Editor’s note: Barrett-Jackson finally gets to celebrate its 50th anniversary collector car auction this month, delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Interviews with Craig Jackson resulted in this history of the company.
Russ and Nellie Jackson met while working in a department store in Michigan, but she was fired when they started dating — a violation of store employee rules. He convinced her to go to business school and she did, graduating to a job in cost-accounting at Fisher Body.
But again, she was fired — this time because they got married and Fisher banned its female employees from being married.
There was a solution, however. The Jacksons started their own businesses in Pontiac, Michigan: Russ’ Country Store next door to Nellie’s women’s and children’s wear.
Nellie suffered from arthritis, and the couple frequently took winter vacations to the soothing climate of Scottsdale, Arizona. Doctors suggested she’d be more comfortable living full time in the desert, so they packed up their sons — 14-year-old Brian and 1-year-old Craig – and drove west in the 1934 Cadillac V12 Opera coupe Russ that had saved from a junkyard, and a brand-new 1960 Cadillac.
Note that Russ drove to Arizona in a classic car. He had wanted to be an automotive engineer, and had spent three years studying at the General Motors Institute until, as Nellie put it, “calculus got him.” Although he couldn’t create new cars, Russ loved old ones that he collected and restored.
A month after the Jacksons’ arrival in Scottsdale, Tom and Bonnie Barrett and their children arrived in town from Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Barrett had taken car collecting to a new level and during his lifetime, he would buy and sell thousands of them.
Not long after arriving in Scottsdale, Barrett advertised for sale a 1933 Cadillac V16 Town Car. Russ Jackson took a look. He didn’t buy, but the Barretts and the Jacksons bonded over old cars and their new hometown.
In the fall of 1967, the Jacksons and the Barretts hosted a parade and car show to raise funds to buy books for the Scottsdale library that was under construction. Their Fiesta de los Auto Elegantes became an annual fund raiser, first for the library and then for Scottsdale’s new art center.
In the late summer of 1971, Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett were among the car collectors who traveled to Auburn, a farming community in northeast Indiana, where farmer-turned-auctioneer Russell Kruse and his family were staging a collector car auction to support the local Chamber of Commerce’s classic car show.
Returning to Scottsdale, Jackson and Barrett decided to host their own auction as part of a New Year’s weekend celebration. They brought in the Kruses as auctioneers. Barrett consigned 50 cars from his collection, Jackson entered 25, and other owners submitted another 75.
Barrett’s consignment included two former Hitler staff cars, and their sale, for auction-record figures, drew coverage from CBS television.
Craig Jackson, who would become chairman and chief executive of the auction company, recalls that his father and Tom Barrett planned their sale as a one-off event. Craig was a pre-teen, assigned by his father to the trash crew, driving a golf cart pulling a bin into which trash cans were emptied.
As it turned out, the auction wasn’t a merely a one-off.
“It was so successful that Barrett went out and started buying cars again,” Craig Jackson recalled.
So a year later, a second Scottsdale auction was held, and then a third, etc. During the oil crisis, young Craig Jackson’s job was to drive a Datsun pickup with 10 gas cans in its bed from the auction site to a nearby Chevron station, and then to wait in line so they could be filled so the cars on auction could be refueled.
With gasoline in limited supply. Jackson remembers consignors syphoning out fuel after delivering their cars to the auction site.
In those early years, the auction was held at the Safari Resort in Scottsdale, but by 1977 it had outgrown that facility and moved to Phoenix Municipal Stadium, a spring-training baseball complex where 800 cars crossed the block.
But even that venue proved too small by the end of the 1980s. So the auction moved back to Scottsdale, to a new and large equestrian facility called HorseWorld (later to become WestWorld).
The event continued to grow, by now with Brian Jackson in charge. Tom Barrett, considered to be the godfather of the collector car hobby, and honored by the Classic Car Club of America with his name on the club’s museum building in Michigan, retired in 1994.
Russ Jackson lost his battle with cancer the day after the auction was held in 1993, and two years later, Brian fell ill while attending Monterey Car Week in northern California. Six weeks later, his life also was taken by cancer, just two months before the 1996 Barrett-Jackson auction which would celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. In addition to mourning his brother’s unexpected death, Craig was recuperating himself after being badly injured in an off-road motorcycle crash.
While Brian was running the auction company, Craig had been restoring cars, most notably a 1948 Figoni et Falachi-bodied Delahaye that his parents bought on vacation in Europe, and which arrived in Scottsdale in a series of boxes. After Craig’s restoration, the Delahaye would score a perfect 100 at the Classic Car Club of America Grand Classic show in 1987.
Craig also had turned into something of an early computer geek, putting together the company’s first computerized accounting system in the mid-1980s.
