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Up Close & Personal With Steve Davis - Life On The Block
When You're Watching Coverage Of the Barrett-Jackson Auction In January, Keep An Eye Out For President Steve Davis. He's A Mustang Guy Like Us.
When I visited with Barrett-Jackson President Steve Davis last February, he had just moved into a new office at the Barrett-Jackson headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona. Unpacked boxes were still stacked along the wall. Steve wanted to show me something, so he started rustling through them, finally locating the box he was looking for. He pulled out a stack of magazines and spread them out on his desk-Mustang Monthly, Super Ford, Mustang Illustrated, and other Mustang or Ford magazines, most of them from the '80s and '90s. All had yellow Post-It stickers hanging out of the pages to mark specific Mustang information.
Then he started pulling out Ford literature-Mustang showroom brochures, a stack of California Special postcards, and old Ford Times magazines. It was no different from the times I've visited Mustang owners at their homes. Everyone who loves Mustangs has a stash of magazines, literature, and memorabilia. Steve Davis is no different.
Steve was a car guy from the start. As a kid, he built models and collected Hot Wheels. But when he saw a Rally-Pac on the steering column of an early Mustang, his allegiance was sealed. He started reading magazines and collecting literature, some right out of the Ford dealership trash dumpster, before stepping up to collecting parts and accessories. At first, Mustangs were a dream, then he bought his first one. In 1977, he bought his first Shelby. His passion for Mustangs soon evolved into a business, Valley Oak Auto, where Steve bought and sold Mustangs, a venture that would lead him to Barrett-Jackson.
For the past six years, Steve has served as vice president, then president of Barrett-Jackson, working closely with Chairman and CEO Craig Jackson to produce the world's largest and most famous collector car auctions in Scottsdale, West Palm Beach, and Las Vegas. Steve's responsibilities include overseeing and managing all operations and departments related to auction sales, where he interacts with customers, both consignors/sellers and bidders/buyers. He's also an influential member of the collector car industry and serves as an advisor to Carroll Shelby. You'll see his comments about collector cars in USA Today and in leading automotive magazines.
So when you're watching SpeedTV's coverage of the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Auction from Scottsdale, January 11-18, keep an eye out for the guy in the sunglasses. He's a Mustang person just like the rest of us.
MM: How did you get interested in Mustangs?
Davis: When I was a kid, I had Hot Wheels and models. I remember a '65 or '66 Mustang fastback caught my eye. The magic moment was when I saw the Rally-Pac on the steering column. I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. That was a defining moment with me with Mustangs.
MM: How old were you then?
Davis: I'm old enough to remember when the Mustang came out but I wasn't old enough to drive or buy one. As a kid, I would save anything related to Mustangs or Shelbys. I'd tear out articles and advertisements from magazines and preserve them in binders, which I still have after all these years.
MM: That's the stuff in the boxes, right?
Davis: Yes. I would even go through the dumpsters at local Ford dealerships, which usually had a treasure trove of stuff. The dumpster was my shopping opportunity. To the dealer, it was worthless. I've still got bundles of stuff, like the California Special postcards and '68 Mustang sales brochures, right out the dumpster. Somewhere I've got an Autolite dealer giveaway that was an incentive for the best guy in the service department. It's a timing light, spark plugs, and a fishing reel in a cardboard presentation case that was designed to sit on the counter.
MM: You ended up starting a business...
Davis: I started my business, Valley Oak Auto, which still exists today in Visalia, California, in 1979. I kind of became the go-to guy for Mustang parts. In 1979, I decided to leave corporate America, where I worked in finance, to start my own car business. It was a collector car business but really more of a glorified used car lot. In 1979, the '60s and '70s cars weren't the cars they are today. I've got boxes full of paperwork where I sold Mustangs for just a few hundred dollars.
Back then, I would go out in a big truck with a couple of friends and we would buy anything Mustang related-Rally-Pacs, Styled Steel wheels, GT trumpet exhaust. Those things weren't reproduced back then. I bought hundreds of Rally-Pacs.
I'd buy 10 to 20 Mustangs on a trip. I would rebuild the cars and give them my own special touch with fresh paint, accessories, and custom upholstery with two-tone piping. I was doing that kind of thing long before people started doing what they're doing now. I never represented a non-GT to be GT, but back then originality was in the eye of the beholder. It was kind of the beginning of restomods.
I once found a guy who had a whole box of lighted pony corrals. They became one of my trademarks-I had to put a lighted pony corral in my cars. I still have some of the corrals.
MM: How did that lead you to Barrett-Jackson?
Davis: I was a consignor through Valley Oak Auto. My calling card was bringing nice Mustangs to Barrett-Jackson to sell. I was building cars for retail buyers who didn't know the differences between C-codes, A-codes, and K-codes with 271 hp and solid lifters. They just wanted something really cool.
I'd bring as many as 40-odd cars in one year. At one time, I was one of the top consignors at Barrett-Jackson. Regardless of the number of cars, I'd always have a couple of truck loads of Mustangs and sell them at no-reserve back when no one was selling cars at no-reserve, so now you can see where our no-reserve influence came from. I had strong feelings about a car doing really well as a result of an owner there to represent it honestly, nothing to hide, no smoke and mirrors. I like to interact with people. To explain to them, "This is an A-code, D-code," whatever they wanted to talk about. And I loved it. I had people who would wait for my cars every year.
I sold a C-code Mustang GT look-alike convertible one year at Barrett-Jackson for $50,000 back when those cars were going for around $15,000. It had every kind of rare accessory you could think of. There were two bidders who just had to have it. A world record price resulted from the competitive bidding. It was validating for my efforts as a restorer, builder, and enthusiast of these cars to know there were people out there who would appreciate a special car offered with no-reserve.
