The Mecum Auction in Seattle
I’ve long been a fan of Mecum. Starting 27 years ago laying out his plans on his kitchen table, Dana Mecum has built an amazing empire, featuring several different types of auctions scattered all over the country and occurring on a more than once a month basis. Most of them are shown on cable TV, and a favorite pastime is to tape them and peruse them at leisure, fast-forwarding past cars that I’m not interested in.
Over the past few years the differences than make Mecum auctions “work” have become apparent. At most auctions, the seller can choose to set a “reserve,” which is a price that the car will not be sold below. The seller can also opt for “no reserve,” which guarantees the car will sell and also brings a lower sales cost to the bidder, at the risk of getting less than desired as a result. What Mecum has added to this is simple, and yet complex. “Grinders” work on the seller, who is usually present, urging him or her to ‘drop’ the reserve if the vehicle is nearing the reserve price. To do this, Dana, “the deal maker,” will at times offer to lower his take of the proceeds. When an agreement is reached, the grinder gives a thumbs-up sign and the auctioneer announces that “the reserve is off,” and this often creates more bids. At most auctions, although the exact percentages vary, there’s a 10% “buyer’s premium” that goes to the auction house, and also an 8% cut of the proceeds to the seller. Mecum has seized on his ability to take less than the 8% to make the deal happen, and the result is added drama and excitement to the show. After all, Mecum’s taking 18% of the sale for the costs attendant in putting on the auction. If you sell $20 million dollars’ worth of cars at an auction, $3.6 million will go a long way toward paying for the facility, advertising, staff and so on. Other income derives from the sale of shirts and hats and other ephemera.
The most significant alteration to the norm, which other auction houses are now copying as fast as they can is “the bid goes on.” If a car does not reach its reserve, it is still for sale. A sticker on the window tells you where the bidding stopped, and you can go to Mecum staff and offer a bid. This increases the percentage of the cars sold, sometimes dramatically. One technique that might work is to go to the auction on the last day, find a car you want that did not sell, and try to take advantage of the seller not wanting to take the car home and perhaps accepting less than originally desired or expected.
The Seattle auction last weekend was the first time Mecum has done an auction in this area. I attended an auction by another smaller company years ago and came away rather unimpressed by both the cars and the auction company. This one was different. A lot.
As is the case most of the time, this auction was a Friday – Sunday deal. The value of the cars tends to start at “reasonable,” ramp up gradually to “ohmygod” and then denouement back to reasonable at the end. For this reason, I chose to attend Saturday, when most of the big hitter cars would cross the block. This was an “extra” Father’s Day treat for me, and I expected it to cost me a bit. Entry for a casual punter is $20. A bidder’s pass, allowing you to actually raise your hand and purchase a car, costs $100. That sounds like a lot, but not really. If you wanted to buy, you’d want to attend all three days. A bidder’s pass also carries with it a guest pass, so you and a “minder,” (a person I would take with me to tell me “NO!” when enthusiasm ran ahead of reason) can attend all three days for less than the cost of just watching. I also expected to be hit with significant sums for parking, a program, food, etc. but hey – it’s Father’s Day – sort of the same logic that gets people to pay over the top for an adult transportation toy.
The first shock was when I found a free parking space 5 blocks away. Now I had an “extra” $20 or so to blow on a program. Second shock was a Mecum magazine that was free, and a “green sheet” of the cars on offer on the day, with space to take notes. An auction of automobilia, such as neon signs, started at 9am, with the cars beginning at 10am. I was there with plenty of time to stroll around and look at all the cars to be offered, and that was a very good move.
You can get up close and personal with all of the cars, including some “the bid goes on” cars from Friday. Each car has a sheet in the windshield giving details of the car’s features, and you can spend all the time you want studying and looking for flaws. Mecum started out specializing in “American muscle,” usually cars from the late 1960’s. A recent trend, and my favorite genre, is “resto-mods.” Most of these are a classic body design, such as a 1969 Camaro or 1959 Corvette, with essentially a new Corvette engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes underneath. High end cars go considerably beyond that.
At a Mecum auction you can pretty much walk anywhere and stand anywhere you want, and it was odd to stroll across the red carpet area where the cars would roll and see most of the Mecum staff sitting and chatting. Odd because they pretty much the same auctioneers and “ring men,” (some of whom are women) at every auction, so you feel like you know these people, even though you don’t. They are also casual and smiling, and you can chat with them with ease.
