Arizona 2020: One on one with Leake’s Gary Bennett

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Gary Bennett

Gary Bennett knows the car business. The car business knows Gary Bennett. Spanning four decades, the Tulsa, Oklahoma native – primarily an architect – has always been around cars. His passion led him to become the vice president of consignments for Barrett-Jackson and, along with his long flowing hair, a recognizable icon in the collector car world.

Upon his retirement from the famed auction company, he began doing work and philanthropy for the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer. It remains a passion, but the car business came calling again.

Bennett happily came back, and now runs the Leake Auction Company for Ritchie Brothers, a heavy-equipment auction behemoth and most recently, the owner of Leake. The Leake Auction will pitch its tents during Arizona Auction Week 2020 for its January 15-19 sale at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, just east of south Scottsdale.

We had a very insightful conversation with the auction veteran about television, new cars that appreciate, big speedos, restomods and what drives prices today – you may be surprised by the answers.

Gary at home with his ’65 Stingray. | Muffy Bennett photo

Tom Stahler: What would you say were the two most significant paradigm shifts that you have observed in the business over the past 20 years?

Gary Bennett: I think the most important thing that’s happened in the entire industry, business, hobby, depending on where you’re coming from and how you feel about it, has been the television component. Back in the day, this was pretty much a dealer to dealer thing. They were a few individuals that got wind of what it was and they would come to these auctions.

I’m speaking about Scottsdale specifically and the hobby, but once the television component became a piece of this, which happened in 1996 (with Barrett-Jackson), it was an opportunity to create awareness to what this hobby really was. It introduced it to, what I’m going to refer to as neophytes, people that weren’t in the car business, they didn’t even know they were car enthusiasts, until they’d seen that spectacle on television.

It started off with just a couple of hours on television, and then it went from that to more hours. Then when one of the auction houses (Barrett-Jackson) went all no reserve in ’04, the television ratings were so good, they increased the hours to where they started having some of them as many as 40 hours. The only thing that had more television broadcast time than the collector car world, was the Olympics when they rolled around every four years. Is that crazy?

Because what that really did for the hobby was it brought in end users. It really made a difference because those guys came in, and gals, came in and bought the cars so they could take them home. That made them retail buyers, and as a result, the values went up.

It’s an emotionally driven business. The people that are buying these cars are either reliving something they’d experienced as a younger different time in their life, or maybe something they remember from their childhood, their parent’s car or their first car, or the car they had to sell when they got married and had kids coming, or the car they could never afford. All of that. That’s where the retail buyer by such an important role. That’s one of the reasons why the variety of the cars has changed so much as well

Tom: That’s a keen observation. A number of the cars that you’re selling are going to be some very high-dollar cars. What cars in your wheelhouse do you see that are going to be the next trend?

Gary: Everyone would like to know what that is because we all look forward to the future, and if we all knew that we’d go buy those cars today and we’d have them, so when that came around, we could make a little money if that’s what we were interested in doing.

Tom: I wish I had a warehouse full of (Ferrari) 308 GTS.

Gary: Tom, everybody does. That’s one of the things you’ll find about me. I’m going to take you off in a different direction for a minute, just say this, nobody in my lifetime can imagine you being able to go buy a brand-new car, and have it be worth more money the next day. Then what you paid for it that day. That’s a phenomenon that’s happening in the marketplace in 2019, ‘18, ‘17, even as I think as early as ‘15 with some of the Ferraris.

Porsche. Look at what Porsche has done. It’s crazy when you think about some of these supercars you go buy one for a stupid amount of money, and the minute you own it, it’s worth more stupid money. It, phenomenal to me.

But I think what happens, it’s always been my opinion, people talk about cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s becoming less popular as the baby boomers age out of that part of this, and, I would argue that’s not true. I was born in the ‘40s. I love cars from the ‘50s. I grew up with them. I had cars in the ‘60s. Then the ‘70s came and the ‘70s were such a disappointing decade because federal mandates and insurance companies got in the business and they just changed it all. Five-mile-an-hour bumpers. EPA. DOT. The insurance companies killed several car brands.

In my opinion, the cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s are loved by generations from the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and the’ 80s. Think about that. There are only two generations of cars for people to be in love with and there are five generations, I just talked about.

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Tom: That’s true. Interesting point.

Gary: I think we’re a long way away from people falling out of love with ‘50s and ‘60s cars. I think the biggest threat is that you can go buy a 755-horsepower car today, and so when you get on a really cool ’69 302 Z28 Camaro, it only has about a third of that horsepower.

