Written by Barbara Toombs
Every journey begins with a vision. When fate brought two classic car enthusiasts – Tom Barrett and Russ Jackson – together in 1960s Arizona, they began a journey that would take their two families from staging a charity car show into the world of collector car auctions, little knowing where it would lead. The two men founded Barrett-Jackson in 1971 with a vision to create a collector car consignment auction, hoping to entice car collectors from around the world to come to the event in the Valley of the Sun.
The two-day auction was held on a dirt lot next to the now-demolished Safari Hotel on Scottsdale Road in January 1972, with some 3,000 people in attendance. Headlining the vehicles on offer was Barrett’s bulletproof Mercedes-Benz 770 Phaeton, which made national news when it sold for $153,000, more than triple the previous auction record.
The auction was such a success it became an annual event, remaining at that same location for another five years before moving to another Scottsdale site and then, in 1979, moving to the Phoenix Municipal Stadium and growing to a four-day event.
About the time Barrett-Jackson was coming together as a business, another young visionary named Herb Drinkwater was elected to the Scottsdale City Council, vowing that he would safeguard the character of the small town. Drinkwater became mayor in 1980, serving for four terms, through 1996. Known for his easy manner, foresight and his efforts to preserve Scottsdale’s natural beauty, Drinkwater saw immense potential in the northern portion of the city, where the 356-acre Horseman’s Park had been opened in 1982.
He gathered together the Barrett and Jackson families, along with the organizers of the Arabian Horse Show and the Phoenix Open golf tournament, and took them to the area to explain his vision of making this beautiful part of the city at the foot of the McDowell Mountains the epicenter of world-class Scottsdale-based events; promising improvements if the three entities committed to moving their events there.
Drinkwater’s persuasiveness worked. The Phoenix Open relocated to the Tournament Players Club in Scottsdale in 1987, while the Arabian Horse Show and Barrett-Jackson moved to what had now become known as HorseWorld in 1989 (changing its name to WestWorld in 1990). The first Barrett-Jackson Auction held in its new location drew a record 50,000 people and realized a sales volume of $29 million.
There have been many others along the way who believed in the vision of Barrett-Jackson and saw the event as an avenue to foster visions of their own. Among them were early exhibitors and sponsors, such as longtime Scottsdale fixture E.D. Marshall Jewelers and Meguiar’s.
E.D. Marshall was founded the same year as Barrett-Jackson, in 1971, by Edmund Marshall, who is still at the helm of the company today. Incredibly, Marshall has attended every single Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction from 1972 onwards, initially just as a spectator. “I love cars,” he admits. “I’ve known Craig (Jackson) since he was a kid.”
It was Craig Jackson who eventually suggested to Marshall that he should “sell watches” at a Barrett-Jackson event. Marshall decided to give it a try. “A few years later – the last year the auction was only in tents – we had our booth set up in the main auction arena, and we did several hundred thousand dollars in business in just four days,” Marshall remembers. E.D. Marshall remains a valued exhibitor to this day, with a prime location in the Salon area of the site, where the most spectacular cars of the auction are showcased.
Barry Meguiar – whose grandfather started Meguiar’s as a furniture polish business back in 1901 before breaking into the horseless carriage market and, after World War II, the automotive industry – remembers jumping on the Barrett-Jackson train early on. “We go far back, when the event was at the Safari Hotel, around 1973,” he recalls. “The cars, the tents, the displays – it was exciting and cutting-edge, and it was the beginning of what we have now.”
Both Marshall and Meguiar also remember all too well the uncertain times in the mid-1990s, when both Russ and Brian Jackson succumbed to colon cancer and Craig Jackson was left holding the reins of the company. “It was an interesting time,” says Meguiar. “The general consensus, quite frankly, was that Craig wasn’t going to be able to keep it going. But I knew Craig very well back in those days, and he had shared his dreams with me. I could see his vision and went back to our team and said, ‘He’s going to pull this off, and I want to be a part of it. We’re going to be there for him.’”
“After his dad and brother died, everyone was wondering what this young kid Craig was going to do, including me,” recalls Marshall. “But my GOD – what he’s done is unbelievable. Nobody could ever imagine the auction would turn into what Craig has turned it into: a world-class event, and not just a car auction. He had the vision to put this whole thing together and turn it into something that’s hard to describe. Really the only word to describe it is amazing.”
“Our whole thing of working with car guys really caught fire at Barrett-Jackson, because our passion for creating a perfect finish was matched by the people there,” says Meguiar. “This was fertile ground; these are our kind of guys. Barrett-Jackson is the greatest show on Earth for car guys – there’s nothing else like it. It’s the Woodstock for car guys! But you don’t have to be a car guy to come and have a blast and want to be there for multiple days. There’s just so much for everybody – just so much fun.
“I think Craig is more responsible for the growth of the car hobby – it is exploding right now and has been for years – than any other single person on the planet,” Meguiar continues. “Craig has honored his dad and mom well. He took their dream and made it a thousand times bigger.”
SHARE YOUR JOURNEY OF THE ROAD TO 50 WITH US
A lot can happen in half a century. As we prepare to celebration our 50th Anniversary in January 2021, we’re on the hunt for photos – especially from Barrett-Jackson’s beginnings (1970s to early 1990s). You can be a part of this milestone event! We’d love to see your photographs of your memories and favorite moments at The World’s Greatest Collector Car Auctions, so we’ve set up a special website (OurRoadTo50.com) where you can upload your images with the click of a button.
Check those boxes in the attic or garage, grandpa’s old photo albums … wherever those Barrett-Jackson moments in your family might be found. Car displays, the action on the auction block, sponsor displays, celebrity sightings – we’re looking for it all. Simply scan the images and submit your photos online with descriptions, and your family’s cherished memories can become part of Barrett-Jackson’s history, too!