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Family Values

Shaun Tolson

 Craig Jackson received many things from his father, but a free handout was never one of them.

“My dad never really spoiled me,” he recalls. “He did the opposite; he made me work for everything.”

In the mid-1950s, Jackson’s father, Russ, moved his family from the familiar confines of southeastern Michigan to Scottsdale, Ariz., adhering to the advice of the family’s doctors, who conjectured that a warmer, dryer climate would improve his ailing wife’s arthritis. At the time, Scottsdale was nothing more than a frontier town, a slowly modernizing community built along antiquated irrigation canals and dependent upon citrus and cotton farming. Once there, the Jacksons established a profitable full-service car wash that provided Russ with the means to add to his collection of ponderous, classic cars. A shared love for automobiles and a prospective Cadillac sale soon introduced the elder Jackson to Tom Barrett, a real estate mogul and Illinois transplant; and by the beginning of the 1970s, Barrett and Jackson had joined forces and established their namesake collector car auction company.

Craig Jackson was only 12 years old when his father’s auction company organized its first sale, but even prior to that, Jackson’s early childhood years were spent watching his father work hard for the things that he wanted. Because his father wanted an exceptional collection of rare and collectible cars, Jackson found himself always amidst exotic and high-performance automobiles—European classics that his father would purchase and restore or the era’s modern muscle cars that Craig’s older brother, Brian, would drag race at the nearby Beeline Dragway in Phoenix. Predictably, Jackson grew up with a passion for cars that rivaled his father’s; he just didn’t fawn over the same styles. “I’ve been in and around most of the world’s great classics and some of them are more fantasy than reality,” Jackson says. “I don’t necessarily share as much of the passion for the big classics. I’ve worked on them, I’ve driven them, but they have no synchros to ease gear changes and they are hard work to drive.”

As a teenager, what Jackson wanted to drive most was a muscle car. In particular, he yearned for a 1969 Camaro Z28, so his father made a deal with him—if Craig made the principal’s list, his father would go shopping with him for a used one. Craig held up his end of the bargain, but it only took a few test-drives for Jackson to realize that a Camaro wasn’t for him. A Z28 wasn’t going to cut it; but a Corvette would. Not a modern-day Corvette, which in 1977 had only 180 hp, but a ’vette from the late 1960s that flirted with 400 hp. “We looked at one Corvette near the Arizona State University campus—a ’68 427 T-top in Le Mans Blue—and it was just awful … in need of major work,” Jackson recalls.  I looked at it for about 10 seconds and went back to our truck. But I turned around and saw my dad shaking the guy’s hand.”

In a move that typified Russ Jackson’s work-hard-for-what-you-want mantra, Craig’s father had given his son the potential to own the powerful Corvette that he wanted, but he was going to require his son to work a little harder to get it. And Russ Jackson knew his son had the restoration ability to make it happen. From a young age, Craig met and learned from auto legends Carroll Shelby and Dan Gurney and often could be found in his father’s shop, helping his older brother work on his various drag racers. “I did the jobs in the shop that my brother didn’t want to do, including learning how to work an English wheel, all the buffing of the chromes pieces, sandblasting and all of that,” Jackson recalls. “I got every nasty job there was. I worked from the bottom on up.”

By the end of that summer, Craig had turned a downtrodden vehicle into a showpiece and, in the process, became the proud owner of a restored 1968 Corvette. Today, looking back, Jackson realizes that he acquired far more than that. “It was the first car I actually did 100 percent myself,” he says. “It was a good experience and really started me on my way.”

Thirty-four years after Jackson restored that 1968 Corvette, the chairman and CEO of Barrett-Jackson Auction Co. has grown his family’s company into a multifaceted enterprise spanning four states, while expanding his own personal car collection to an eclectic mix of 30 high-performance and—in some cases—one-of-a-kind automobiles. “If I don’t drive them or like them that much after I own them, there’s no sense in keeping them,” Jackson says, explaining that his collection has evolved over the years but today consists mostly of cars that he’ll never sell. “A lot of the cars are ones that I always really wanted and chased; others popped up that seemed so beautiful that I had to have them.”

Given his love affair with classic muscle cars as a teenager, it should come as no surprise that Jackson’s collection is dominated by a number of prolific, big-bore American powerhouses. Included in that lot is Dan Gurney’s 1970 AAR Plymouth Barracuda, a historic Trans Am made all the more significant by the fact that it’s equipped with the original, matching-numbers engine. As Jackson explains, when Chrysler America sold the car to Chrysler France following Gurney’s retirement, the car was raced for two years at Le Mans with a Hemi, not its original engine. When the car was returned, following its European racing stint, it came back to the States boasting the same engine under the hood as it had the day it left for France.

Other trophies in Jackson’s collection include the only exported 1970 Hemi ’Cuda ever built, which Jackson says Chrysler gifted to a British steel chairman who was instrumental in helping the American company survive the 1970 steel strike. The purple-and-white convertible is one of only 14 examples that were made, and such rarity, when combined with performance and a compelling story, often designates a vehicle destined to bolster Craig Jackson’s already grand collection. However, he has made some minor concessions along the way and, by way of example, points to a 1974 Pontiac Trans Am Super Duty. “It’s the last of the muscle cars, but I bought it because one of my best friends had one [when we were growing up],” Jackson says. “He used to kick my ass every time [we raced] and I couldn’t figure out why. I always wanted one and finally found one that looked exactly like his. So I fall into that same trap of wanting what you’ve always lusted for.”

