Barrett-Jackson 2009 was the year GM auctioned cars none of us ever imagined would go up for sale. That's what losing billions of dollars and getting close to going out of business will do for a company the size of GM.
Boy oh boy did I miss the boat this year. I had a sneaking feeling I should have paid the 500 smackers for a bidder's pass. Instead, I was there strictly as a journalist. But, I enjoyed the trip to sunny Arizona in the heart of the winter to check out the GM Heritage collection on the block.
It's just that I feel bad. I coulda bid on the '89 Corvette "Splash." That was GM's Challenge car that was also a show car. Or, another Vette I woulda bought that went for cheap was a C5R "show car." Okay, there was no real race to it, but the C5 chassis had the racing body kit. The car sold for a little over 50 G's. What can you get for that much money in a new Vette?
Or, I coulda bought one of the 1997 Corvette "Alpha" or "Beta" Corvettes. Brian Baker of GM said Chevrolet built these cars to "fool all you guys," meaning the press. How cool would that be to show up at a car show with a pre-production Corvette?
The auction started on Tuesday, January 6th. I flew down Thursday the 8th from Las Vegas with four of my friends from Texas. We nicknamed ourselves the Texas Riff Raff Wild Bunch. Two years ago, we crashed the CNN Skybox and hobnobbed with Wolf Blitzer.
One of the first persons I ran into Thursday at Barrett-Jackson was our good buddy Kevin Mackay, the famous Corvette restorer from "Corvette Repair" in Valley Stream, New York. I wanted his take on GM selling cars from their Heritage Collection. He shared "They've got so many cars. Even if they sold those cars, they're still not getting out of the hole. They're in the hole for billions. I mean billions." So, you think they should just keep them?" "Well, they have so many- four of one kind. You know, four 1989 ZR-1s? Keep the best one and get rid of the others." Kevin's opinion was GM didn't need the cars, but the money wouldn't make much difference, either.
Lance Miller was standing close by. Lance, of course, is the late Chip Miller's son. Lance and Bill Miller (no relation) run the Carlisle car events, including "Corvettes at Carlisle."
Lance had mixed emotions about GM selling off their heritage. He said, "I was like a kid in a candy store when I walked into the GM tent. Then, I looked at the cars and could see the dust and it kind of made me feel sick inside." "You hate to see the cars disseminated?" "Exactly. You don't know where any of this stuff is going. For instance, I'm a guy that loved the Snake Skinner. I grew up reading the magazines and loving the cars. I tried to step up to the plate, but it goes somewhere else. Who knows what he's going to do with it. It might be gone forever. So yeah, mixed emotions."
The Snake Skinner was a lightweight 1989 model ZR1 with what Lance termed as a "Black Widow" motor. "They only made so many at Mercury Marine. Actually, they painted the engines black and they had internal work done. Nasty car." Lance bid on the Snake Skinner up to 100 grand. The '89 lightweight sold to Rick Hendricks, the famous racer, for $176,000. Obviously a C4 enthusiast, Miller also had his eyes fixed on several other Corvettes from GM's Heritage Collection. One in particular was GM's '89 Challenge show racecar, looking brand spanking new.
Early on, my Texas Riff Raff Wild Bunch met at the press tent to put together our plan to see all the GM Heritage cars we could. I leafed through the huge Barrett-Jackson catalog with pictures and descriptions of the cars to cross the auction block. BJ also published a separate full-color catalog for the GM Heritage Collection. Finding the cars on the grounds wasn't so easy. Many of the cars were close together in two different tents. Mixed among the regular production Corvettes offered for sale, I had to read signs to nail down which car was which.
I finally understood the "dust" factor of which Lance spoke. The cars were not pristine. Pontiac, Buick and Chevrolet passenger cars mixed with the Corvettes. For example, I ran across a '99 Oldsmobile "442" Custom Coupe built for the SEMA show in Las Vegas. On most of the information cards on the windshield of each vehicle I read the words, "Sold on a Bill of Sale." I also ran across the 1994 Camaro ZL1 that Lance mentioned to me. Corvette people like all muscle cars, especially the GM brand.
The auction was full of GM and Corvette enthusiasts. Readers will recall the name Steve Coffey. His pair of Lingenfelter twin turbo's appeared in our December 2008 issue. Steve bought the wide body Lingenfelter a couple years ago at Barrett-Jackson. He was looking to add to his collection if a hot Corvette came up at a great price.
Then, out of the blue, Coffey got totally intrigued with a 1970 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 W-30 muscle car parked in a vendor space. Red with black stripes, the two-door hardtop looked brand new. A girl in the vendor space told Steve the 4-4-2 had 300 original miles and GM owned the car since new. "Buying a 1970 model that's brand new from GM," Coffey traveled in time back to his youth. He had to have this car if the story was true. We went looking for GM representatives to corroborate the car's provenance. We found them at the GM display for the Camaro. WE finally determined that GM had owned the 4-4-2 since the early 1990s when Sylvester Stallone drove the car in a movie. Right away, Steve lost his enthusiasm. The car was merely a restoration and not really GM owned since new.
It seemed everybody was throwing around the word concept for every GM car. I wanted to know how many of the GM collection, especially the Corvettes, were truly "concept" vehicles in the real definition. Brian Baker of GM Design called the Snake Skinner "an engineering development car." "There are a few concept cars here like the Buick Blackhawk. But, the Corvettes? Many of them were created by John Heinricy and the madmen out at our proving grounds."
What Kevin Mackay had said earlier in the day started to make sense. GM was cleaning out cars they had in duplicate and triplicate, such as the 1989 Corvette ZR1's. The ZR1 didn't come out until the 1990 model year. They did build 83 of the 1989 ZR1's. Just four remained. "We don't' need four of them. We need one to represent the era," Baker said. Baker offered clarity when he said, "The Heritage fleet is 1,000 cars. The Heritage Collection is about 300 of those cars. The balance of the cars are SEMA, race, enthusiast cars that helped launch new vehicles. So our quote Heritage Collection, which is our museum type cars, that is about 30% of the overall fleet."
I felt better that GM's collection was still intact. I also felt great that a small percentage of these cars could reach collectors hands. There was an era when GM just crushed the cars. I like the auction-era much better.