Ye shall know us by our hats: Driving for Mecum on TV
Mecum Auctions, based in Walworth, Wisconsin, has long been known as sort of the blue-collar auction house, where the auctioneers still sound like they’re speaking in tongues; where the auction block is long and as brightly-lit as Las Vegas; where a Ford F-150 pickup may be followed by a Ferrari; where the auction begins each day with a live rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, and where the Green Hats end their morning meeting with a prayer.
Who are the Green Hats? If you’ve ever seen a Mecum auction on television, now airing on MotorTrend TV with the demise of the NBC Sports Network, you’ve seen the Green Hats, but you probably never noticed them. Noticed us, I should say, because I was a Green Hat. For a day.
We’re the people wearing the neon green ball caps that say “Mecum Driver” across the front. We’re the people who pick up an unsold car, drive it across the block in front of the TV cameras, then drive it back to a sold lot to await the new owner.
And while the meeting-ending prayer is a conventional one, many of the Green Hats, including me, silently added, “And please don’t let me drive a Ferrari into the back of a Ford F-150 on live TV.” That sort of thing has happened. Being a Green Hat is considerably more difficult than you’d imagine.
Blue-collar or not, Mecum just began its season with an 11-day auction in Kissimmee, Florida—near Orlando—that featured more than 3500 vehicles, as well as more than 1200 pieces of memorabilia-type “Road Art,” for a record total of $217 million in sales. Kissimmee is, by far, the largest collector car auction in the world. The last Saturday, January 17, was the company’s largest one-day total with $72 million in sales, including nine vehicles that sold for over $1 million each, topped by a 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R Prototype, probably the most valuable Mustang in the world. It went for $3.75 million, just head of a 2020 McLaren Speedtail that sold for $3.3 million.
And somebody has to drive those cars. That would be the mostly-volunteer, mostly-retired Green Hat crew. The good news: I drove almost 20 collector vehicles on the Thursday I worked. The bad news: I never got to go faster than 10 mph in any of them.
The Green Hats, about 37 of us, took 370 vehicles across the auction block. The day started at 8 a.m., and ended at 7:30 p.m., with no scheduled break. It’s a long day, but it goes fast, even if you couldn’t go fast in the cars.
This was not my first time as a Green Hat. That was back in 2010 at Kissimmee, when the auction had only 1000 vehicles. Now, Green Hats are shuffling cars from one lot to another constantly. In 2010, you were assigned a car and sat in it all the way through the process, which could take 90 minutes. So I had time to become attached to a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro RS restomod, which means it had been rebuilt with lots of new parts including a 5.7-liter V-8 crate motor, a five-speed Tremec manual transmission, and period-correct Bahama Blue paint. Then, the path across the block involved a 90-degree right-hand turn with the engine off, meaning no power steering; cross the block as you start the engine and drive maybe 20 feet to show that it runs, and then the Pushers—that’s what they’re called—push you off the block after the car was sold ($41,000) for a 90-degree left-hand turn.
It was midway through that turn that I felt something lurch in the steering. A power steering hose had blown off, dousing the engine and the floor with power steering fluid. I cranked the engine and drove back to the “sold” lot and parked it, glad the new owner hadn’t found me and asked me about the car. I would have had to tell him the car he bought had working power steering, but 15 seconds after the gavel fell, it didn’t.
This year, nothing that dramatic happened, at least to me. My mentor in the process, Ed, had a car catch on fire as he drove it the day before, fortunately not in front of the TV cameras. I did have two embarrassing, on-screen moments: The first was trying to find a gear, any gear, in the incredibly flexy four-speed manual transmission in a 1965 Chevrolet Nova SS ($34,100) to drive that 20 feet to show the engine ran (which it did, quite well).
The second was in a 2014 Chevy Silverado with a 600-horsepower LT4 engine installed, looking like it came from the factory that way. As I moved slowly through the line outside, turning the engine on and off each time to help cut down on carbon monoxide under the tent (we were told to do that), the Silverado was probed and prodded by more potential buyers than any vehicle I drove, sort of the automotive equivalent of a proctology exam. Some buyers are equipped with pocket flashlights and small mirrors for looking into crevices.
Each time the engine started perfectly. Until I was told by the lane manager, Carol Duckworth, to crank it up and move forward. Nothing. Nothing again. I raised my hands in the classic “It won’t start!” manner with two palms up and shoulders hunched. She summoned the Pushers and none of the bidders heard in run. It still went for $95,700. Once I was outside, workers rolled up a dolly with two yellow-top Optima batteries and a set of jumper cables. The Silverado started immediately. Mecum has those battery carts all over the place, with good reason. Even so, we had to tow at least a dozen cars to the block that day.
Duckworth has been working for Mecum for 23 years and is in charge of the Green Hats as well as the white-gloved Pushers. She says that for most auctions, which average about 1000 cars, the auction house reaches out to local car clubs for help. Kissimmee used to use the members of the Mid-Florida Corvette Club, but when the auction went to 11 days (one day is for memorabilia—they sold $2.66 million in Road Art) it became too much, and a private company was hired to help coordinate.
“As the auction grew, we set up a different procedure for making sure the cars go across the auction block in the proper order,” Duckworth says.
She admits though, “From time to time there are … situations. It can be very tense. You don’t know anything about the car, whether it’s going to start or not. Sometimes with the older cars you don’t know if the gauges are correct. You have to become familiar with the cars very quickly.
“Paddle shifters on a Ferrari are very different from making a Model T move. And a lot of the younger people don’t know how to drive a stick shift. We have a lot of retired people who work as Green Hats because they know the cars,” Duckworth says.
“Driving at Mecum is an adventure,” said Green Hat Tom Beaman, a semi-retired General Motors executive who managed public relations for Pontiac, Saab, and other brands. “You never know what you’re going to drive until you’re assigned to it.”
Boy, that’s true. I jumped from a 1994 Nissan Skyline, right-hand-drive and caged, with a modified RB26 engine rated at 500 horsepower ($90,750), into a 1962 Triumph TR4 ($82,500), and in that car, I had to find the headlight switch in the dark. Took a moment.
“Sometimes the battery is dead or the clutch is really stiff but it’s all great fun, especially when you drive up on the block and are bombarded by the lights and sounds of the bidding,” Beaman says.
“This year I drove a 1963 Porsche 356C Super Coupe, a Corvair convertible, and a bright red Viper that sold for $90,000. I get pangs of nostalgia when I drive a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu like the one I had in college,” Beaman says.
As far as being a Green Hat goes: “It’s so much fun to hang out with men and women who ‘get’ cars.”