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The Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance; Goodwood; Luftgekühlt; the Quail; just some of the events that litter enthusiasts’ dream vacation and bucket lists. But car shows aren’t the only kinds of events worth going to. Races like the Isle of Man TT, Daytona 200 and 500, Monaco Grand Prix, and the various WRC and ARA rallies also rank high on the ‘must attend’ scale. However, there’s one more kind of event enthusiasts should add to their calendars: a live car auction like the Mecum one I recently attended in Chicago.

You can’t replicate the sound and energy of a live car auction

Classic muscle cars lined up at the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction
Classic muscle cars lined up at the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Even before the pandemic accelerated things, online auctions, through independent websites or established auction houses, have become increasingly important. But while the pandemic pumped the brakes on many events, live car auctions were far from dying out. And though I’ve seen pictures of live auctions, walking into the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction I was reminded that seeing things on screens is not the same thing as living them.

While the Chicago Mecum auction wasn’t the biggest car auction by any means, it’s significantly bigger than any Cars & Coffee I’ve ever been to. There were bleachers packed with attendees parked behind several rows of chairs filled with still more attendees. And those were just the people who were sitting. Plenty more auction-goers, along with Mecum employees and camera operators, prowled around inside and outside.

But it wasn’t just the sheer number of people that were causing the noise. No, it was the auctioneer, a man in a black cowboy hat who rapidly rattled out a refrain that I’d only heard in fiction. “Cananyonebid canyonebid-a $10 canyonebid $12,000 cananybid-a $15,000 bid cananyonebid I hear a $20,000 bid canyonebid-a cananyone bid a $22,000 canyonebid- a five bid-em-up five doIhear-a $25,000 bid…” On and on the numbers went until he yelled, “Sold!” and banged his hammer. And then the Mecum employee next to him introduced another car, motorcycle, boat, or motoring-related item, and the next auction started.

Keep in mind, it wasn’t just the people in the bleachers and chairs that were raising their hands and auction booklets to register bids. Mecum, like essentially all car auction houses today, tracks online bids in real-time. So, the auctioneer wasn’t just paying attention to the helpers on the floor calling out bids through hand signs. He was surrounded by other Mecum employees on computers and phones monitoring auction bids.

As nerve-wracking as it is watching a car auction tick down on Cars & Bids or Bring a Trailer, a live Mecum event is even more exciting.

How does an in-person car auction like the Mecum one work?

An auctioneer calls for bids at the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction
An auctioneer calls for bids at the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

I mentioned earlier that people were wandering around inside and outside. That’s because the event was split into two sections. The actual auction ‘block’ was inside one convention center area. Mecum employees drove cars into the area through some open doors and shut off their engines so the cars could be wiped down and inspected. Then, once it was a specific vehicle’s turn, the driver turned it back on, drove forward to the main staging area, and the bidding began. After a brief period, the driver rolled the car forward into a secondary staging area until bidding ended. Then the car went back outside to the pick-up area.

It’s worth pointing out that not every auction ended with someone winning a car, truck, or motorcycle. If a specific vehicle’s reserve wasn’t met, Mecum put it in a special ‘The Bid Goes On’ listing. After that auction concluded, potential buyers could talk with the seller and Mecum representatives to work out a deal.

Standing on the auction line, I watched as a new Ford Bronco sold for $99,000 and a JDM Supra sold for even more. And I peered into the interiors and engine bays of classic muscle cars, vintage luxury cars, and modern performance cars as they rolled by. But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was outside, under the tents and in the parking lot where the cars were kept.

The greatest thing about the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction is the sheer accessibility

One of the biggest no-nos at a car show is touching the displayed vehicles. You can chat with the owners, look at the interior, and gaze into the engine bay, but no touching. And that’s what set the Mecum auction far apart from your average Cars & Coffee or summertime car display: you can touch the cars. Not only that but you’re almost expected to, at least before the car gets to the block. After all, how else can you truly assess a car’s condition?

The thrill of walking around unimpeded, opening, a door and sitting behind the wheel of a car…it’s incredible. I was giggling like a five-year-old sneaking cookies out of a jar. And even on the last day of the auction, there were almost too many cars to explore. Every few feet there was something different catching my attention.

The bank-vault solidity of a W126 S-Class’s doors. A stock, near-perfect 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi. One of my dream cars, a Mercedes 280SE. Multiple brand-new Ford Broncos; a Ram TRX Launch Edition; modified vintage Studebaker, Chevrolet, and Ford pickups; so many Cobra replicas. Then there was the more obscure stuff, like a Corvette-powered Excalibur SS, a replica of the Mercedes SSK. And speaking of Corvettes, it turns out a company called Phillips Motorcar turned several C3s into Berlina Coupes, which look like something Cruella de Ville might drive.

But that was just a small fraction of the 573 vehicles sold at the 2021 Chicago Mecum auction. Numerous vintage Honda Trails crossed the block, as did a Harley-Davidson FXE, a first-year CVO model. There were also some boats, including a mahogany-hulled Hacker-Craft Bootlegger that failed to sell at $60,000. And while the boats were cordoned off, as were a few ‘private collection’ cars, basically everything else was unlocked.

There are other places where you could geek out in glee with some fellow enthusiasts over a pristine C107 Mercedes. But those places likely wouldn’t let you sit in the driver’s seat while you gawk.

How much does it cost to attend a Mecum event?

As with auctions like Barrett-Jackson, getting into a Mecum event isn’t free, even if you’re not planning on bidding. However, a general-admission ticket only costs $20. An adult ticket to the Chicago Auto Show, another place where you can touch and get into cars, is only $5 cheaper.

For what you get out of it, though, that price is worth it.

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