The thing that drove it home for me, and still does today, is the passion these cars represent. They are so much more than just utilitarian devices. People name their cars and, in some cases, think of them as part of the family. I love that stuff.
MM: When did you start working at Barrett-Jackson?
Davis: My first Barrett-Jackson as a consignor was 1979. I've had a working relationship with Barrett-Jackson since around 1997. I started out as a consultant, then eventually got into a vice president role, then executive vice president, and now president. It involves some really interesting things.
MM: What do you say to people who claim that Barrett-Jackson is responsible for today's high values?
Davis: You see a lot of the passion for these cars and that, coupled with supply and demand, are contributing to the higher prices. But keep in mind, Barrettt-Jackson is just the platform that the transaction takes place upon; at the end of the day, it is the buyer and seller who dictate the market. The tremendous reach and awareness that Barrett-Jackson represents does help drive interest. This may impact prices, but it also brings more people into our hobby. Why shouldn't these cars demand these kind of prices? It's Americana. If you question Boss 429s bringing the kind of money they do, you haven't been out trying to find an NOS smog system for one. That gives you a reality check when you price some of these rare pieces. There's just something uniquely American about Mustangs. Something magical about what they represent. Everybody remembers or has a story about a Mustang.
MM: As president of Barrett-Jackson, do you have to hide your Mustang loyalty?
Davis: I love anything that rolls. But there's just something magical about Mustangs. When you say the word, it's universal-everyone understands it. There was a time when we had to fight to keep the Mustang. Remember when it was going to be the Probe? It's great to be able to walk into a showroom today and buy a car with more horsepower than you ever dreamed of back in the day, with air conditioning that actually works and all the cool electronics, yet still have the same aura and mystique that they had back then. That's not to take away from the old cars. As cool as the new cars are, there's something unique about getting into an old Mustang, firing it up, and taking it for a spin.
MM: Sounds like you might have been involved with the Barrett-Jackson edition of the Shelby GT.
Davis: Yes, the culmination of my Mustang love to date is the Barrett-Jackson limited-edition Shelby GT. For a Mustang and Shelby guy, someone who grew up dreaming to someday be involved in a project with Ford and Shelby, and actually making it a reality, it is an amazing feeling. We only built 100 cars. We worked with the powers at Ford and directly with Carroll to make it happen. And to have the first cars delivered at the auction in January was just incredible.
MM: The first Barrett-Jackson Shelby GT was sold for charity, right?
Davis: Actually, it is the No. 9 car we are auctioning off for the Lili Claire Foundation at our Las Vegas event. It's a great feeling to be in a position where you can make a positive difference with these cars. The Shelby cars at Barrett-Jackson have raised millions of dollars for charity.
MM: We see you on-screen quite often during the SpeedTV coverage of the Barrett-Jackson auctions. You're easy to spot with the sunglasses.
Davis: My eyes are very sensitive to light. That's why my office lights are dim. My sunglasses are right here-I never go far without them. As a result, people recognize me as the guy in the sunglasses.
MM: Ever sold a Mustang you wish you had kept?
Davis: All of them, but I did have a '66 K-code convertible with the factory bench seat and automatic transmission. Very rare car and fun to drive. That's a car I wish I had back. You love them all but you can only keep a few.
Steve's Shelby Story
"I bought my first Shelby in 1977. I was driving in Visalia and met a guy coming into town in a red '67 GT500 towing a Brittany Blue '67 GT350 on an open trailer. Later, I got a call from a couple of buddies who said the GT350 was at the Visalia Ford dealership. Every night I would pick my mom up from work and, on the way home, we would stop so I could look at this Shelby. I just fell in love with it. It wasn't for sale but I couldn't have afforded it anyway.
"Turned out the Ford dealer didn't really own the car. The guy who owned it was a friend of his and he was just storing it for him. Eventually, the guy decided to sell the car and we ended up putting a deal together. I had to put a second mortgage on our house. I still own the car today.
"About three years ago, I got a call from David Adams, the original owner. He had found a shoebox with some of his old memories, including paperwork for the Shelby. His father had bought the car for him as a graduation gift. When I bought the car, it was supercharged and I always thought it was factory. He said it was factory. Subsequently, it was authenticated through a document that SAAC found.
"Every time I talked to him, he had another story to tell: 'Have I mentioned that I raced this car at the IHRA nationals in 1969? I won First Place in the Pure Stock class. I still have the trophy.'
"He also told me that he blew up the engine. I don't know that I wanted to hear that. Then he told me that he had a special engine built for it. On the phone, I could hear papers rattling as he dug through the shoebox. He said, 'Here's the paperwork. Oh yeah, it came from Holman-Moody.'
"His son was now grown and they wanted to come to Barrett-Jackson to see the car. So the car was picked up in California and brought to Scottsdale. I asked Carroll Shelby if he could stick around to meet David and his son. We had the whole thing choreographed so it could be filmed for our Life on the Block TV show. We pulled up to the car and the owner introduced himself and his son.
"He started talking about how he remembered things, like the Hurst shifter instead of a factory shifter. Then he asked me to open the truck, and there was the drag racing trophy. He had brought it with him in his carry-on luggage. He'd found the car before I got there and arranged to put the trophy in the trunk. He pulled one over on me.
"Not long afterward, I got a call from one of my buddies in Visalia. He had been at the local car show and met a girl who had a Shelby for sale. He was thinking it was the red GT500 that pulled my car into town in 1977. Turned out, she was the daughter of the guy who trailered my car with the GT500. He had passed away and she got the car as an inheritance.
"She said she had a picture of my car on a trailer behind the red GT500. Turns out that the picture was taken by her father on the same day that I saw him driving into Visalia from Indiana. That's just scary good."