Behind the Scenes of Mecum, Today's Largest Automotive Auction

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the January 2020 issue of Classic Motorsports and references events that have already happened. Some information and prices may be different today.]

Story by Steven Cole Smith • Photography as Credited

The legend suggests that in 610 A.D.–give or take a decade–the Prophet Muhammad, in order to impress upon his audience that his teachings were appropriately incandescent–, commanded the nearby Mount Safa to come to him. The mountain declined to move. Muhammad, thinking on his feet, then noted that it was a good thing God left the mountain where it was, because had it moved, it could have crushed them all.

The lesson, we suppose, is that moving a mountain is difficult.

In Kissimmee, Florida, there are no mountains, with the possible exception of Space Mountain and a few other manmade structures at nearby Walt Disney World. Lacking a mountain to move, Robb Larson, general manager of the Osceola Heritage Park, commanded an entire lake to move, and it did.

He had a pretty good reason. The sprawling Osceola Heritage Park, just south of Orlando, hosts dozens of events, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses convention to the Florida Stamp Show to the North American Grappling Association championships.

But the crown jewel of the Osceola Heritage Park is the annual Mecum Auction, scheduled for January 2–12, 2020. It’s an unlikely place for an auction, and it started out small. But it grew. And grew. In 15 years, the Mecum Auction Kissimmee has become the largest auto auction in the world. By far. Second place isn’t even close.

And it’s getting bigger. The auction needed more room. It was observed that if the lake next to the auction complex wasn’t there, imagine how much more room there’d be! So Robb Larson is moving the lake, fish and frogs and all. Muhammad unfortunately did not have access to bulldozers, but Larson does.


Photograhy Credit: David S. Wallens

As a result, the Mecum Auction Kissimmee will continue to grow. As it did in 2019, the house is advertising that it expects 3500 vehicles for the 2020 auction. But, whispered a Mecum executive, “I really like the sound of 4000.”

Which would be, as it already is, just enormous. Compare it to other Mecum Auctions: Chicago, 1000 cars. Kansas City, 700. Glendale, Arizona, 2000. Houston, 1000. The Indianapolis 33rd Original Spring Classic, previously the largest Mecum auction, 2000 vehicles.

Why is Mecum Kissimmee so big? Auction executives credit founder Dana Mecum with identifying Florida as a key state. During the winter, you have snowbirds who come here to live for several months a year and can, after all, afford two homes; you have families from the Midwest who come down to vacation, and you have a large endemic demographic of retirees and residents who like cars, and likely have some money to spend on them.

The Merchandise

Mecum itself has been the largest auto auction company since 2011. But, some of the purists sniff, so much of what the company markets is comparatively pedestrian stuff—Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs, Chevy Corvettes, a variety of, for goodness’ sake, pickup trucks—as opposed to the rarefied air surrounding, say, a Gooding & Company auction populated by Bugattis, Mercedes-Benz Gullwings and the occasional Isotta Fraschini Tipo IM.

Auctions like that are marvelous and compelling and educational, but the odds of an average automotive enthusiast raising a bidder’s paddle when a 1939 Lagonda V12 Rapide Drophead Coupe crosses the block are scant.

At Mecum Kissimmee, there’s something for everybody. If you don’t want a vehicle, there are literally thousands of pieces of “road art” available, though the hammer price of a nice, original, porcelain neon sign can rival that of a car.

But if you do want a new ride, or a new project, come to Mecum Kissimmee on Thursday, January 2, and you’ll see some bargains cross the block with either low or no reserve. Just look back at the 2019 event for a taste. How about a 2008 Pontiac Solstice GXP for $6600? Or a flawless 2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK55 convertible for $12,100? A 2004 Porsche Boxster for $6600? Or an oddball VW-based 1969 MG TD replica for $8800? A nice 1962 Ford Fairlane once owned by NASCAR star Bill Elliott, and used in a TV commercial for NAPA with Elliott, son Chase and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? It went for $7700. And how about that ultra-stretched, black 2006 Hummer H2 limousine? $19,250.

