By Steve Magnante
Faithful Redline readers will recognize my name as a regular contributor to this esteemed site devoted to all things wonderful and Dodge. But to newcomers, my name is Steve Magnante and I’m also a regular on-stage vehicle commentator at the world-famous Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions on Fox Sports 1 (formerly Speed).
Barrett-Jackson produces four auctions annually, but the Scottsdale, Arizona, show is by far the greatest, and the recent January event was no disappointment, with $113 million generated by the sale of nearly 1,400 collector vehicles of virtually every description. The top-selling Chrysler family product was the 1954 Plymouth Belmont experimental show car, which hammered for a stunning $1,320,000 (including buyer’s commission), making it the eighth costliest purchase of the event. The next highest Chrysler family collectible was another Plymouth, a 1970 HEMI® Superbird for $550,000 (including buyer’s commission). Got a Dodge in your garage? Keep it nice—you never know.
Although top-tier classics and factory show cars generate the seven-figure sales, the meat and potatoes of every Barrett-Jackson event are the muscle cars. Hundreds of vintage Chargers, Challengers, Darts, Coronet R/Ts, Road Runners, GTXs and ’Cudas cross the block every year and make up a giant portion of every sale’s final tally. At Scottsdale, we connected with Canadian Dodge enthusiast Jack O’Toole, who brought two 1970 Challengers to sell.
“Time slows to a crawl, yet it’s all over really quickly and big decisions have to be made very fast. You have to have faith in the system.” Those are the words Jack used to describe the experience of selling his ’70 Challenger T/A (Lot #170). With more than 1,400 cars to sell over the six-day extravaganza, Barrett-Jackson management calculated that each car could remain at center stage for between 2.5 and 4 minutes.
To the uninformed, it might seem impossible that transactions involving tens, and even hundreds, of thousands of dollars could be made in such a short time span—a mere 200 seconds on average. But there’s more to it than that. Barrett-Jackson auctions are set up so that every car is displayed for several days before it hits the block. During the inspection days, interested bidders are free to inspect cars under several massive tents where they can learn more and speak with consignors (a.k.a. sellers). In Jack’s case, the auto-body technician from Alberta spent many hours standing by his Challenger, and it paid off.
“It’s a funny thing,” Jack said. “I have no idea if I’m talking to the guy who will end up buying the car or just a tire kicker looking to pass the time.” But Jack stayed put, chatting with every passerby.
Good thing, too. As I walked into the tent where Jack’s car was parked between a late-1950s MG and a disco-era Firebird, the striking contrast set off by the Challenger’s FY1 Banana Yellow paint and black roof, hood and side stripes immediately grabbed my eye. At Barrett-Jackson, every consigned vehicle must have a printed description in the windshield. Jack’s stated that the car was completely restored to factory-stock specifications, though it lacked its original engine block. Jack’s description continued and stated that a “date-correct replacement block” had been acquired and installed.
If you’re new to the world of collectible Dodges, know that cars with all of their original parts are the most highly coveted—and valued. But let’s remember that a muscle car like a 1970 Challenger T/A was made to be driven hard. It wasn’t unheard of for rambunctious drivers to push things too far—especially in those days, before electronic engine-speed limiters and fuel cut-off programming. With its free-breathing trio of Holley 2-barrel carburetors and short-stroke reciprocating assembly, accidental over-revs were a classic way to snap connecting rods. When that happens the broken parts thrash around inside the block until they fight their way outside the block, often forcing the need for a replacement.
But Jack’s T/A is different from base Challengers, or even Challenger R/T muscle car models. Because Dodge produced the limited-edition T/A to legalize certain components for race duty in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Trans Am race series, each of the 2,399 Challenger T/As made was equipped with a very special engine block. Though functionally identical to the 340 Magnum 4-barrel engine offered optionally in base 1970 Challengers and Challenger R/Ts, the T/A block (like its AAR ’Cuda counterpart over at Plymouth) was cast with extra-thick main-bearing bulkheads to accommodate four-bolt main-bearing caps.