Just as collectors such as Don Williams, Leo Gephart and Rick Cole had helped the Barretts and Jacksons in the early years of the auction, such long-time customers as Steve Davis and Gary Bennett, along with Williams, helped Craig Jackson in his leadership transition. Davis became Barrett-Jackson’s president and has held that title for many years.
Craig not only got the auction exposed on live television, but expanded it from a car event to a lifestyle exposition.
Motivated by a customer survey he had received from Marriott hotels, Jackson sent a similar survey to Barrett-Jackson customers.
“I read every one of them,” he said. “There was a theme to them.”
Actually, a couple of themes. One was a perception that it was consigning collector car dealers and their minimum but secret sales prices, known as reserves, rather than the bidders, who wanted cars to be sold regardless of the amount of the high bid, who had the most influence.
Another was that if people were interested in a car crossing the block in the morning and another much later in the day, they wanted something to do in between. For many, attending the auction was a winter break, and they wanted their wives to take part as well.
In response, cars increasingly were offered without reserves, the docket itself evolved from the standard classics to more contemporary/post-war cars that appealed to a younger audience, and Barrett-Jackson expanded on-site food offerings, added fashion shows and a lifestyle expo where a variety of objects could be purchased.
The changes enhanced the experience of those attending the Scottsdale sale, but putting the auction on television greatly expanded its audience.
It started in the mid-199os with a tape-delayed episode on the Financial News Network. It was about that same time that Roger Werner, one of the founders of ESPN, was starting his own cable network, Speedvision. Werner, who had bought cars at Barrett-Jackson, saw the FNN coverage and wanted the auction as an anchor event for his new network.
Car care-product producer Barry Meguiar saw the potential and signed on as an early sponsor for those programs. With changes in the television industry, the auction’s home would shift, most recently to A&E Networks’ History Channel and FYI.
With the auction exposed on the internet and on television, there not only was a new audience for Barrett-Jackson, but for the entire collector car hobby and the industry that supports it. Like Monterey Car Week or the annual Hershey Fall event, Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale became a must-attend event for the car community.
After a quarter-century on television, Jackson notes that there is an entire generation that has grown up watching the auction and now is coming to Scottsdale to bid.
Not only was the auction attracting new people, but they were interested in a more diverse docket of cars than the traditional pre-war classics. Barrett-Jackson was among the first to make a transition from pure classics to include muscle cars, hot rods and customs on its docket. The auction helped to promote the resto-mod phenomenon, vintage vehicles redone with modern powertrains, air conditioning, and features such as Bluetooth to make them more enjoyable to drive.
The auction also attracted celebrities; Craig Jackson recalls looking out from the block one year and seeing fashion designer Ralph Lauren in the audience, bidding on a Ferrari GTO. Since then, celebrities — including former President George W. Bush — have been invited onto the block, often because they are the consignors of vehicles up for bidding.
“Jay Leno called the auction his Super Bowl in a letter to us,” Jackson reports. “That’s quite a complement.”
The auction maintained the tradition that started with those early fund-raising car shows, some of the most dramatic moments on the auction block involved cars being sold to benefit a range of charities. Among those cars were VIN No. 1 vehicles offered up by automakers to support worthy causes. Collectors became eager to bid into seven figures to claim the first car off the assembly line while supporting a charity.
In 2022, the first Chevrolet Corvette Z06 model will be sold at Scottsdale, where Jackson terms the auction docket an unprecedented list of vehicles up for bidding.
In addition to the company maintaining its tradition of auctioning off cars for charity, Craig Jackson has maintained his hands-on vehicle restoration hobby. The new Barrett-Jackson building has a full restoration garage, and he works time into his daily schedule to spend time bending metal or applying paint, he said.
Expansion also involved the Barrett-Jackson footprint. In 2000, Barrett-Jackson staged an auction overseas in conjunction with the historic grand prix races. It also has held auctions in Los Angeles, Palm Beach, Las Vegas, Reno, Connecticut and Texas.
“Every year has had something new,” Craig Jackson recalled. “Early on, its the economy and world events. We had a huge upswing in the late ’80s after Black Friday; everybody ran to hard assets like they are now. We’ve had our ups and downs. The dotcom bubble. 911. The Great Recession. The pandemic. The oil embargo. Hyperinflation.
“We’ve had different types of people. Right now, it is more people who love the cars than who are just in it for a buck. It’s the boomers and also younger people looking for something they’ve grown up watching, watching it with their dads.
As far as having to postpone the 50th anniversary, it has provided Jackson and his team more time to prepare for the party and the people coming with a special docket of cars and attractions.
“The constant is people who want to get away and enjoy life,” Jackson said of Barrett-Jackson and the experience it provides.
“It all comes together at Barrett-Jackson,” he adds. “I just want everyone to have a good time at our 50th.”