The benefits of Mecum’s success over the years are everywhere. Lots of signage, and a comprehensive and very loud sound system. Professionally produced signage on each car. Colorful banners and lots of bright lights. Large digital screens that show each car and the amount being bid, in four different currencies. Squadrons of locals hired for the event are everywhere, all of them in simply black Mecum shirts. Most are young men, as the cars are pushed the last 50 yards to the block, across it, and 50 yards after it. The engines are not run until they are far enough away to not cause problem with simple acts, like breathing. The auctioneers are many, and most of them have been with Mecum for years. Each works for about 30 minutes at a time, and you can see why – it would be exhausting. As each car is declared either sold or the bid is closed, the next car is announced by an auctioneer in a normal voice, giving the year and some of the features, and then the selling announcer takes over in that high energy rapid fire patter that looks impossible if you’ve not been to a school to learn how to do it. There are people everywhere to answer any question you might have. It is all impeccably and expensively organized and produced to the point that it looks simple and easy, and of course it is neither.
The number of cars was simply staggering. The Seattle auction, as a first time venture, had 600 cars or so, but when almost all of them are interesting in one way or another, your car nut fantasy brain gets overwhelmed with lust. Some of their large auctions might go for 5 or 6 days and offer 3,000 cars! Ex-race cars, high end customs, classics from the 1930s, resto-mods, customs, hot rods, all parked cheek by jowl in no particular order.
I chatted with one couple with a stunning 1936 Ford cabriolet that I would have bid on. It took 9 years to build, and reposed in candy burgundy paint with tan leather interior, and all the mod cons of a high end build. I asked them why they would sell such a machine, and they replied that they had owned it for a few years, were getting older, and the grandchildren needed money for college. I told them I loved it, and would be a bidder had I won a large lottery recently. The gentleman replied that if he had done so he would not be selling it! It sold later in the day, and the gentleman looked to be in tears. I could see why.
After gorging myself visually for almost an hour, making a note of which cars I would be bidding on if I had the means, the car auction started. Where to sit? The seats directly in front are reserved for “Gold bidders.” These are $500 apiece tickets that get you into all Mecum auctions for the year, and are mostly high end collectors or dealers. Around them are a couple of hundred other seats, already taken. Hmmmm. Not wanting to stand on my feet for 5 hours or so, I wandered around looking for a better alternative. Over on the side there were a couple of golf carts used by staff once in a while for various tasks. Perfect. I relaxed on the back seat of one where I could see the auction block, hear the announcer clearly, and watch the bids go up on large video screens. Even better, when each bidding session was over, the cars were pushed by the ever changing squadrons of people wearing Mecum shirts and plastic gloves – off to the side and around to right where I was sitting. At that point the cars would be started and driven back to be parked, awaiting pick-up by the new owner or perhaps a later sale. In this fashion I got to watch the auction action, see the car close up, and then hear it run. If it was a former Corvette road race car or a hemi-engined former drag race car, the sound was a great part of the fun.
The Mecum staff around me were all very friendly and helpful. In fact, I did not see a single person working the event all day who did not appear to be having a very good time. I have some experience in trying to get all of a work staff to approach their tasks with enthusiasm and humor. It is extremely difficult, and I was mightily impressed.
For food I could walk out the door next to me and stroll across the street for an excellent Polish sausage and pop and chips meal for $8, which is reasonable. The red stamp on my wrist got me back in.
I’ve always wondered how Mecum “vets” potential bidders. Turns out to be disarmingly simple. As a bidder, you fill out a form, which lets you know in no uncertain terms that it is a legally binding document. They take a $500 swipe on a credit card, which is cancelled later. When you “win” the bid on a car, you simply write a check for it. Hard to believe that works, but evidently it does. Handy to know if I wanted to purchase the Hemi Cuda convertible that sold for three and a half million!
The auction is far more extensive than what is shown on TV. The TV segments vary from auction to auction, but are usually 3 hours or so of the 7 hours or more of actual bidding each day. Here again Mecum has scored by putting together a crew of four TV announcers, plus support staff, who work very well together and appear at every auction. Occasionally a 5th “color” announcer will be added to the four lead roles, if you will. John Kramen grew up in a Chevy dealership where his father worked, and has intimate knowledge of the arcania option packages and colors available on pretty much any American car built in the last 50 years. He’s also a very good rock guitar player. Scott Hoak is the emcee who keeps everything running smoothly, and also announces of the Indy 500 race and other events. Stephen Cox is an experienced and successful racer, and also a Ford nut. Bill Stephens is the “smart ass” of the group and also an expert on drag racing, drag racing history, and Corvettes. The banter among the four is casual, effortless, and not at all contrived. The four of them have attained that rare camaraderie that all such groups strive for and so rarely attain.
I came away mightily impressed with the simplicity and organization that Mecum has brought to the auction business. I had a fantastic time, and if they return next year, which seems likely, I will probably go for at least two days. As it is, now I’m at home watching my recordings of the other two days of the auction.
Come on Lottery! I’m ready to bid!
Copyright 2014 David Preston