When eBay began selling cars online in the mid-1990s, the conventional wisdom was that Craig Jackson‘s career was over. The chairman and CEO of the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction was told repeatedly that online auctions would swiftly destroy his business. "I was like, ‘I don’t think so,’" says Jackson, 53, who just that year had taken over the company his father, Russ, had started in 1971 with Tom Barrett.
Turns out Jackson was right. Since then, Barrett-Jackson has sold $1 billion worth of cars. "You can commoditize 2,000 Tauruses. They’re only different on mileage and this and that," says Jackson by way of explanation. "But with a collector car there are so many things to look at. And it’s a passion purchase."
At this year’s auctions–in Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Palm Beach, and Orange County–Barrett-Jackson cleared more than $140 million. The flagship Scottsdale auction, which attracted 270,000 visitors, accounted for $92 million alone. The auctions themselves have become must-attend events for collectible-car lovers, providing a healthy mix of showmanship (pretty blondes in heels and miniskirts flaunt the wares on the floor) and networking opportunities (boozy steak dinners are de rigueur).
While Jackson, who has the neck of a bulldog, hands as thick as veal chops, and the deep drawl of a Southern preacher, is the undisputed ringleader, he can be a bit of a wallflower. "People think he’s aloof," says best friend Perry Dodd, an automobile detailer. But he’s merely a man who takes his work seriously, focusing on the transparency of the transactions (he once hired Deloitte & Touche to audit his own business) and the quality of his offerings. His customers appreciate his fastidiousness. "There are hundreds of thousands of people who have bought cars and joined the hobby because of Craig," says McKeel Hagerty, the chief executive of an eponymous agency that insures high-end cars.
And, anyway, Jackson’s business allows him to feed his own obsession. He lives the fantasy of any car collector, as auction master who gets the pick of the litter. (For what it’s worth, he says he never bids against clients.) He owns 19 cars, most of the muscle variety. As a child, Jackson rode dirt bikes and raced hot rods with his older brother and their motor-head friends. When he was 17, his father bought him a Corvette. The first car he ever bought? A 1966 Pontiac LeMans. (He still owns it.) "I grew up around these cars," he says.
He’s aging with them, as well. His collection includes a few from muscle’s golden era, like a 1961 Chevy Impala custom coupe, a 1965 Shelby Mustang GT 350, and a 1970 Dodge Hemi Challenger. He’s got modern rides as well, including a 1997 Dodge Viper and a 2012 Camaro Z1. Jackson is currently restoring a Ferrari Daytona with his 13-year-old son; he is hoping to break the boy’s transfixion with video games.
One of Jackson’s favorites is a "restored modern car," a 1932 Ford custom Roadster built in 1952 with Ardun heads on a supercharged, large flathead engine and raced all over northern California. Another is the 1970 Hemi Cuda convertible, one of only 14 made and the only one to be exported that year to England. Chrysler gave it to the chairman of British Steel as a thank-you for that company’s aid during the steel crisis. It’s also the only one produced with a white interior in the much-sought-after C7 paint code called Plum Crazy.
Jackson lives on an estate near Scottsdale. He built a circular garage to hold his cars on the hillside behind his house. The garage walls are leather, and the floor is coated with terrazzo. Heating and cooling systems protect the cars from Scottsdale’s hot days and cool nights. An exhaust system blows excess fumes outside. "It makes it clean and sanitary," Jackson says.
Each of the cars has a special spot on the floor, positioned to best accentuate its curves with the lighting system. Jackson has a $2 million Bugatti Veyron–black with silver trim, quilted seats, and carbon fiber throughout–which rests on a turntable.
Jackson’s cars are kept alert via electrical battery tenders, and he employs one man to help him exercise them. (They should be enjoyed rather than enshrined, he says.) He takes them on supercar tours and to local rallies and on shopping trips with his fiance, Carolyn, who owns a pair of 5-inch heels made specially to match the Bugatti.
That Bugatti comes with a backstory. Jackson never planned to buy it. Someone else bid on the car in the September 2010 auction and then disappeared out the back door. So Jackson put it back on the block, explained the story, and asked for someone to meet the bid. "But we heard crickets," says Jackson. "So I said, ‘If nobody else wants the car, I’ll take it.’"
He drove it home that night.