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The pale pink 1959 Austin-Healey Mk 1 “Bugeye” Sprite that blonde bombshell Donna Mae Mims drove in 1963 to become the first woman to win a Sports Car Club of America national championship.

Gooding & Company

With their heads filled with automotive fantasies and wallets fat with cash, 250,000 old-car enthusiasts will flood the Phoenix area this week to hand over more than $200-million to haul home most of the 2,000 cars that will go under the hammer during the annual auction in the desert.

"It's bonkers," says McKeel Hagerty, a U.S. collector car expert, of the week-long car-buying frenzy that attracts buyers from all over the world. Some will spend millions on exotic 1960s Ferrari sports cars and stately classic 1930s Duesenbergs. Others will happily drag home 1950s-era restoration project pickups they've acquired for less than $10,000.

And one lucky buyer will successfully bid on the coolest car that will be rolled across the block – the pale pink 1959 Austin-Healey Mk 1 "Bugeye" Sprite that blonde bombshell Donna Mae Mims drove in 1963 to become the first woman to win a Sports Car Club of America national championship.

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Mims would have paid considerably less than its pre-auction estimate of $70,000-$90,000. And she had some talented help on hand to race-prep it while she worked as a secretary at Yenko Chevrolet, famous for its competition cars. She also raced a pink-painted Corvette, Corvair, TR3 and MGB, all with a "Think Pink" tag on the back, while togged-out in pink helmet and coveralls.

A 1964 UPI wire-service feature described her as "a delightful blonde with an intriguing smile, well-shaped figure and a laughing sense of humour, who delights in leading men on a merry chase. Only trouble is, Donna Mae doesn't want to get caught."

Mims later competed, reputedly bra-less, in The Cannonball Run, a notorious cross-country race, and her character was played by actress Adrienne Barbeau in the 1981 movie of the same name.

Mims' pink Sprite – once owned by Dr. Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine fame – is the kind of car that attracts people to the old car hobby, and to the Arizona desert in January to partake of a movable feast of collector cars presented by half a dozen auction houses, including Canada's RM Auctions.

Last year's collective turnover for the week was almost a fifth of the $1.2-billion spent at North American car auctions last year (with perhaps half again that spent elsewhere in the world), according to McKeel Hagerty, president and CEO of Michigan-based Hagerty Insurance, global specialists in classic car coverage and valuation.

Selling collector cars is big business. Hagerty Insurance industry tracking shows U.S. classic auction sales have risen from $282-million in 2004 to last year's $1.2-billion. Average prices for "blue chip" high-end cars rose from $600,000 in 2006 to $1.8-million last year.

And Hagerty says the Phoenix-area auctions are the industry bellwether. Sales there rose from $48-million in 2002, to $164-million in 2007, dipping during the recession, then rebounding to last year's $226-million. "How they go, so goes the rest of the year," he says. The range of vehicles offered covers all eras, vehicle types and price points. "There's something for everybody."

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For many, that "something" will be included in the 1,000 or so vehicles that will be offered by auctioneers Barrett-Jackson of Scottsdale, Ariz., which started it all 43 years ago. Its lot list includes classy big-buck salon selection Delahayes, Duesenbergs and Talbot-Lagos, but also the pure Americana 1970 Plymouth Barracuda Hot Wheels "Snake" and 1972 Duster "Mongoose" funny car dragsters. Extensive TV coverage will follow the week's events.

Canada's RM Auctions will likely present the top money-spinner, a 1958 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spider by Scaglietti estimated to go for between $7-$9-million, plus a Bentley, Siata, Hispano-Suiza and Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, all expected to top $1-million.

California's Gooding & Company will back up the Mims Sprite with a million-dollar Ferrari, Talbot-Lago, and Lancia models, plus a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda expected to top $200,000, and a VW 23-window Microbus that could exceed $100,000.

British firm Bonhams' catalogue lists Ferraris, another Gullwing, an Alfa-Romeo 6C 1750 Supercharged that will have collectors' teeth aching, and a 1983 Toyota Land Cruiser, representing one of the hot new collector vehicle categories.

American house Russo and Steele is offering a 1960 "Birdcage" Maserati racer, plus an eclectic selection of American iron – including a 1969 Camaro ZL1 "Double Copo" drag car – and a rare American-engined, 1930 Rolland Pilain GP Baquet grand price racer. At also U.S. based Silver Auctions' sale you could choose between a 1960 "Farrari" GT 350 kit car, or maybe drive home in a 1998 Saab 900S convertible.

The offerings are that diverse and, along with other collector car auctions, this week in the Arizona desert has become a destination in itself.

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Ian Kelleher, of RM Auctions, says auctions are increasingly linked to other collector car events – concours d'elegances, road tours and vintage races – which allow participation in a lifestyle built around the hobby. "It's like going to a series of car shows. It's fun. And it not only exposes them to cars they love, but allows them to interact with people who share the same mind-set."

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