What do you want? Do you want that nostalgia, or do you want that performance? Well guess what’s happened. Let’s go buy a ’69 Camaro, put a LS7 in it with an LS7 drivetrain.

We’ve all gotten so accustomed to the reliability and the dependability of today’s drivetrains and automobiles, fuel injection, computer controls and all that, well, these cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s had carburetors. When they were born every one of them was different. They all have their idiosyncrasies. There was a certain way to start every one.

Some of these cars you had to get in it and you had to lift your left butt cheek up, you had to turn the turn signal up halfway to the right, you had to pump the gas pedal three times, and then finally push it to the floor, pump it three times, turn to the right, and it would always start. If you didn’t do that, it wasn’t going to start you. Silly as that sounds, that’s really the way it was.

Gary Bennett has spent many years in the Arizona Desert | Leake Auction photo

Tom: Indeed. I remember trying to start cars that way.

Gary: The marriage between the older style, which is the car, the nostalgia look that everybody loves so much, and the contemporary drivetrains is what’s created this amazing world called resto-mods. It’s not a bad thing. Not a bad world to be in.

Tom: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen the resto-mods do a whole lot better going across the block than many of the original cars.

Gary: I couldn’t agree more. In some ways as a purist, I like to think that’s what I am, it’s heartbreaking. I say that but coming from the right place, I think, in that one of the things that’s happening, Tom, is that technology’s marching so quickly that unfortunately that resto-mod that was built today is likely to be outdated in three years.

As a result, the engine in, you can buy one with another 200 horsepower. It’s just going to become dated. Used to be, you could build a car and it would be really cool for 10 or 15 years. Today, with the technology marching like it is, all of that’s changing so quickly.

When it comes to the real cars, when I say that, the numbers matching correct, judged, period, correct, everything about it, those cars, they’re either dated, and that’s what makes them cool, or they’re never going to change, which keeps them cool, if you will.

There’s two very different schools of thought, and neither one of them are wrong. I’m like you. I’m going to use an example, I’ve seen a ’62 NCRS, absolutely numbers matching, beautiful, fantastic Corvette, go for less than half of the ’62 Corvette resto-mod. Welcome to the new world.

Tom: That leads to another question. Has the demographic of the auctions changed yet? Do you see the boomers selling while Gen X and millennials are starting to come in the door? Obviously, the Gen Xers and the millennials are probably the ones that could be driving the resto-mods.

Gary: They are. That’s part of it. There’s nothing wrong with some of the cars that some of them love. I’m going to take us into the ’90s now. I mentioned the ‘70s and ‘80s were a pretty dull time. Now, there were some really cool European things made all that time in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There was actually a whole marketplace that was created called the ‘gray market’ back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where people in the United States were importing European cars that weren’t available over here because it didn’t meet those EPA and DOT mandates by the federal government.

They were bringing them over here and all of them, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, awesome cars. That was going on. That was scratching some of that itch, if you will. But in 1990 something amazing happened. That was the introduction of the ZR-1 Corvette.

Nothing like that had ever happened before. A 375-horsepower engine designed by Lotus, built by Mercury Marine, and put in a Corvette. Then 1992, something else happened, the (Dodge) Viper came. Holy cow. More horsepower. The horsepower race started and nobody ever really realized it happened until after that had happened.

Think of the (Acura) NSX that came out in the ‘90s. There were some incredible cars made in the ‘90s. God bless them. We’re now in a horsepower race that we never experienced even. We saw that we had so many limitations of the cars in the ‘60s primarily because of technology. They tolerances couldn’t be held like they can today, CNC machines, you know what I’m saying. It’s just a different world.

I’ve got some cars over in Nevada, the Staluppi Collection, that are amazing restorations. Amazing pieces of history. That you almost need a gas truck to follow you around when you’re driving them, because they’re going to use so much fuel. That’s just the way they were back then.

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Tom: Absolutely. The old adage, it’ll pass everything but a gas station.

Gary: That’s exactly right, Tom. Think about that though. That gets back to that was a price we paid by not having cool cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Tom: But for example, when I drive and review new cars, I certainly feel in this day and age, it’s like being an art critic during the Renaissance. Because, you’re right, the cars are so good.

Do I like the design of modern cars? Not many of them honestly. Once again, that’s government-mandated bumpers and ride heights and everything based on how a body hits it, if you run somebody over. But the initial quality of the cars is just amazing. You’re absolutely right about that.

However, sitting in a 1960s-era Porsche, air-cooled, 911, feeling a car the way it was meant to feel period, correct in the time, that’s still a magical experience, too.