As extraordinary as Jackson’s muscle car collection may be, how he acquired the vehicles is even more impressive. In as many instances as possible, Jackson has purchased his cars from the original owners, which assures him that he also can amass every piece of each vehicle’s documentation. It’s a feat made possible only because Jackson had the foresight years ago to recognize that the muscle car was destined to become the next great collectible automobile. “If you looked at the great classics that were worth so much money, it was the large-engine, small-body, convertible, limited-production cars that were expensive when they were originally built. A Duesenberg two-seat roadster, for example. Those were the main, heavy-hitter collector cars that came out of my dad’s era,” he says. “I took that same theory and started looking at [all] the baby boomers and the very limited muscle cars from that era. I went out and started buying them and had several people tell me that I was out of my mind, but I said, ‘Hey, you have to follow your passion.’”

By the mid-2000s, that passion had provided Jackson with the means to purchase a stunning, mountaintop home in an affluent community just north of Scottsdale. Describing his not-so-humble abode, the 52-year-old says it’s “what every guy wants to do if his wife would let him.”

But there was one problem: the home, built upon a 6.5-acre lot, had only a three-car garage. After previous living arrangements had required Jackson to spread out his car collection over numerous locales, the muscle car enthusiast was determined to build or find a residence that allowed him to garage most of his collection at home. As Jackson explains, there was only one solution to the problem. “The only place I could build a garage was to excavate the mountain,” he says, “and build it into the mountain.”

So that’s what Craig Jackson did.

Construction efforts began in 2006, and two and a half years later, the 9,000-square-foot extension was finished—connected to the main residence via sky bridge—complete with a home theater, rooms to showcase Jackson’s motorcycle and gun collections, and 7,000 square feet devoted to a state-of-the-art garage. Most important, that garage included a rotunda large enough to display a dozen cars, with a 13th spotlighted in the center on a motorized turntable. “Everybody has a dream, and being a car guy, I finally reached that point in my life where I could build my dream garage,” Jackson says. “I wanted a way to display my cars that was unique; it’s meant to be an auto gallery.”

The space certainly achieves that effect, but as Jackson notes, the rotunda also houses a significant amount of technology. For starters, an exhaust system and battery tenders are built into the floor, which allows each car to be started and, as Jackson describes, “exercised” on a regular basis from the safe confines of the display room. In addition, numerous touchscreen monitors are positioned throughout the rotunda, which provide easy access to scanned pages of each car’s documentation, as well as storyboards that chronicle each restoration project. “My garage used to be where I had so much stuff—all my memorabilia and awards for the cars and all that stuff,” Jackson says. “It was just too much. I decided to keep my stuff in a separate place and let the cars be the art, more like a gallery.”

Jackson may rotate through a small number of cars that he would consider his daily drivers, but when it comes to that central turntable, the space is reserved for only two. The first is his 1970 Hemi ’Cuda, a car he fondly declares to be his “pride and joy.” However, the Plymouth enjoys that power seat only when Jackson is out driving his 2008 Bugatti Veyron, a car that he acquired in 2010. But then, considering how frequently he jumps behind the wheel of the black-and-silver French supercar, it’s no surprise that the ’Cuda remains the central car of Jackson’s showroom. “The Veyron is a modern piece of art and just a kick in the ass to drive,” he says, adding that he’s logged 13,000 miles behind the wheel since acquiring the car less than two years ago. “When that thing hits and goes, it’s like being launched off the deck of an aircraft carrier; it just peels your face back. It makes getting to work a whole lot more fun.”

Going fast always has been a motivator for Jackson, but it’s not something he reserves only for his modern supercar. Vintage car races have been a staple of his auto-related pursuits for the past 15 years, and getting the chance to relive the glory days of American auto racing is something that, as far as Jackson is concerned, no contemporary car can match. “It’s a rush, especially with these fast, big-bore American muscle cars. They make it the highlight of every vintage race,” he says. “I’ll take out contemporary cars, but it’s just not as much fun. I like the loudness of a car that’s a little bit of a brute and hard to handle. That keeps you on your edge.”

There may be a finish line when racing is involved, but when it comes to car collecting, Jackson approaches the hobby with the understanding that it’s an ever-changing pursuit, even when you have that one, perfect vehicle in mind. To illustrate, he points to his dream car, a Ferrari California Spyder, which he purchased in 2000. Jackson bought the car specifically for the Colorado Grand, a by-invitation-only vintage rally through the Rocky Mountains, but one quick drive made him realize that his dream car was designed with a smaller driver in mind.“Car collecting is not about the money, it’s about the passion. And sometimes you have the passion, but you don’t have the money. Or sometimes, like the California Spyder,” he says, “you get the car of your dreams and realize that you don’t fit in it.”

But therein lays the beauty of car collecting. It’s the prospect of discovery that fuels collectors. And, as Jackson explains, the greatest moment comes “when you open up that barn that hasn’t been opened in 30 years and there’s dust and spider webs covering everything and you pull the car out and you realize you’ve found it.”

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