If you want to understand how a deer in headlights must feel, be in the midst of the bright lights and pandemonium that is Barrett-Jackson’s auction block on Saturday, helping a friend bid six figures on a Shelby. I’ve bought cars at auctions for myself, and for clients where prices ventured into seven figures, but this was unlike anything I’ve experienced. So before we dive into the lessons learned, some backstory is necessary.
My friend Pete Racely manages an incredibly tasty and brilliantly curated collection of European competition machinery. Ferrari 512 M, Lancia LC2, two Ferrari F1 cars, McLaren F1 GTR, Ferrari 333 SP with more wins than any other, and others along these lines gives an idea of what lurks in that garage. Late last year the collection’s owners were contemplating future tours and rallies in Europe, and thought Pete should have a proper chase car. One recommended an early 911, to which Pete responded, “Why be like everyone else? How about a Shelby GT500?”
I've always thought Pete is smart…
Here's Pete behind the wheel of the Ferrari 250 LM that's in the collection he manages. What could be better for chasing stuff like this on a European rally than a Shelby GT500?
The owners agreed, and that’s when Pete called to get the ins and outs on what to buy. He mentioned he’d really like a GT500 with a 427 under the hood, not knowing only three cars were originally constructed that way. Upon hearing such a machine was basically unobtanium, we debated the merits between 1967 and ’68 GT500s. The '67s came with a “Police Interceptor” 428 and had the southern California aura, as portrayed on the big screen in “Ford v. Ferrari." The 1968-1970 Shelbys were built in Michigan, and powering 1968's GT500KR was a Cobra Jet 428; that engine brought the GT500 (and all Mustangs) the street cred they previously lacked.
Pete was now leaning KR, and over the next several weeks we perused online offerings, checked early listings for Arizona’s Auction Week in the Phoenix Valley, and debated the merits of doing a 5-speed conversion, should a car have an automatic transmission. While both Gooding and RM had GT500s, it was clear Barrett-Jackson was the place to buy, as there would be a number available from all years. I checked in with Craig Jackson and his right hand man Mike McCollough to review the cars, and see if I could eyeball early arrivals. By now Pete was like a kid with his hand in a new (and very tasty) cookie jar, calling most every day wanting to learn more, or hear of any updates.
An early Barrett-Jackson arrival that I looked at in December was this 1967 GT500.
Then Auction Week rolled around, and as usual, Barrett-Jackson’s gala party kicked off everything. There I perused a few of the GT500s, and sent Pete some photos. He and wife Susan flew in Tuesday to get their bidding credentials, and we hooked up Thursday afternoon to do a preliminary look at what was there.
Earlier that day was the reveal of two legendary GT500s, the Green Hornet (a one-off done in 1968) and the recently discovered and completely restored "Little Red," another one-off built in 1967. Craig Jackson owns both and at the press conference he was emotional as he talked about their places in Shelby (and automotive) history, and the restoration process. It was a refreshing to hear a discourse done at a connoisseur’s level, where the intricacies of the Shelby legend and the cars’ uniqueness were laid out, rather than how many (or few) miles were on the odometer.
Craig Jackson speaks during the reveal of Little Red (under the cover). For decades this one-off GT500 was long lost, many thinking it had been crushed. Craig ended up finding it in a field in Texas!
Little Red with the cover pulled off. Yes, those are two superchargers under the raised hood. Shelby did some pretty crazy stuff back in the day—which only added to the nameplate's allure and mythology.
Afterward I met Jason Billips of Billips Classic Cars in Oklahoma. He restored both Shelbys, and is one of the experts Barrett-Jackson has available to bidders to examine any car they might wish to purchase. Barrett-Jackson is the only auction company I know that offers this service, and surprisingly, not that many people take advantage of it.
Saturday morning several hours before the first GT500 would roll across the auction block, we met Jason by the Shelbys and other Mustangs. He had notes on the ready, and with an evenhanded expertise equal to the best Pebble Beach judges I’ve worked with, walked us through each car, pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Our first choice went by the wayside when Jason noted it had rust issues, and the next two or three of interest were not as desirable when Jason finished his critique. He then said, “While these cars are nice, if I was going after one GT500, it would be the ’68 Convertible in Tent 9.”
Those hoods are raised for a reason—so restorer and Barrett-Jackson expert Jason Billips can thoroughly go over the cars. He gave Pete and myself a serious schooling in Shelby originality and restoration.
Jason walking Pete through the finer points of a 1967 GT500's engine compartment.
