PHOENIX — Most people have forgotten that before there was an Arizona auction week, there was a classic car show created to raise money for charity.
In the 1960s, the organizers were the Barretts, who recently had moved from Chicago area, and the Jacksons, newcomers from Pontiac, Mich., and the event they launched wasn’t the now-famous Barrett-Jackson classic car auction but the Fiesta de los Autos Elegantes, a parade and car show that raised money for the Scottsdale library and the city’s new art center.
Russ Jackson and Tom Barrett were among the early classic car collectors, and by 1971 they found themselves with so many cars they brought in an auctioneer to sell not only some of theirs, but those owned by other collectors as well.
Fast-forward a few decades and we have the annual Arizona auction week, usually with six major auction companies selling classic and collector cars.
For several years, a local charity established to help people with cancer and those caring for them hosted a vintage racing car show at the start of auction week. But new management decided not to continue the effort. A small committee, including former Indy 500 race car driver and now Phoenix resident Lyn St. James, resurrected the event, though only for one year.
But their hope had been to grow that show into a full-fledged concours d’elegance, like the one held each summer at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Mich., or the most famous of all in the United States, the one each summer on the golf links at Pebble Beach in Monterey, Calif.
Phoenix car collector Kevin Cornish annually attends the Pebble Beach event, and in 2015 he came home and told his car-club friends it was “an embarrassment that we don’t have one.”
So he put together a small steering committee, which recruited a larger organizing committee, and they convened the famed Arizona Biltmore, that Art Deco oasis in the desert, to allow them to array nearly 80 classic automobiles on the oh-so-carefully-manicured lawns within the resort complex.
The inaugural Arizona Concours d’Elegance was staged in January, officially opened classic car auction week, and drew some 2,000 people to see 78 amazing automobiles and to raise money for Make-A-Wish Arizona.
The event included the typical concours classes, but featured cars from 100-year-old Italian automaker Maserati as well as those from famous American automaker Packard.
The committee members eve convinced many of their fellow Phoenix-area car collectors to share some gems from their otherwise well-hidden collections. They brought in respected judges with international reputations. And they impressed one and seemingly all with their inaugural effort.
For their part, the judges selected the best cars in each class, and from the best-in-class winners chose the best of show, a 1925 Hispano-Suiza H6B cabriolet de villa that Donald Nichols of Lompoc, Calif., had found deteriorating in an alley in Sarasota, Fla.
The car originally had been sold to industrialist-turned-U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, who later gave the car to his chauffeur as a retirement present. The chauffeur moved to Florida and kept the car garaged, but when he died, the car was rolled out into an alley.
Nichols saw and bought the car, but was so intimidated at the thought of its restoration that he kept it in his garage for 40 years, and then too nine more to bring it back to its original glory.