MOST OF THE TIME, Keith and Desley McCormick live in relative peace and seclusion at their palatial Palm Springs, California, estate. They travel frequently, go hiking in the nearby countryside, check their phone messages once a day and generally relax. But for two weekends a year, in February and November, the McCorm-icks' tranquil lifestyle becomes pandemonium. The British couple hire 100 temporary staff to greet 18,000 car fanatics who fly in from all over the world to check out the 350 or so classic vehicles on sale at their Palm Springs Exotic Car Auction. At each of these weekends the McCormicks turn over about US$10 million (HK$78 million) - enough to keep them in the lap of luxury until the next event rolls around. The couple, both in their early 50s and originally from Blackpool, are living the American dream of sunshine, relaxation, and a veritable country club existence, concentrating their work around six days a year. How? By catering to a celebrity-obsessed culture that wants - and is willing to pay top dollar for - cars which were once owned by 'Someone Famous'. 'There is usually a premium on celebrity-owned cars, depending on who it is, and how famous or infamous they are or were,' says Keith McCormick, who has held the auctions for the past 15 years. 'If you could find a car today that belonged to Hitler, then the sky's the limit.' The couple have sold cars like the 1986 Ferrari once owned by Tom Cruise, a 1924 Rolls-Royce which belonged to the duke and duchess of Windsor and the 1964 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud convertible that Elizabeth Taylor gave to former husband Eddie Fisher when she was working on the film Cleopatra. Prices have ranged from US$1,350 for a 1972 Midget Roadster to the high six figures for a deluxe custom-made Rolls-Royce. The sale is now so famous it is on the world calendar of car-collector events. 'We used to deal frequently with Asians, mostly Japanese buyers,' says McCorm-ick. 'They used to bring their interpreters with them and buy a lot. But then the economy went downhill, and we haven't seen them since.' Not that he is suffering as a result. The next auction, between November 16 and 18, will be held, as usual, at the Palm Springs Convention Centre, and the McCormicks are expecting as big a turnout as ever. 'We now have a good strong following,' he says. 'At least 18,000 people come for this event, and we export a lot of cars.' But of these visitors, only about 1,000 register to bid. 'The rest I call lucky losers,' McCormick says. 'They dream of owning these cars, but maybe another year.' He starts the November auction's publicity this month, and lists it on his Web site - www.classic-carauction.com - along with a catalogue of what will be on offer. The McCormicks begin fielding calls from people interested in selling their prized automobiles. Many are from the Palm Springs area itself - a great place to own and maintain a valuable car because it rains about six days a year, and contains a wealthy base of residents and rich retirees. About 70 per cent of the cars brought in are sold. 'Many of our sellers are highly motivated, especially in the Palm Springs area where you have so many older people. A widow might call us about three cars in her garage, wanting us to take them at no reserve price, which means they can go for a low bid. If you're lucky, and you're there at the right time, you can get a real bargain,' says McCormick. 'We've had a lot of calls from celebrities over the years. Frank Sinatra, for instance, once wanted to dispose of at least half a dozen of his cars. Many of them are well-known names who are getting older and disposing of their assets. There have also been fresh supplies coming in recently from struggling dot-commers selling all the luxury items they bought.' McCormick advises potential buyers to study the market and find out what vehicles are worth before they come to the auction, and to bring their own mechanics with them. 'Old cars are easy to repair these days, and don't cost crazy money like they used to. You can find an early Ford Model T for US$6,000, and even if you spend US$2,000 on replacing the engine, you still have a great car at a great price. There are appraisers who can tell you what a 1930 limo is worth. The classic-car market is similar to the stock market in that it goes up and down. For now, it is still very strong.' He is a car buff himself, owning about six collector-quality models. Back in Blackpool, he ran a used-car dealership, but he also used to restore and sell classic cars, which he had done since he was 16. The McCormicks left Britain 20 years ago to seek a better quality of life - 'In Blackpool, it rained every day, and eight million tourists descended on us for four weeks of the year' - and came straight to Palm Springs. They bought a couple of petrol stations to begin with, and then, in 1985, put a lifelong affinity with collector cars to work for them. 'Our first special event brought in 195 cars valued at US$1.5 million,' says McCormick. The couple quickly acquired a reputation for attracting covetable cars. 'OJ Simpson contacted us in the middle of his civil trial. He was trying to raise money in a hurry to pay his legal bills. He shipped us his Ferrari Testa-rossa, and threw in a picture of him with his deceased wife Nicole. The publicity surrounding the sale was nuts - that car was so hot. In the end, it sold for US$108,000 - well above its value because of Simpson's celebrity status.' Six months later, when the hype around Simpson died, the car's value depreciated. And whatever commission the McCormicks made on the sale, they donated to a women's shelter. For many collectors, it's more than about simply driving around in a spiffy 1950 Mercedes once owned by a superstar. The business of trading in classic cars is thriving: many of the buyers at the Palm Springs auctions are there to pick something up, maybe update or refurbish it, and sell it on at a tidy profit. 'It has become such a big business worldwide that you can now buy parts for classic cars off the shelf,' says McCormick. 'They are expensive, but they are available. And banks are even funding these purchases - we have them set up at concession booths at our show.' There have been some memorable sales. A shabbily dressed man put up his hand to bid for a 1965 Shelby Cobra, a black two-seater sports car with a powerful engine. The hammer dropped at US$325,000. 'Nobody could believe this penniless-looking guy could afford it,' says McCormick. 'But the bank wire came in the next morning.' During the 15 years he has been in business, he has seen novice collectors become veterans: someone who buys a US$2,000 car at his first auction, picks up an US$8,000 vehicle a year later and eventually works up to a US$50,000 purchase. Event after event, there are always highlights. 'There was a 1955 Rolls-Royce limousine used for royal visits - you can tell because it has a tiny green light on its roof that lit up when the Queen was on board. That sold quickly. We've sold cars once owned by pianist Liberace, Watergate politician G Gordon Liddy; David Carra-dine, the actor; and Elvis Presley, who must have owned about 1,000 cars in his lifetime. He kept buying them for people, and they ended up selling them.' He has sold a 1928 Packard that belonged to Al Capone, and a 1930s bullet-proof one that gangster Lucky Luciano used to tool around in. 'We got OJ's white Bronco in which he was chased down the freeway. Bidding reached US$125,000, but the seller - OJ's ex-manager - wanted US$175,000, so it didn't sell. Today, it's worth about US$20,000.'