The day before yesterday, at the invitation of the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction company, I spent several hours wandering open-mouthed within Ron Pratte’s immaculately spotless, meticulously displayed car and automobilia collection, which is housed in a large, hangar-style structure in a private airpark at Chandler, Arizona.
As you know, Pratte is selling his collection of more than 140 cars and some 1,500 pieces of automobilia next month at Barrett-Jackson’s 44th annual Scottsdale auction.
However, you may not be aware that while building thousands of homes in Arizona and Nevada, Pratte was collecting neon signs and gas globes and such and was hiding them away in semi trailers. Then, after selling his construction company, he built his personal car collection, and finally this museum-style structure to house those cars, some vintage aircraft, a GM Futurliner Parade of Progress display bus, and his aero- and automobilia.
I say museum-style structure because museums not only store but exhibit their collections. Pratte’s collection has not been open to the public, though I’m told that from time to time he would host private gatherings and charity events.
Pratte may be as generous as he is private. He bought — in many cases, greatly overpaid for — many of his cars as part of Barrett-Jackson charity auctions, and the sale of his Futurliner, a vehicle for which Pratte paid $4.32 million, will benefit the Armed Forces Foundation.
But it’s a pity car enthusiasts from far and wide couldn’t see Pratte’s collection as he has it displayed. I’ve visited car museums on three continents; in addition to a stunning assortment of American production, custom and muscle cars, Pratte has the best collections I’ve seen of gas globes and pedal cars, and perhaps the best collection of neon signs as well.
And soon, this building will be emptied, its contents gone first to WestWorld of Scottsdale and then off to their next owners. Now that I’ve finally gotten to see the collection in the way Pratte himself put it together, I find the sale makes me sad.
After seeing what Ron Pratte has built, and how he has it displayed — on the vast ground floor and throughout a huge mezzanine — I think it would be wonderful if someone would simply call Barrett-Jackson and offer to buy the entire collection as is and to turn this building into a real museum open to the public on some sort of regular schedule, much as Peter Mullin has done with his car collection in Oxnard, California.
Yes, I know, that would mess up the Barrett-Jackson auction schedule, which has been extended by a couple of days just to deal with the volume of Pratte’s collection. But perhaps the new owner would be willing to go ahead with the sale of the Futurliner for charity and the sale of many of the other Pratte cars as well. And I’m sure Barrett-Jackson will have plenty of other vehicles for sale at Scottsdale to fill in any holes the sale of Pratte’s cars might create within this building.
(I also have an alternative purchase plan to suggest: That someone buy all the globes, someone buy all the pedal cars, and someone else buy all the signs, and then use those purchases as the basis for establishing gas-globe, pedal-car and sign museums.)
Like Chandler, Oxnard is neither the center of the automotive universe nor a tourist destination. But for car enthusiasts, it’s the collection that makes the destination. Besides, a lot of people, millions each year, come to the Phoenix area as tourists, so why not a world-class car museum to go along with college and pro football bowl games, spring training baseball, and all the resorts where you can escape cold weather?
Like Mullin — in fact, probably to an even greater extent than Mullin — Pratte has been fastidious, scrupulous, painstaking and beyond finicky in displaying the array of his collection. Just consider the way the gas globes are displayed: Originally, each sat atop a gasoline pump. But to showcase them, Pratte has reversed the brackets that hold the glass hemispheres so they can hang from the mezzanine ceiling and over the part of the first floor covered by the mezzanine, and in precise rows and for as far as the eye can see.
But by the time you read this, it all is being dismantled. I’m grateful I got to see it all while it was all still here. I hope you get to see it all, too, if not during the auction in Scottsdale, then in its future homes, wherever they may be.