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Car Collectors Search for Memories

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

"The majority of our docket is the guy who gets teary-eyed thinking about the car he couldn't buy when he was 24," says Stacy Pearson, a Barrett-Jackson media spokesperson. "Cars are milestones in people's lives. It's amazing what memories they unearth. Evoking that emotion is what this is all about."

I meet Pearson in the media trailer Friday morning. The auction itself is held inside a colossal 120,000-square-foot tent surrounded by only slightly smaller tents, each shading immense parking lots full of cars awaiting their turn on the block. All day they roll through a staging area, idling contentedly in the lustrous winter sun. There's a burly 1970 Pontiac GTO, a malevolent black Pantera, an elegant Packard. Someone pokes a throttle and the GTO clears its unmuffled nostrils — a rude, adolescent BRAAAAAT! A ripe petroleum funk perfumes the air. Old motors, unfettered by emission-control devices, sprew rich clouds of uncut hydrocarbons — old-school exhaust. Close your eyes and it smells like 1970.

Crowds gather around two finned giants: '59 Cadillacs, famed for their twin torpedo-shape taillight pods. Pausing before these indecent-looking artifacts, a bystander reaches down and rubs them affectionately. "Oh, yeah," he says.

European exotics and prewar classics are rare here: This is mostly a cavalcade of homegrown muscle. So many spotless late-'60s Camaros and Chevelles roll by that the place could pass for a period Chevrolet plant — a reminder that these coveted collectibles were once industrial appliances stamped out by the millions. Those that survived have been invested with powers their original drivers never dreamed of, valued beyond reason as tokens of youth itself.

Memory and family history play strange tricks. Trawl through the comments on vintage-car-enthusiast websites and you'll read, amid deeply esoteric discussions of mechanical minutiae, endless variations on the Father Story: tales of men chasing Dad's old car, as if the family vehicle embodied the essence of the man and turning the ignition would somehow summon him forth. Other cars just imprint themselves in childhood for reasons their prospective owners can't quite articulate. Their online comments are more elemental — naked eruptions of need, in just one word: "Want."

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