American Muscle

Every motoring enthusiast should visit the Mecum Car Auction – the world’s largest collector car auctioneers 

It is fair to say that out of the 50 states that make up North America, the one that most epitomises the traditional image of the good ol’ U.S. of A., is Texas.

Now, New York may have its sullen, edgy charm and California is a fecund landscape for that special brand of obnoxious cheer unique to people who have had too many ‘medicinal’ cigarettes and sunshine – but it is in Texas that a true portrait of America is found.

Of course, the subjects of that portrait are wearing cowboy boots, wearing ten gallon hats and armed to the hilt.

Stereotypes aside, it was here – more specifically in Dallas – that CALIBRE arrived, fully prepared to leave our British sensibilities behind, in order that we might embrace the best that Texas had to offer us.

Naturally, this included copious amounts of barbecued food, a trip to the shooting range and a visit to a ranch to watch grown men try (and fail) to ride a bull. Yet, these were mere sideshows compared to the main event of our trip, a journey to what could only be described as a car enthusiast’s utopia, the Mecum Car Auction, which had just rolled into Dallas.

Now, when us Brits think of auctions we imagine fairly staid affairs; purple-rinsed queues and tweed-clad men with dubious moustaches getting themselves excited about dusty trinkets that may have once been owned by a relative of the Windsors.

Mecum have become the largest auctioneers of collectable cars in the world

This is certainly not the case with Mecum for they are big business in America. Mecum have become the largest auctioneers of collectable cars in the world and generated $300 million in sales last year. Their origins are more humble, however, starting back in 1988 when Dana Mecum, founder and president of Mecum Auctions, came into possession of some classic American muscle cars, and decided to host an auction for them.

“He invited others to bring their cars to sell as well, and held his first auction at the Rockford, Illinois airport. Unfortunately, a tornado blew through on the day of the auction, knocked down all the tents and trashed the event, costing him thousands of dollars in the process. It was a complete disaster,” explains David Morton, the marketing manager at Mecum Auctions.

“Because of this, though, it made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and got him a great amount of press, putting his name out there.

“A year later he returned and held another auction, and people remembered him from the tornado disaster and turned out in droves. It was a huge success and Mecum Auctions was born from that. We have a lot to thank that tornado for!”

The auctions continued to grow in size, until, in 2008, they made a breakthrough and Mecum auctions began being broadcast on national television. In fact, it has become something of a sport, spurred on by the popularity of shows like Counting Cars and Top Gear.

These broadcasts now attract hundreds of thousands of viewers across the country – something about it has managed to tap into the excitable American psyche.

The show we attended at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas featured over 1,000 cars spread as far as the eye could see, right across this vast exhibition space. Perusing these monuments to American machismo were thousands upon thousands of punters.

This all added to the carnival-like atmosphere the event generates

Some were clearly there just for the experience, with no intention of bidding, but from their excited, shimmering eyes as they ran their hands across the flawless sheen of a Mustang’s paintwork, you could see their inner child pleading with them to spend little Mary-Jane’s college fund.

Others were clearly there to do business, striding purposefully through the lots, popping the odd hood and making a note to return later. This all added to the carnival-like atmosphere the event generates, as this vast cross-section of the American populace are united in their appreciation for these historical artefacts of American manufacturing.

It would be remiss of us to not mention the sheer variety of cars on offer, a veritable feast for those who have a fondness for classic cars. There were immaculate examples of the aforementioned Ford Mustang, including the 1968 GT 390, as immortalised on celluloid by Steve McQueen and that iconic car chase in Bullitt.

CALIBRE also spotted a Plymouth Road Runner, a Pontiac Firebird, and the classic Chevy Camaro. There was even that most famous of American muscle cars, the 1969 Dodge Charger from the cult television show The Dukes of Hazzard.

CALIBRE had been warned by Mr Morton that an American auction has a distinctly different timbre to a British one.

“For those that have never been part of it, the American style of auctioneering is extremely loud and fast paced, all high-powered excitement and BOOM! Selling a car every two minutes across the block,” he yells in his wonderfully charismatic American manner.

“It’s a fast paced sporting event really and it’s very different to the British style of auctioning. It’s a night and day difference.”

With these words of advice lodged firmly in our ears, we entered the auditorium, where thousands of people lined the floors, and thousands more still lined the stands to watch the spectacle.

In a scene reminiscent to The World’s Strongest Man, the cars were pulled out on to the floor by two burly lumps, as the crowd whooped and applauded. A huge television screen displayed the current price of the bid, with the noise from the crowd increasing every time a bid was made.

The auctioneers were truly outrageous larger-than-life characters

And, almost despite ourselves, it was very hard to not get swept up by the sheer spectacle and showmanship.

The auctioneers were truly outrageous larger-than-life characters, whose sole purpose was to fire-up the crowd.

“One of our auctioneers, Jimmy Landis, is quite the showman on the auction block,” says Mr Morton. “He’s entertaining the crowd and you can see the adrenaline coming out of him, especially when he’s got a horse race going: when there are two guys bidding against each other.

“One of my favourite tricks of his is when there is a father bidding and he’s got his son with him. So, he’ll say, ‘Is that your son there?’ And if the guy has stopped bidding, he’ll say to him, ‘Are you gonna teach your son to be a quitter?!’

“More often than not it works and the guy raises his hand and bids again, and the whole crowd just explodes with laughter. It’s all in good fun, it’s not something that anyone takes personally. But, we have a good time and make sure everybody feels included.”

If all this talk of loud American auctions has piqued your interest in making the trip across the pond to visit the Mecum Auction for yourself, it is important to ensure that you go prepared.

“The most important thing is to do your homework and assess,” says Mr Morton. “Keep an eye on what cars are selling for the big bucks here in the States. For example, a ‘67 Mustang in the UK would not bring in as much money as it would here in the US.

“Just like any other type of vehicle, a lot depends on where the car has come from, so its history, the provenance, the originality of the car. All those things come into play when it comes to the price, and to get top dollar for a car it has to have all them components in one before you think about shipping it over.”

So, if you are a motoring enthusiast with a taste for Americana, are simply in the market for a new car, or just want to experience a true taste of larger-than-life American social-spectacle, you just need to ask yourself one question: would you rather spend a packet on a boring, old Ford Focus, or would you rather own a smoking, laying-rubber-on-tarmac, hot rod?

Ask your inner child – they will tell you the right answer.

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Adam Tudor-Lane

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