Mecum Auctions Survived 2020 Thanks to Big Changes and a Little Luck

Car shows, product launches, and automotive auctions nearly came to a halt this year for the sake of public health. That’s a whole lot of jobs and lives on the line, and companies like Mecum run 12 auctions and sell around 15,000 cars per year. In 2020, they lost four events and postponed three of them, and their 200+ workforce scrabbled to adapt. Fortunately, the company made a big investment in its online auction platform in January, which turned out to be a saving grace.

“When the initial shutdown came down six months ago, it all paid off,” Frank Mecum told me. “We were ready to shift gears and move to a mobile company on the fly.”

Some cities were unwilling to host a car auction no matter what precautions were taken, but Mecum has done its best to mitigate spread as much possible by cutting seating way back, allowing no more than two people per table, running temp checks at the door, providing hand washing stations, and of course, requiring masks.

The fact that it is broadcast on TV means it’s even more important that they’re showing the world they have a good program and they’re enforcing it, Mecum Director of Company Relations and TV Commentator John Kramer told me on the phone.

Frank says they bolstered absentee sales through the new internet system, adding more tech staff and beefing up online descriptions. They also ramped up the streaming ability so it’s more up-to-the second; before January, online bidding experienced delays that were up to 30 seconds, which can be a big problem during a live auction. Now they’re down to a delay of only 1.5 seconds. Before the pandemic, absentee bidding was less than 10%, and it’s currently averaging 20-30%.

More than 30 years ago, when Dana Mecum started his eponymous auction company at his dining room table, he might not have pictured the current combination of in-person and virtual bidding, but it has helped them grow tremendously. His father sold Studebakers and Packards at Mecum Pontiac Buick in Marengo, Illinois and he passed down his passion to his son. In turn, Dana and his wife raised Frank and his three brothers, all of whom are now in the car auction business.

The auction house competes with Barrett Jackson, but Mecum says it is ranked number one in the world with number of collector cars offered at auction and number of collector cars sold at auction. It also claims a number-one rank in the U.S. with number of auction venues and total dollar volume of sales. Mecum specializes in American classics and muscle cars and touts a wider price range than its competition, but it doesn’t miss out on some big-ticket items either.

Rock-and-roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis consigned a ‘57 Harley-Davidson that was given to him by the motorcycle manufacturer.  When they took the reserve off, Lewis played Great Balls of Fire for the crowd and it sold for $350,000. And on January 10, the company auctioned off one of two 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastbacks Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullitt.

“It hadn’t been seen in 40 years,” Frank said. “It had been rumored it was here or there or crashed.”

When the Bullitt came out of hiding, still banged up and rusty, it broke Mustang sale records with a final sale price of $3.74 million, which includes the buyer’s and seller’s fees. Mark Delzell, who has been working for the company for 33 years and has missed only two auctions, says it’s like a shot of espresso and gives you an adrenaline rush when the price ratchets up. In the last 10-15 years, he started using a tablet on the auction block that keeps him up to the second on the auction price. It has changed quite a bit since pencil and paper, but the auctioneer’s cadence remains the same.

What’s next in auction trends? Frank says restomods has become a big thing for a couple of reasons: one, younger buyers like the retro look but enjoy more modern conveniences. And two, for the same reason, the older generation wants power steering so they don’t have to wrestle with it any more.

So far, the updates and adaptations seem to be working; the company is gearing up for its next set of events and they’re enthusiastic about selling and sharing their zeal for anything with an engine.  

“There are worse places to put money than in a collector car,” Kramer told me. “I wouldn’t call it an investment, but it’s something with tangible value and it brings ego and satisfaction.”

After all, getting into car and taking a drive is a highly-recommended break from the real world right now.

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