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Car Collectors Search for Memories

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

American Beauties

Photo by Ron Kimball/Kimball Stock

Car-crazy boomers are smashing price records (and exasperating their families) buying up their teenage dream machines.

Tim McManus is a car guy, the son of an Edsel dealer. He is the kind of man who, when you ask him how many cars he owns, has to stop and think. Twenty-three, he decides.

McManus is pursuing number 24. An hour earlier he had been on the losing end of a bidding war over a 1957 Thunderbird at the Barrett-Jackson collector-car auction. Now he sips a beer in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hotel bar, running the numbers on his life behind the wheel. A semi ­ retired Denver industrial realtor, McManus, 66, has owned 77 cars — so far — and aches for more. A 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix. A mid-'60s Lincoln Continental convertible. His teenage dream was a 1963 Buick Riviera, considered one of the all-time best-looking American cars. He was 17 when it appeared. "I swore to myself the day I first saw one that if I could ever afford to have that car, I would," he says.

And he did, of course. One is parked in his garage now. It has plenty of company. A few weeks back, a close friend and fellow collector died, passing on his own cache of 19 vintage vehicles — most from 1957, each one black. This brush with mortality has left McManus with a fleet of monochromatic cars and a gnawing unease about what to do with them. His own children aren't interested. "I don't want to burden my kids with my fantasies," he says.

Yet McManus is here, looking to fulfill one more fantasy. (Forget, for a moment, that he already owns a 1957 Thunderbird.) Explain this to me, I ask: How many old cars does one driver need? And what exactly do you find when you sit inside that '63 Riv you lusted after at 17, and smell the leather seats, and listen to the ageless rumble of a Wildcat V8? What's in there?

He smiles indulgently.

"Yesterday," he says.

Behold the dilemma of the Last Car Guys, creatures of the early 21st century's crash-up of memory, demography, and disposable income. These are men slipping past midlife with empty nests, full wallets, and an almost primeval urge to take another spin in the icons of their past — logic and garage space be damned.

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.

"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."

I find Derek Hunter, 40, beside his father's 1964 Austin-Healey 3000, a gorgeous British roadster. A framed photo rests on the car's grille. In it, a bride and groom smile back from 1967: She's in a long dress; he's beaming beneath horn-rims. The car has "Just Married" scrawled on its dusty flanks.

And that's the bride herself — Derek's mother, Marcia Hunter Elam — sitting in the same car's snug passenger seat. The car was bought new in Covington, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati. Derek's father was an accountant and a sports car buff who died when Derek was young. A few years ago Derek pulled the car out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars bringing it back to life. And now he and his sister, Erika Hunter-Sedmak, are selling it. This is smart: The values on this model have skyrocketed. "I told Derek, 'It's a piece of metal,' " says Marcia. "The memories are what you hold on to."

Derek confides later that this transaction is even more emotionally fraught: His father took his own life, and Derek has few happy memories from that time. The most vivid is of sitting in his father's car as it crested a hill at speed — that moment of weightlessness, as if he were flying.

An auction staffer signals. It's showtime. Derek hops in the little car and fires it up; the Healey settles into a warm, chuckling idle and rolls into the glare of the television lights. Thousands of people are out there watching. Things get hectic. The bidding briskly climbs all the way up to $75,000, far more than the pre-auction estimate. When I look back at Derek, he is crying.

The new owner is a plump fellow in his 60s, from Palm Springs, California. Afterward they swap phone numbers. "In 20 years," Derek tells him, "I'll buy it back."

Time stalks all car guys. Rust works its implacable corruption; rubber and plastic crack and split; fluids go dry. Keeping these machines on the road demands a set of increasingly antiquated skills and an abiding tolerance for breakdowns. Even the most badass of Camaros can't outrun fate, and neither can their drivers. Collector magazines and sites are full of estate-sale listings for unfinished projects, each a bittersweet score for a new owner.

Those fresh buyers are often themselves of AARP age. "There aren't that many people of my generation here," says Greg Keith, 31, who's drinking beers with a coterie of ex-NFL players in the raucous bar beneath the VIP stands. It turns out he's here with his father; they run car dealerships in Vancouver, British Columbia. He's already picked up a '57 Corvette and a '65 Jaguar E-Type I'd been eyeballing earlier.

Both these vehicles were built long before Keith was born, which is typical. Collectible cars, especially American ones, that postdate 1973 or so are rare. That's when environmental and safety restrictions killed off the last golden-age muscle cars, and when American automaking in particular entered an aesthetically challenged period that few enthusiasts wish to revisit. Which makes some aficionados conclude that their hobby, despite record-smashing prices and booming interest, is stuck in neutral. "Are we going to be playing in this era forever?" Keith asks.

A lot of market experts predict just that — the collectible era of automobiles has essentially ended, and future gearheads will churn through a dwindling stock of ever-more-elderly cars until the gas finally runs out and the last V-8 sputters. Few anticipate that aging Gen Xers, gripped with nostalgia, will rescue their high school Corollas from junkyards a decade hence. The emotional bond that boomers forged with their wheels in car-crazy postwar America didn't reproduce itself, and few modern cars possess the soulful intangibles that elevate a machine into a vessel of dreams. Andy Smith motions at the crowd. "Look at all this gray hair," he says. "I fear we're the last ones. This is the peak right here."

If he's right, this is less a Super Bowl of car collecting than a jazz funeral — a riotous send-off to a culture lead-footing into oblivion. Whether we know it or not, we are gathered here to wave good-bye to the automobile, or at least what we loved about them, before they are gone for good.

Or maybe it just feels that way after the sun goes down and the desert chills. Behind the auction tent, sold cars emerge in a steady stream, led off to new owners. Most drive off under their own power. A few are towed behind golf carts, which buzz about the site like tugboats attending ocean liners.

There's that '59 Cadillac, the one with the epic fins. A white-haired man is futzing around under the hood. It's the battery, or the alternator, or something. The engine fires, but the car manages to move only a few feet before it stalls. It's frustrating. A golf cart stands ready to escort the giant Caddy out of the way. But then the white-haired guy gets it running again and gently lays down the hood. The motor burbles on.

"Try it again," he tells the driver one last time. "Let's see how far it'll go."