“Andwearestartingoffattenthousandtenthousand… tenthousanddollARS. Eleven? Eleventhousandelevendthousandd… Twelve! Twelvethousanddollars. Who else? Do I hear thirteen?Thirteenthousand?Thirteenthousand? Once. Twice… One more time… SOLD!”
This constant rhythm of words is pumped through the loudspeakers for hours on end, the cadence of money exchanging hands. This was the sound that I heard going through the tunnel entering the Indiana State Fairgrounds arena. Usually home to the Indianapolis semi-pro hockey team, the building was turned into a auction stage for the week.
The largest touring auction series in the United States, the Mecum show has been coming to Indianapolis for 31 years. They have a total of 14 stops on their tour and touch all corners of the US of A. Every Mecum event is televised live on NBC Sports and it is easy to see the entertainment value.
Mecum proudly states that they have the most stops on their tour; the most collector cars offered at auction, the most cars sold at auction and the most dollar volume of sales.
The Indianapolis stop alone is a six-day extravaganza. They feature 300 cars a day minimum for sale in order to show all 2,000+ lots that have been consigned.
“There are no restrictions,” said a seller named Michael in a vaguely east- coast- style accent. “I make my living selling cars at these things — primarily Volkswagens. That’s my little Bug right there!” Nestled between an impossibly tall 2000s Ford F150 and a brutish 1960s Ford Mustang was his little cherry-red Bug.
“This is my 21st car this weekend for sale. I have sold 13 of da ones I brought. Whatever I don’t sell, we ship home. You see — mine have a reserve.” He leans over and points to a yellow sticker centered at the top of the windshield. “That there means that I, as the teller won’t take home any less than THAT amount. When one of my cars is up for sale, I can stand up there with the auctioneer. If no one is biddin’ at my asking price here, I can give him the nod. That tells him that I’ll take anything for it- just to not have to pack it up and take it home. He tells the crowd that the reserve is off- and the biddin’ really starts.”
Unlike Barrett- Jackson auctions, Mecum does not have any parameters of what types of cars people can put up for sale. No restriction of year, make, model, rarity, or current condition makes for a cornucopia of options. Buyers can be anywhere from the Average Joe who pick up a car for fun, to serious collectors looking for diamonds. Sit in the auction arena for 20 minutes and you will see a varied array of items come up for bid and hundreds of thousands of dollars- if not millions- change hands.
Part of the excitement comes from the randomness of what is put up for sale. “Sellers pick which stop they want to sell at based on the market of that city,” explained one of the traveling Mecum security staff. “Trucks you want to sell at the Kansas City or the Houston stops. Exotics go better in LA or Kissimmee (FL).”
Sellers can put one lot up for sale or many. The collection that captured my attention was the Jim Street Estate.
James Skonzakes, better known by the moniker Jim Street, bankrolled the legendary car customizer George Barris to make a dream car in the early 1950s. The ultimate result was the Golden Sahara II. After the second round of modifications, Street invested over $75,000 (equivalent to $675,000+ today) in this technological masterpiece. Street used it as a marketing tool and lent the Golden Sahara II to motor events and dealerships to show off the car’s new- age voice control system, remotes that could drive the car and even the self- driving feature. This must have melted the minds of onlookers back in the mid 50’s. Unexpectedly pulled from the show circuit and stashed in a garage for decades, the Golden Sahara II fell into a state of disrepair.
If that piece of rolling art was not enough to capture the imagination, the other lot in the Jim Street Estate collection was “Kookie’s Kar.” Hailed as the “catalyst that started the T-Bucket Craze” this car is the definition of a classic hot rod. You might have heard of it from the TV show “77 Sunset Strip” though it has undergone an extensive re-customization since then. Also stashed from public eyes for decades, both lots were put up for bid with no reserve to begin with- it would be completely at the digression to the pool of buyers what they wanted to pay for it. Estimates were between $100,000 – $1.2 million each. It all depends on who has the money and how bad they want to take either car home.
Though the lineup of cars is seemingly random, it is clear that Saturday’s lots are the top shelf items. A collection of Ford GTs, a group of cars being sold by baseball icon Reggie Jackson and others will join the Golden Sahara II and Kookie’s Kar.
Cars are displayed in groups organized by which day they will be put up for sale. In the morning they are rolled to a big screening / staging area where buyers and people representing buyers give the cars one last look over.
“I call them Flashlight Commandos” laughs Michael, “likely is that if their boss wants my car, they will have picked it out in the catalog already and they are making sure that it doesn’t leak or nothin’.”
Once past staging, the car is driven up to the queue and given a last wipe down. The handlers cut the engine and manually push it on stage. All the while, an auctioneer is hammering words a mile a minute until it is time.
“Okayfolks. ABeetle. ABeetle. LotW201.” The auctioneer lists the car’s stats, make, model, and asking price then recites the bill of sale in one breath. The bidding starts. Teams of Mecum employees are dispersed throughout the crowd of bidders. Referred to as Ringmen, they are in charge of relaying if someone in their section wants to place a bid. To alert the auctioneer when they have an interested buyer, the Ringmen holds up fingers to represent how many thousand dollars and gives a short yell. Every time a desirable car is on the auction block, these Ringmen sound like a chorus of squawking birds until the price is driven up to draw out the top buyer.
“Once. Twice. SOLD!” The auctioneer hammers down their gavel and the Ringmen let out another shout to celebrate the fact that they just sold another car. If a lot is not desirable, the seller can give notice to take off the reserve price then the crowd practically falls over themselves to get the car at the lowest price possible. This happens for hours on end without let up. The energy level is incredible, and it is hard to understand without being there in person. Auctioneers are the ringmasters but the Ringmen run the show.
As I exit through the tunnel on my way out, the auctioneer is still drumming up the crowd. “What is that?” he yells, “THE RESERVE IS OFF!” I close the door behind me just as I hear a loud cheer from the crowd.