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Car Collectors Search for Memories

What's driving their obsession to own the classic car of their dreams?

Their desires lead them to places like this: arid and affluent Scottsdale, where the climate is kind to old bones and rust-prone machinery. For the past 41 years Scottsdale has hosted the Barrett-Jackson auction. Nominally a place to buy and sell classic and collectible cars — more than 1,000 vehicles will change hands over the course of this six-day phenomenon, the largest and gaudiest of half a dozen auto auctions in the Phoenix area each January — Barrett-Jackson has transformed itself into a "lifestyle event," a curio-laden celebration of American car culture. On my visit, I often heard the phrase "the Super Bowl of car collecting." Some 270,000 attendees came through the gates of Barrett-Jackson in 2012, drawn by the promise of communing with their automotive what-ifs and never-wases.

Some, like Andy Smith, 67, arrive with a mission. He drove here with his wife, Judi, 66, from their home in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to buy a Mustang like the one they owned when they married half a century ago. That car was sacrificed to family responsibilities and sold to a high schooler, who promptly trashed it. But the loss never quite healed. Earlier in the week, Andy found a tidy Arcadian-blue 1966 coupe and bid $24,000 for it. " Phoned the kid and said, 'We've spent your inheritance,' " he says merrily.

Thanks to buyers like Smith, American performance cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s have enjoyed eye-popping value inflation. (In 2007 a 1971 Plymouth Hemi 'Cuda convertible, which stickered for $3,391 during the Nixon administration, went for $2.2 million.) This is the niche that Barrett-Jackson specializes in, juicing the muscle boom with a television onslaught: Since 1996 the company has broadcast its Scottsdale auction on cable TV's Speed channel, where I stumbled upon it several years ago.

Watching a B-J auction on TV is strangely addictive: hour after hour of pristine four-wheel eye candy parading by on a stage. What passes for drama is a bidding war, when several besotted bidders drive the price on a sweet split-window Corvette into the stratosphere while blue-blazered "bidder assistants" egg them on. Some collectors mutter darkly that the shows have turned their genteel pastime into a circus; there's now a mini-genre of reality TV revolving around the exploits of classic-car wheeler-dealers. This programming beams a dog whistle to legions of men, many of whom seem to end up here in Scottsdale, roaming the acres of Detroit iron in search of lost automotive loves.

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