That caught our attention, and off we went. On the way over Jason explained how the body was perfect and rust-free, something you rarely saw on a 50-year old GT500, let alone most any car that age. Once there we learned had only two previous owners, and had been in New Mexico all its life. It was quite original save a single older repaint, and a 427 that was installed by the second owner in late 1969/early 1970. Jason pointed out it was a standard “FE” block with Edelbrock heads rather than the rare side-oiler 427, as claimed in the consigner’s description. The non-original engine mattered not, for as noted earlier Pete originally wanted a period-correct 427. And about the car's automatic tranny, we had already discussed a 5-speed Tremec swap.
Thanks to astute guidance and insight from expert Jason Billips, Pete decided to take a run at this marvelously straight 1968 GT500 convertible.
Jason said the 5-speed swap was a one-week process that would cost less than $10,000 for everything, and he now acted as our guide as we closely examined the Shelby. Approximately two hours later Pete and I followed it through two staging areas, then headed to the auction block to gauge the atmosphere in the room. I’m a big believer in having a strategy prior to bidding, so we stopped in the entranceway and I peppered Pete with questions. He determined a maximum price of $165,000, to which I asked, “Do we get a bump?” meaning if someone counter bids at our limit, do we get another bid. His answer was affirmative.
Game plan in hand, we found a place on the block, and watched. To say it was frothy is an understatement, for the arena pulsated with excitement and energy as bidders were paying full price, and sometimes more. Two cars before the Shelby came on stage I approached a ring person to let her know we would take a run at the car. This ensured our bids would be noted.
Here is where having an expert paid off. In the upper right corner of the windscreen it declares the car has a desirable (and rare) 475 horsepower side oiler 427. Jason’s examination revealed it to be a standard 390 horsepower “FE” 427.
When the GT500 rolled up, we sat back and watched the action. Because the car had a non-original 427 and wasn’t parked with the other GT500s, Jason guessed it would go for $125,000-135,000. I felt in this buoyant atmosphere $150,000 was real money, and we’d probably get it at $160,000 or less. But no sooner did bidding start than it quickly rocketed into six figures. At $135,000, we jumped in only to see the price zoom to $150,000. We bid $155,000 and a counter hit at $160,000.
We bid $165,000 but it wasn’t enough as the priced jumped to $170,000. I looked at Pete and said we are out. Pete was hesitating, so we quickly conferred and indicated he wanted to go higher. I mentioned our previous conversation but understood; the collection’s owners are two true enthusiasts, and their pocketbooks aren’t in mortal territory like ours. By now the price was at $175,000, meaning there had been two other bidders besides us, so we bid $180,000—which bought the car.
The GT500 on the auction block, moments before bidding started. After two action packed minutes, Pete placed the winning bid at $180,000. He was a very happy camper, as were his bosses.
The “all in” price was $198,000 (the $180,000 hammer price and the buyer’s 10% commission), and we made arrangements with Jason to have the Shelby sent to his shop for a mechanical once-over while the transmission conversion took place. After the car returned to its location in Tent 9, Pete took photos of wife Susan in the driver seat, and sent them to the collection’s owners. They were ecstatic, which meant Pete had done the right thing by doing another “bump.”
So what can one learn from all this?
- Barrett-Jackson is an excellent place to go shopping for certain cars. While that varies from year-to-year, Shelbys are consistently one of them. We considered at least half a dozen GT500s, and Jason pointed out alternatives such as an impeccably restored Mach 1 with a 428 Cobra Jet.
- Make sure you have a game plan before bidding. I’m a big believer in sticking to your limit, but here that was less relevant for the purchasers' pockets are deep so overpaying a bit didn't change their lives at all. Plus the game plan set parameters to make sure we didn’t get swept up in the heat of the moment—something easy to do in the crazy whirlwind that is Barrett-Jackson on Saturday.
- The bidding atmosphere is entirely different from the “fine art” auto auctions where I have bought in the past. Everything here happens at a much more furious pace, so be prepared.
- Next time I would alter my game plan and not jump in at the level where I think the car will sell, but wait until the auctioneer is saying “all done” or something to that effect, and then come in.
- Make use of the experts Barrett-Jackson has on hand. I was stupefied in talking with an acquaintance to learn he paid $250,000+ for a Ford prototype from the 1960s, and didn’t use the service even though he knew about it. There is no way you can scour a car like Barrett-Jackson's experts do, for Jason had examined all the GT500s on a lift prior to the auction, and had his notes ready.
- That thoroughness and expertise is the best insurance policy in avoiding an unpleasant surprise when the car gets home—like the first GT500 we were strongly considering. It looked to be a great choice until Jason said, “I’d pass. There are rust issues." That car had marvelous colors and appeared to be a honey so it's possible even the consignor might not have known about the rust.
- If you miss out on a car, don’t sweat. Unless your sights are set on a true one-off, there will be another one.
- Most importantly, have fun! Pete and I totally relished the experience, and I look forward to bidding at Barrett-Jackson again—either for myself, or someone else.