To be clear, these extra-duty four-bolt caps were not factory installed. Rather, standard two-bolt caps were employed. But the potential was there, and professional SCCA racers like Sam Posey made use of it. To make visual identification quick and easy, these special SCCA blocks carried a specific casting number on the driver-side of the block: 3577130TA. Note the letters “TA” at the end of the sequence; they stand for Trans Am. By contrast, the blocks used for street-oriented 340 4-barrel engines display a different casting number (2780930-340) and lack the coveted TA marking.
Getting back to Jack’s printed vehicle description, when I saw the phrase “date-correct replacement block” I quizzed him if the block was simply a 340 Magnum (4-barrel type) block with a casting date that agreed with the car’s build date–as stamped into the fender tag—or if it was an actual T/A Six Pack block scavenged from another Challenger T/A (or AAR ’Cuda). He said: “I don’t know and never thought to check.” When I reminded him that collectors of these cars generally pay a premium of as much as $10,000 for cars with correct TA blocks, we became curious, very curious.
I left Jack and his pristine T/A to inspect more cars but planted a seed in the Albertan’s mind. Sure enough, a day later Jack found a skinny kid and paid him a few bucks to slink beneath the rocker where he confirmed the block was indeed a TA unit. Jack had him snap a digital picture of the proof and quickly went to the Barrett-Jackson consignor office to update the vehicle description with the good news. It was Saturday afternoon.
Jack’s screaming yellow T/A crossed the block Tuesday evening, January 14, 2014. Despite being the first day of the auction, the room was well-stocked with potential bidders from all over the world. Jack tells us: “You get a call that it’s time to bring the car from the display tent up into the pre-staging lanes. At this point there is about an hour left and your excitement level really begins to rise. Then car by car you move on to the actual staging lanes with about 10 other cars. This is where potential bidders make last-minute inspections and you really need to be there to answer any and all questions. Before you know it, you’re next in line and rolling up onto the ramp. Those last 100 feet from the ramp to the block are your final minutes of ownership. As you hand the keys to the Barrett-Jackson driver, it is emotional. The car isn’t yours anymore and there’s nothing you can do to reverse it.”
The bidding started at $20,000 and quickly crept to $50,000 in two- to five-thousand-dollar increments. The crowd was really responding to its factory-correct nose-down stance, imposing fiberglass hood, side-exit exhaust and striking yellow and black colors. As the auctioneer paused for a moment to remind the crowd of the car’s correct TA block, bidding picked up again and finally topped out at an even $60,000. SOLD! Jack tells us he was happy with the result (but not so much with the $82,000 his equally pristine restored ’70 HEMI Challenger brought—he was hoping for a figure closer to “the ton,” auction-speak for $100,000).
“I think the T/A’s $60K selling price was a little bit soft, and maybe due to the fact the car crossed the block after 9:00 p.m. But I still did okay and am completely happy with the result. There was profit in this deal for me.” Jack continues: “That’s what auction sales are all about. I think I got the best dollar on that day, at that hour that I would have gotten anywhere. It goes back to the pre-sale advertising done by Barrett-Jackson, the exposure in the internet catalog, the amount of people who were there on site. The only sad thing was that we lost some of the crowd as the night wore on. But I’m working on a ’70 Road Runner back in Alberta. It’s a two-owner 383 automatic car with 32,000 original miles.”
Will we see Jack’s Road Runner cross the Barrett-Jackson auction block in 2015? “Could be,” Jack says. “I really enjoy the thrill of getting together with the owner of a classic Mopar and cooking a deal so both sides are satisfied with the outcome, then bringing it home and spending some time with it to take off the rough edges … and then selling it to move on to another project. I am an enthusiast, not a collector or dealer. The thrill is in tracking stuff down. It’s fun and exciting.”
To learn more about Barrett-Jackson go to www.barrett-jackson.com.