Movers and shakers #2: Craig Jackson

| 11 Sep 2012

You never know quite what to expect when you have a pre-arranged interview – by invitation of a PR company – with the great and the good of the classic car world.

After all, if the 'player' is that keen to meet a journalist face to face, they usually want to berate you about previous coverage or to try and coerce you into reams of future editorial.

Either way, you can be sure that their primary concern is to promote their wares.

So, it was with the customary "what do I do if he just wants to reel off his agenda?" trepidation that I ambled towards the Barrett-Jackson trailer during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, rather later than arranged, for my meeting with Craig Jackson.

Jackson, of course, is the man behind the classic car world's first mega-sale. At this year's 41st extravaganza at Scottsdale in Arizona, the company raised $92 million selling 1300 classic cars over seven days to an audience of 270,000 people.

So successful has this event become that all the other major auction houses have muscled in on B-J's stronghold, setting up satellite sales around the showpiece January event.

In return Barrett-Jackson itself has expanded outwards to set up further annual events in Las Vegas, Orange County and Palm Beach, plus introduced a 'salon' element to its Scottsdale sale with high-end cars carrying reserves and appealing to a new audience.

Throwing open the trailer door, I am expecting a barrage of PR hyperbole to blast into my face. Half an hour later I am still waiting. In fact, uniquely, it is me that actually has to raise the little issue of business as our time together draws to a close.

The reason? Well Jackson and I have spent the entire interview just riffing (that is what the kids say isn't it?) about classic cars, his passion for classics, his heroes and his love of racing.

Centrepiece of the latter, dominant conversation is a car that I am still drooling over, his ex-Dan Gurney Trans-Am Plymouth.

This was the Barracuda the should-have-been-President drove - destroked to 302cu in - in the 1970 season and was the last car the US legend drove before hanging up his helmet at Riverside.

Post-Gurney, it raced twice at Le Mans (with a new engine, the original 500bhp-plus unit since reinstated) and it has been in Jackson's hands for seven years.

Unsurprisingly, he waxes lyrical about it, and especially the "providence" that allowed him to chance upon the original engine.

He explains: "When Gurney retired, the car was sold for $1 before it was raced at Le Mans with the Hemi and then campaigned in France for another decade.  When it came back to the States the original motor was long gone.

"After I bought the car, I was hunting for the engine forever and out of the blue I got a call that it was in England and about to go into a hot rod. Its owner had just rung up someone checking the numbers and luckily for me they recognised its significance and got straight on to me. It was amazing to finally reunite the car with its correct engine."

How does it go? "Really well, it will rev to 8000rpm, but I tend to drive it a bit less hard because it doesn't really have much power above 7500rpm anyway.

"I always wanted to race B-production or Trans-Am, but to begin with my brother was already doing it in a 1965 Shelby and my mother insisted that if I started racing, I should at least be in a different class!"

He also had a pretty interesting experience on his first outing at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

"They asked me to bring the 1969 AMC Javelin to Goodwood for a Trans-Am class and I had never driven the car, or even sat in it, let alone driven up the hill at Goodwood.

"I was on sitting on the start-line with sticky notes plastered all over the dash, trying to memorise everything.  I was nervous as anything anyway, and then I got to Molecomb…"

The deceptively tricky corner with a foreboding wall fringing the track has caught out many drivers and, though he negotiated it safely, it clearly left an impression on Jackson.

The current Jackson collection runs to some 32 cars split between his home and storage and often rotating.

They include Hemi Cuda Convertible, Daytona, Veyron and a mid-restoration 1948 Talbot Lago Gran Sport.

His love of American muscle is all his own, but the passion for French curves is handed down from his father and Jackson has had "multitudes" of the swoopy pre- and post-war greats - many of them Figoni et Falaschi bodied – as a result.

With Jackson's call to yet another Laguna Seca driver's briefing coming over the tannoy, I am aware that perhaps we ought to talk just a little bit about business. A very little bit.

Apparently it's going rather well. Oh, and if all those other auction houses think that their forays into Barrett-Jackson's backyard have gone unnoticed, they haven't.

"Funny thing is, a few of them have been pretty good for us," he says. "They have brought in a new audience, one we are now catering for with the Salon cars, and we found a lot of people were coming straight from their tent to ours and spending big money. That's good for business."

Can he really be so laissez-faire about this apparent invasion of his turf? Of course not. "You know, all these people have got backyards of their own," he says with a mischievous smile on his face. "And they might just all wake up one morning and find Barrett-Jackson is camped in them."

If Jackson did turn his inexhaustible energy solely towards self-promotion, then it would be a pretty irresistible force for even for the most steely hack to try and resist, but he is more interesting than that, and also more interested in the subject his business deals with. He doesn't even need to be sidetracked.

It was a pleasure to meet him and, as always, comforting to be reassured that even such big wheels in the classic car industry are at heart just diehard enthusiasts who made good. The fact that as I was writing this I received a letter from Jackson thanking me for my time, shows that some of them are gentlemen, too.