM Futurliner… or the Pontiac Bonneville, a GM Motorama concept car… or “Chezoom,” the iconic and highly customized ’57 Chevy… or any in a series of special vehicles and first public-sale cars, for which he appeared to be paying way more than they ever might be worth, simply because the money was going to charity.
It was around the middle of the past decade that Pratte suddenly burst onto the classic car auction scene at Barrett-Jackson. And now, it appears he will disappear almost as abruptly, with Barrett-Jackson selling not only more than 140 cars from Pratte’s collection in January at Scottsdale, Arizona, but thousands of pieces of automobilia that Pratte was collecting long before he started accumulating cars.
While he sat front-row center at Barrett-Jackson auctions and became something of a star of televised coverage of those auctions, Pratte remained a very private person. As far as we know, he has done only one media interview, with former NASCAR crew chief, classic and custom car-builder, and television-show host Ray Evernham. That interview is to be televised Saturday, November 15, on the Velocity channel.
Most of what I know about Ron Pratte has come from several interviews in the past few years with Barrett-Jackson chairman Craig Jackson. The most recent of those interviews was last week during the annual SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) Show, where Barrett-Jackson had a booth promoting its Scottsdale auction.
Once upon a time, Pratte worked in a gas station and dreamed of owning the cars that came in for fuel and service. After high school, he started pouring foundations and framing up new houses. His company grew and, at one point, had more than 4,000 employees, who were building as many as 60 houses a day during the building boom in the Phoenix area and in Las Vegas.
But it’s unlikely that any of those employees had any idea that those semi-trailers Pratte had parked in various places were being filled with gas pumps and signs and other automobilia that the boss had been quietly collecting.
I go to a lot of collections… but for American cars, I’ve never seen anything like this,”
— Craig Jackson[/pullquote]
And then Pratte sold his business and, with both time and money, he started adding cars to his collection.
“I go to a lot of collections,” Jackson told me last week. “His collection is pretty diverse, but for American cars, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“The best of the best,” was Jackson’s description.
And it’s not only the span and quality of the cars that has impressed Jackson.
When Pratte built the structure to house his collection near his home in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, he made cardboard templates of every sign that would be hung on the walls, personally positioned those templates and left marks for the electrical contractor so plugs could be positioned behind the signs and out of sight.
Pratte’s attention to detail included making sure the slots at the end of the screws that held those outlets all were aligned in the same direction.
And it was the same with the cars. Just because a car had been restored, that didn’t mean it met Pratte’s standards, so he’d go back through his purchases to make sure everything was the way it should be.
So now that he’s assembled such an amazing and spotless collection, why is Pratte selling?
“He’s a builder,” Jackson said. “He likes building things.”
And after building thousands of houses and an outstanding car collection, Pratte has turned his attention to building an off-road, sand-buggy playground in the dunes near Yuma, in southwestern Arizona, and to properties he’s acquired in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
The consignment of Pratte’s cars and automobilia has led to Barrett-Jackson doing an additional 350-page catalog just covering the Pratte collection and to expanding its Scottsdale auction to nine days.
The 44th annual Barrett-Jackson collector car auction opens Saturday, January 10, when the first round of Pratte automobilia comes up for bidding. That portion of the auction continues Sunday, January 11, and again Monday, January 12, when some 80 cars also will cross the block.
Tuesday, January 13, figures to be the biggest Tuesday in Barrett-Jackson history because 112 cars from the Pratte collection will be sold, many of them as Barrett-Jackson launches its new TV package with the Discovery and Velocity channels. (Jackson said Discovery will show portions of the auction to a global audience. For the first time, he noted, portions of the auction will be broadcast live and in Spanish to Mexico and South America.)
The “main event” collector-car sales continue Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and then on Saturday, January 17, the prime-time show includes both the best of the Pratte collection cars — some 30 of them — and the Barrett-Jackson Salon/Series 5000 of high-end consignments. The auction concludes Sunday, January 18.
In 2006, Pratte paid about $4.32 million for the 1950 Futurliner, which had been part of General Motors’ famed Parade of Progress tour. In 2015, he’s selling that big red bus with all the proceeds going to the Armed Forces Foundation.
While all the money generated from the Futurliner’s sale will go to a worthy charity, Pratte’s ownership already has proven beneficial for the classic car community.
Pratte’s Futurliner is one of a dozen built by General Motors as rolling stages to showcase post-war technological advances. Several of the surviving Futurliners have been or are being restored, and those restorations rely in part on having tires.
Dave Kindig recently completed the restoration of Futurliner No. 3. As part of that process, Kindig needed tires. The vehicle’s owner discovered it would take thousands of dollars just to make the molds needed to produce those tires, which are unique for the Futurliners, and thousands more to actually buy the tires made from those molds.
I talked with Kindig last week. He said he hadn’t been sure what was going to happen with his Futurliner restoration until he received news that Ron Pratte had become involved. Pratte said he’d not only would pay the cost for the molds, but would buy two sets of special tires — one set for his own Futurliner and one set to donate.
Those donated tires are going to the group of volunteers in Michigan who spent seven years restoring Futurliner No. 10. Early next year, Futurliner No. 10 will be displayed at the Washington, D.C., Auto Show and on the National Mall during the Historic Vehicle Association’s “Cars At The Capitol.” Afterward, the historic bus will roll on those tires to its new and permanent home at the National Automotive and Truck Museum of the United States in Auburn, Indiana.