Gary: It is. I couldn’t agree with you more. You know what’s really great about what we’re doing here, Tom, and what’s about to happen here in January? Is that because we all have different feelings, you and I are on the same page, but not everybody agrees with what you just said, but I do. Having said that, we’re going to offer up, collectively, all these different auctions around the Valley, are going to offer up something for everyone.

I believe that’s so important when you’re putting on one of these events. I’ve had people criticize auction houses because they didn’t have more inexpensive cars. Well, I think you need to have inexpensive cars. I grew up in a family. My father was a letter carrier. My mother worked in a bank. We didn’t have any money. When I got my first car, I had to sell it to buy my next car. I had to sell that car to buy my next car. We weren’t in a position to keep anything, and weren’t buying new cars either.

I think one of the most amazing things that I’ve experienced, personally, was watching Ford Motor Company build the 2005-2006 Ford GT. How close that comes to what the original GT40 was. When you look at the two cars, and you and I both know because of the world we live in, the compromises that the manufacturers have to make to meet those federal mandates, to meet what the public is willing to pay for something, there’s all those things have to be taken into consideration, and then to try to do what they were able to do and it was as good as it was, in and as pretty as it was, and looked much like those ‘65, ‘66, and ’67 GT40s, isn’t that amazing?

Tom: It was. Well, I do enjoy a lot of the retro designs that have come out as far as the new cars go. We all know how that was targeted. That was a baby boomer targeting of being able to get a very similar car to the ones you grew up loving.

The retro designs are really cool. I like them. But then there’s the new cars and all these SUVs that are on the road. I go to the LA Auto Show and for the past several years, I am very bored.

Gary: You know what that’s about? The SUVs and stuff, they are boring. At the end of the day what that’s all about is back to that baby boomer thing. They’re popular so today for a couple of real basic reasons, I think. The people that are buying them are used to big, first of all. Secondly, they’re easy to get in and out of. When you look at them, and again, as a baby boomer, I think I’m qualified to say this, the only thing in my lifetime that’s been geared toward my generation. Literally. Whether it’s clothing, cars, whatever it is, and in many ways it still is.

I’m going to use a crazy example. Look at how big the speedometer and the letters are in the new car you buy today. We can’t see it. We can’t see anything anymore. (Laughs)

Tom: That’s true. Yeah. There is sure a boom in retirement communities, isn’t there?

Gary: Yes, there is. You know what’s really cool? The manufacturers are paying attention to, and they always have, they never lost sight of that. They were building those cool cars in the ‘60s because there were kids coming out buying cars, parents were giving them money after the World War. God bless the greatest generation, which was my parents. That generation. They made sure that everything in our life was better than what they had.

I remember days back in the ‘50s, Tom, when the dealerships, they’d bring the cars in at night so you couldn’t see them, and they’d cover the windows of the showrooms. Every town, their dealers would have their own unveiling, if you will.

Every year, every model was different. When you think about it, that’s just ridiculous from a cost standpoint as a manufacturer. The retooling expenses and all that stuff. But wasn’t that a cool time? That’s another reason that those cars, I think, still remain so popular. Because a ’57 Ford is so different than a ’58 and it’s so different than a ’59.

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Tom: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to tell a Honda from a BMW in traffic these days. That aspect has really changed, which makes the specialty and special-interest car market that much more exciting.

Which leads to my final question for you, which is from the crystal ball that you obviously keep in your office, how bullish or bearish are you on the next two years after the perceived market adjustment of the last two and what happened, I guess you could say, in Monterey last year?

Gary: I think that Monterey, when people talk about the declining marketplace they’re talking about, this is my opinion, it’s all it is, I think it’s based on some justifiable facts, the decline is in the multiple six-figure and seven-figure cars. The decline is not in the $80,000 to the $25,000 cars. Those cars are still being bought. They’re still being paid great money for.

But I do think when it comes to buying cars for seven figures, that market’s really changed. If you look at what Monterey reflects, that’s where that market is. I’m disappointed in people that came out with those numbers for Monterey. Some of them had their own agenda, because they’re in a business where if the values are higher, it’s better for their business.

That the speculation when they say, we’re going to have a $400 million sale here in Monterey in 2019, and it only came in at $278, or whatever that number. Well, the cars that didn’t sell were the multi-million-dollar cars.

Well, time and reality, how many people first of all can afford a multi-million-dollar car? Then you take that down to the essence and say, how many of you want to buy that particular car that has that kind of money? You could put that guy in a phone booth by himself today.

