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How to Buy a Collectible Car

The man behind one of the world’s largest vintage-auto auctions talks tips, trends and celebrities

“I get asked this all the time: ‘What kind of car should I buy?’” says Craig Jackson, chairman and CEO of leading auction company Barrett-Jackson. He typically responds by asking more questions, he says: “What do you like? What do you want to use it for? Don’t go buy a 100-point car if you just want a nice fun car to go drive, because you’re going to be paranoid about getting door-dings if you park it in a parking lot. You’re going to get paranoid about it getting wet. And rightfully so.”

1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II Kellner Cabriolet

As Jackson explains, sitting beside his wife, Carolyn, “Car collecting is broad. We sell great vintage racecars—some of the most significant cars out of the ‘50s. But if you want to enter the Mille Miglia, well, there are certain cars that are eligible.” 

The Jacksons were in town to talk about the 45-year-old company’s annual flagship auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, which attracts some 250,000 automotive aficionados. Hundreds of thousands of cars and over $1 billion have traded hands at the event over the years. Last year, Craig oversaw the sale of late racecar driver and automotive designer Carroll Shelby’s Cobra, for $5.5 million. 

1965 Shelby 289 Cobra Roadster CSX2495

“Do you have a family?” continues Craig, listing a few of the many considerations someone in the market for a vintage vehicle needs to make before raising their paddle. “Is the family going to be in the car? Well, you probably want to get a ‘50s convertible or something that’s big, roomy. It all goes back to: What did you want as a kid—what have you always aspired to own? Are you an empty nester? Do you want a European sports car? Then we start going into price range, but I always tell people to buy the best car they can afford. Buy a car that has the best provenance.”

Some of the most noteworthy cars that will go on the block at this year’s auction, which runs from January 23 – 31, include a 1947 Talbot-Lago T-26 Worblaufen Cabriolet, 1950 Ferrari 195 S, 1963 Pontiac Catalina Super Duty “Swiss Cheese,” and a single-lot series of museum-quality VIN 001 Corvettes from 1955, 1956 and 1957.

1950 Ferrari 195 S Inter Superleggera

What are some of the most sought-after vintage car types nowadays? According to Jackson, “the biggest run has been European sports cars,” but there are some burgeoning categories, too. These include ‘50s convertibles and pickup trucks. 

How about vintage station wagons? “Oh, yes—Vista Cruisers!” Jackson exclaims, bringing up an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which host Jerry Seinfeld takes Sarah Jessica Parker for a spin in a 1976 Ford Country station wagon. 

“Every time I see one, it takes you back. I just love them!” says Carolyn. 

“Eighties cars are coming into their own these days…Smokey and the Bandit,” Craig says. “Trans Ams, Japanese cars, for those who grew up with those—[Datsun] 240Zs are becoming popular.”

“People love movie cars,” Carolyn says.

“We’re selling Frankie Muniz’s first car,” Craig explains, nodding. “He bought it the day he turned 16 with money from his first paycheck for Malcolm in the Middle. He bought one of the Fast & Furious cars.” 

“It’s signed by Paul Walker,” Carolyn adds. 

According to the couple, the annual action has hosted more than its fair share of celebrities over the years. 

1953 Delahaye 235 Saoutchik

“First year [pro golfer] Bubba Watson comes to the auction, he ends up buying the General Lee, and drives it to the Phoenix Open hittin’ on the horn. And if you’ve ever watched The Dukes of Hazzard, it plays ‘Dixie,’” Jackson recalls, noting that proceeds from the sale of that lot went to a charity, Birdies for the Brave. “So he makes a pretty big splash doing that.”

All the talk of famous attendees reminds Carolyn of some fame-related excitement at Scottsdale last year, when in a VIP area where Sharon Stone was located, a bidder suddenly passed out. 

“It was sad,” Carolyn says, “you just heard this thud.” Fortunately for the woozy event-goer, Stone’s sister, Kelly, didn’t miss a beat and leapt to the rescue.  

“She gets on the floor and screams, ‘Sharon! Sharon!’ And she throws her bag—she has this beautiful bag, I believe it was couture, this feather dress—and she has the back of this guy’s head,” recalls Carolyn. “She kept saying to this guy, ‘Stay with me!’” When the man finally came to and everyone realized he’d be fine, Stone “walks over, with this great voice,” and says to Craig, “You’re going to need to buy me a drink.”