Oh, there’s some weirdness, but it’s mostly entertaining weirdness. Many of us winced when the 1988 Chevrolet S-10 ratrod—with enormous red-sidewall rear tires, wheelie bars and some kind of toothed, snarling-mouthed paint job that surrounded the front wheels—crossed the block. Proving that there’s no accounting for taste, someone anted up $4400 for it. The 5.7-liter Chevy crate motor was worth that.

Mecum’s sell-through is typically 65 to 70 percent; it was 72 percent at the 2019 Mecum Kissimmee, with a total of $107.5 million changing hands. Many of the cars are sold without reserve, meaning the owner will accept the highest bid, whatever it is. Other cars have a reserve, a minimum price that must be reached before the car will be sold.

Those 30 or 35 percent that don’t reach the reserve are tagged with The Bid Goes On as they roll off the block, and are dispatched to a tent where, quite often, the owner and a buyer negotiate in private and sometimes reach a deal. Maybe the buyer, for instance, offers a vehicle as a partial trade and the seller takes it-a detail that really can’t be addressed during the actual auction.

Of course, Mecum Kissimmee also has plenty of showcase vehicles, but most might still be considered less sophisticated than, for example, the 1951 Maserati A6G/2000 Spider that Bonhams sold at Scottsdale for $2,755,000 last January.


Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

This isn’t to say that Mecum Kissimmee doesn’t have exotics, and it definitely has some bidders with deep pockets to balance out us bottom feeders. The top sold car at the 2019 event was a Ferrari–a 2014 LaFerrari that went for a healthy $3.3 million. Number two: a 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake that sold for $2.2 million. In the top 10 was a 1930 Duesenberg–yes, Mecum does have some true vintage classics–and a 1954 Chrisman Bonneville Hemi Coupe–which, in 1954, ran 196 mph at Bonneville, and was featured on the cover of Hot Rod magazine. There was also a 1955 Imperial convertible, a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and a 2005 Ford GT—Mecum Kissimmee’s top 10 were all over the place and in no way suggested any sort of identifiable trend.

And there was also Dana Mecum’s 1965 Ford GT Competition Prototype roadster, the only GT roadster to race at Le Mans, where Ford of France fielded it in 1965. Bidding reached a sobering $10 million, but that didn’t match the reserve.

How the Magic Happens

We know Mecum Kissimmee works, but we hung around backstage to learn how and why. And thanks to David Morton, manager of communications and event marketing for Mecum, nothing and no one was off limits.

Mecum Auctions, based in Walworth, Wisconsin, which is southwest of Milwaukee, got its start with a small event at an airport in 1988. “We’re really a family business that grew up and got big,” understates Dana Mecum, company president. Indeed, his wife, Patti, works the auctions, as do their four sons. They help oversee the 200-odd employees who make these events happen.

While touring Mecum’s temporary office at Osceola Heritage Park–all their offices are temporary, breaking down, moving, then being reconstructed at the next venue–there’s a sense that everything has been streamlined to the maximum. In one far corner is perhaps the most interesting office here: It’s essentially the detective bureau.

Mecum gets so many numbers-matching vehicles that the company employs a team of researchers to verify them. Did that Chrysler really come with a Hemi engine? Is that 427-cubic-inch V8 in this Corvette original? Very little gets by this meticulous crew, and you do not want to play automotive trivia against them—unless you know, say, that it was possible to match the engine with the chassis in a 1954 Corvette but not a 1953.

There’s another desk that researches titles. That’s a challenge if you do business in just one state, but since Mecum cars and buyers come from all over the country—and, we learned, some states are a whole lot easier to work with than others—experience pays off. The office often has a long line of sad-looking sellers looking for help and some reassurance that they have the required paperwork. Cars don’t cross the block at Mecum until they’ve been fully vetted.