As a result, I think the bloom’s off that rose. I’m not saying those cars aren’t still valuable, but I think some of these numbers were; I actually would question the reality of some of those numbers. Are they really happening? Nobody knows. I’ve tried to find the buyer of a couple of those cars, I can’t. I understand the need to maybe be anonymous, but my God, you’d think that somebody that’s paying that kind of money for cars wouldn’t mind somebody knowing who they were. If it really happened.

Tom: Well, Gary, that was a loaded question. I knew the answer. I just wanted to hear your version of it, to be honest, because there were eight-figure cars that sold the year before that frankly would erase 50 percent of the deficit that Monterey experienced. But, of course, everybody’s yelling doom and gloom. That’s the funny thing. You said something interesting. There were people who you felt would profit from casting that doom and gloom.

Gary: Yes sir. Absolutely. If you were in the insurance business, wouldn’t you like to keep the values of the cars higher, because the premiums would be higher?

Tom: Yeah, until they crash it and I got to pay it out.

Gary: There you go. And what’s the likelihood? Most of those cars aren’t being driven very much, are they?

Tom: Yeah, that’s a very good point. Well, interestingly, I think that the fact that one of the leading automotive journals and magazines right now is in the hands of Hagerty.

Gary: Imagine that.

Tom: I know. Isn’t that crazy? When you insure the cars and control the media. Sounds like big-time politics to me, doesn’t it?

Gary: It does indeed. But you know what? In a way, I see that as a compliment. I say that because I’ve been active in this hobby since 1971. As a participant, I’d have a car and I’d drive it from Tulsa, Oklahoma, out to one of the auctions. Kruse was the first auction out here in Scottsdale, in Arizona. Then Barrett Jackson came on after Kruse.

But I used to drive my car out here, I’d put in an auction, hope I sold it. If I did, I’d buy another car and drive it back home. That’s how basic this was back then. I was a car guy. Wasn’t in the car business. I just loved cars. What I really liked was I could drive a cool car for a year, and then sell it, buy another cool car, and drive it for a year, and that kind of thing.

But where I’m going with this is talking about insurance companies buying magazines that support all that stuff. That’s validation of how significant this hobby has grown into something very viable. There’s no doubt some people make money doing this. I will tell you that I’ve never bought a car because I bought it to make money. I bought it because I loved it and I wanted it.

If it was worth more money when I got done with it, that was a bonus. If it was worth less than I paid for it when I got ready to sell it and sold it, that was the cost of that experience. I was okay with that.

Now there are people make a living doing this. There’s nothing wrong with that either. But I think it’s just so special that this hobby has grown from what I would call a cottage thing to what it is today.

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Tom Stahler is the Managing Editor of the ClassicCars.com Journal. Tom has a lifelong love of cars and motor racing – beginning with the 1968 USRRC race at Road America, in a stroller, at eight months of age. His words, photos and broadcasts can can be found on a myriad of media. He has won the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and a Gold Medal in the International Automotive Media Awards.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very informative article, Tom. I know I speak for Gary when I say he found your interview quite thought-provoking. We hope you’ll find time within your busy schedule to come out and see our auction at Salt River Fields…we’ve got some amazing industry talent, including Spanky and Amy Assiter, of whom are the best in the collector car business.

    Kindest personal regards,

    Muffy Bennett
    Director- New Sector Development (Collector Cars)
    Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers/
    Leake Auctions

  2. Excellent interview that really brought out Gary’s passion and knowledge. Well done!
    (My only involvement in all of this is watching on TV.)

  3. I’ve been in the hobby since 92. I saw Gary many times at Leake over the years but didn’t really meet him until I was out at Barrett Jackson Scottsdale in 06. I knew he was a major player in the hobby/business and frankly I just assumed he was too busy with the heavy hitters, that he would be unapproachable to small timers like myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Gary is a great guy and very down to earth. I didn’t even know he was a local Tulsa boy until we had our first conversation that day. I want to echo what he said about buying a car not to make money but because he liked it and wanted it. If I make a few bucks on a car, that’s a bonus. But the only reason I ever sell one is to make room for another one that I’d rather have at that time. I love these old icons of history, and to me they will never go out of style. I collect them because they are just plain cool and a blast to drive! Great article, and have fun in Scottsdale Gary.

  4. I’ve met Gary many times when he was at Barrett and he and his wife Muffy are the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He knows more about cars than most of us will learn in a lifetime. Best of luck at your auction. I’m sure you and the team will knock it out of the park!

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