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TRANSITIONS: Where nostalgia and horsepower collide

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Economists are desperately searching for signs that the American consumer is ready to start spending again. They’re studying retail reports, inventory figures, M1, M2 and, when there’s time to kill between innings, M3. So far, nothing. As near as they can figure, Americans are using their credit cards only to scrape paint.

Economists would see the situation much differently if they would just attend a Mecum car auction. Then they would say, “We need to find ways to slow down the American consumer, who seems to think money grows in glove compartments.”

If you’re not familiar with the Mecum organization, your television set can fill you in. Ratings suggest that TV viewers care only about “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Got Talent” and any show involving a stove, but that’s not so. There is a whole other world inside every flat-screen, and it’s made for middle-aged men.

That’s where we go to watch guys get injured while trawling for fish, get in shouting matches while cutting down big trees and get into a state of panic while driving large trucks on ice. Yes, the world of men suffered quite a loss when the Three Stooges retired.

But we also have interests that don’t require trips to the emergency room, just panicky phone calls to the bank. Mecum Auctions travels from city to city, staging easily televised events that parade beautiful, desirable automobiles past drooling men with disposable income. It’s like a strip club, except touching is allowed.

The extravaganza came to Des Moines a couple of weekends ago with 500 cars to sell in the Varied Industries Building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. The nation might think of our Fairgrounds as a place to see a cow sculpted in butter, but for two days, it was a place to see a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner followed by a ’66 Pontiac GTO and a ’71 Dodge Charger and so on, until enough nostalgia was floating in the air to gum up a four-barrel carburetor.

Lights flash, the auctioneer shouts, engines rumble, exhaust fumes start to work their magic on your cerebral functions, and before long you are no longer concerned with the projected annual growth of your investment portfolio. You’re thinking: “Maybe a 1969 Ford Boss 429 four-speed would solve all of my problems.”

After all, you suddenly realize, “If I don’t raise my hand right this instant to buy back my high school years, somebody else will.”

Fortunately, pure impulse bidding is not part of the equation, because Mecum requires a $500 deposit before handing you a bidder’s credentials. It weeds out the people who think of $500 as the price of a decent car, plus enough oil to drive it most of the way home.

A bidder’s tag around your neck allows you to sit right up front and also entitles you to complimentary beer, which may have some influence on the final sale prices. But for those without the tag, the deposit and the beer, it’s easy to think: “Somebody bid $67,500 for a 41-year-old Chevelle, and that was still below the seller’s minimum? Are these guys aware that well-engineered new cars are available for purchase?”

Some are buying on sentiment; some just want to have more and better possessions than their neighbors. Some are buying here to sell for a profit somewhere else.

At the least, in a world that gradually grinds you down and makes you feel inadequate, it’s an opportunity to connect with something spectacular, take it home, show it off and know that it will still seem just as glamorous 20 years from now.

So I guess it’s the opposite of a strip club.

Jim Pollock is the managing editor of the Des Moines Business Record. He can be reached by email at jimpollock@bpcdm.com

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