A separate area deals with financing. A friend, just to see if he could, applied for an unsecured loan right there on the premises, and to his shock, 2 hours after he turned in his application, he had $30,000 to spend. Which, incidentally, he did.

Some customers go through the Mecum Financial Services process, available online at mecum.com, and apply in advance for a loan of up to $250,000. Get that, and you could have bought Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s track-ready 2007 No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet Impala NASCAR ride, which sold for $39,600, and had $210,400 remaining to spend on neon signs and hot dogs.

And there’s still another office that deals with transportation. As part of Mecum’s philosophy to keep everything it can inhouse, the company has a fleet of about a dozen 18-wheelers that both transport vehicles to the auction and, upon request, deliver them to the new owners. Mecum Auto Transport’s service isn’t overnight, but the prices are reasonable.


Photography Credit: Mecum

While selling and buying at auction seem simple, there are, of course, fees and commissions involved. Registering as a bidder, for instance, costs $100 in advance, $200 the day of the sale. If you aren’t a Gold member (which costs $500), you need to provide a credit card for a $500 “authorization hold.” Vehicles must be paid for, typically within an hour of the sale, in cash, wire transfer or check.

Other fees vary. At Mecum Kissimmee, it costs between $350 and $1500 to auction a car, depending on the placement of the car in the auction lineup and how it’s presented in the catalog. As for commission, the lowest rate is 6% of the sale price if there is no reserve; Mecum, like all auction houses, prefers the no-reserve route. If a seller insists on a reserve, it’s 10%. The standard bidder’s premium is 10%, 12% for those bidding online or on the phone. An admission ticket, just to watch, costs $20.

And finally, there’s the TV package, which helped launch Mecum toward world’s-largest status. Arguably BarrettJackson pioneered the auction-on-TV marketing tool, but Mecum wasn’t far behind, bringing in a full crew for the sexiest days of the auction.

The 2020 Mecum Kissimmee auction will sell cars for 11 straight days. The full TV crew won’t be there for the whole auction, but it will be there to host the broadcast live on NBC Sports Network—to ratings significantly higher than when coverage aired on the now-defunct Velocity network before 2014. Analysts include John Kraman, who usually shows up early to help set up the broadcast; racer/writer Stephen Cox; and automotive and drag racing guru Bill Stephens.

Kraman hired on with Mecum in 2006 “to help Dana take the company to the next level,” he said. The NBC Sports deal, which was recently re-upped through 2024, includes airings on the Sky network in the United Kingdom and Europe, as well as on NBC here. The deal calls for coverage of at least 12 Mecum auctions, with Kissimmee being front and center. “We did 30 hours of live programming,” Kraman said of last year’s coverage, as well as highlight shows—“Mecum’s Top 10 Mustangs” and “Mecum’s Top 10 Camaros”-that sort of thing.

At present, it doesn’t look like Mecum Kissimmee will do anything but get bigger, and there’s no auction out there in a position to challenge it for the lead. “This auction has been an amazing part of Mecum’s stable for years,” said Dave Magers, the CEO of Mecum Auctions, hired away from a top insurance company by Dana Mecum to help shore up the business side of the company.

Magers–who, incidentally, drives a Dodge Hellcat Challenger-believes that Mecum’s simple formula of offering cars that sell for low-four-figures to well into the millions appeals to everyone who likes interesting cars. “And if that formula works,” he said, “I certainly have no plans to change it.”


Photography Credit: Mecum

So, what will be on the Mecum Kissimmee block for 2020? The premier entry is the Highland Green 1967 Ford Mustang GT driven by Steve McQueen in the film “Bullitt,” one of two cars used in the filming. In addition, there’s Mickey Thompson’s 1968 Bonneville Streamliner that Thompson’s son, Danny, drove 448.757 mph; one of the 11 original “Eleanor” 1967 Ford Mustangs; and a 2019 McLaren Senna with 203 miles, the second of 500 built.

And if you get there early, you’ll also find a bunch of cars that just about anyone can afford.

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