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Classic Car Auctions - Sold!

To The Man In The Baseball Hat

Kevin Clemen
Jan 22, 2010
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I like old cars. I like being near them, I like studying them at a distance and up close. I like running my hand over their sweeping curves. I like peering under their hoods and admiring their simplicity and purpose. I even like opening their doors and smelling that distinct aroma of old car musk that combines old upholstery, engine oil, gasoline, and brake fluid with just a hint of cigar smoke. If I like being around old cars, what is it then about classic car auctions that makes me so anxious?

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Looking at the consignment of cars before an auction starts actually is pretty exciting. These days, most auctions only allow in cars that are in decent shape. It's rare to see rust buckets and bondo specials and you are much more likely to see improbably preserved barn-find vehicles that look better than the car I use as my daily driver. It is amazing that decent old cars keep coming out of the woodwork, unseen for decades and now ready to roll across the auction block. In addition to the barn finds, there seems to be a range of decent cars that haven't been driven for a while. These cars are dangerous-they appear solid and usable, but sitting with old gasoline in the tank and moisture in their brake lines can spell some significant outlay of cash should you be the one who ends up winning the bid. So, wandering around before the auction starts, finding my favorites and wondering aloud how much they will bring (and if that is anything close to what I can afford) doesn't raise my anxiety levels.

Maybe it's the people. Having reached the point where my hair is more gray than dark, I can appreciate that the crowd at an auction is mostly white haired old guys. For the most part these are the segment of our society that has the interest (they drove these cars when they were new) and the wherewithal (they have had longer to save and invest) to afford vehicles that are now considered "collectables" instead of old cars. To be sure there are a fair number of younger men in the crowd, a few members of minorities, and even a few women show up to bid, but the number of old white guys far exceeds any other demographic.

I'm not sure why people feel that a classic car auction is an opportunity to dress as if they just came in from the fields. Jeans and sweatshirts over protruding beer guts, with a shiny Chevrolet or Ford jacket and the ubiquitous baseball cap seems to have become the uniform of the day. Sometimes, in warm weather, it could be a short-sleeved sport shirt with a polyester blazer. In either case this is not a good look for the average American male. I'm not saying that a car auction is an occasion for a black tie, but neither is it a place to show off your best bib overalls and seed company hat. Look at the auctioneers: they are typically well dressed befitting the type of financial transaction which is about to occur.

So it begins-the singsong cadence of the auctioneer, the raising of a finger to indicate a bid, the endless stream of cars, rolling past the auction block and described in great detail. Words like restored, barn fresh, immaculate, and bargain tumble out as an inducement to bring the bid higher. Most cars are American iron-cars of my youth that I had no interest in then and even less today. Occasionally, there is an MG or a Jaguar or even something more exotic like a Lotus or Lancia to pique my interest. It's fun to see how little the auctioneer knows about these foreign makes while trying to make them sound saleable. If it is a lesser auction, the names of hallowed places like Scottsdale and Pebble Beach are invoked, indicating how much more a buyer would have to pay for the same car if it were auctioned in either of those shrines to American consumerism. The bidding begins and this is where my blood pressure rises, particularly as some substandard and shabby (and therefore to me desirable) example of a foreign car quickly bursts through the bidding limit I have given myself, eventually reaching two or three or ten times that limit before the gavel falls and yet another car has been placed out of my reach by a badly dressed yokel in a baseball cap.

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This then is why I don't like auctions. In the old days, I would see an ad in the newspaper or maybe stumble across an old car behind a barn or country garage. After poking and prodding the derelict heap, I could begin the process of bargaining with the owner, pointing out the cars weaknesses in a friendly way while whittling the price lower, all the while calculating what it would cost to get the old crock back on the road again. It was fun, it was harmless, and in the end it usually resulted in an old car being saved from the ravages of time and rust, and a few dollars in the hands of the owner (who was usually happy to have the eyesore out of the yard.) The key here is that the car's owner would start high and settle for lower, which is the complete opposite of what happens at an auction, where bids keep going higher no matter how much you try to bargain.

The real problem however, is that every time an old MGB, Jaguar XJ6, Mercedes Finback, or Triumph TR3 sells for $15, $20, or $25,000, every owner of a rust bucket behind the garage suddenly thinks that their car is worth the same amount. Never mind that the XJ6 at the auction had 5,000 original miles, was kept in a hermetically sealed garage all of its life, and was owned by the Queen of England, the one rusting away behind the shed, sitting on three flat tires, with rust holes in the rocker panels and a mouse-eaten leather interior should be worth nearly as much.

The problem, of course, is me. By nature I am just too cheap and can never quite bring myself to update my sense of vehicle values to the 21st Century. To me an MGB should always be a $1,500 car. You should be able to buy Triumph TR-3s all day long for $6,000. And that lovely Jaguar XK-150 shouldn't cost more than about $12,000. The fact that you can't is society's failing, not mine.

I've tried to change-really I have, but in the end I just walk away about halfway through an auction, shaking my head at what badly dressed American males will pay for a chance to relive their youth. Besides, my garage is already full of decrepit old cars that I bought too cheaply and that need significant work so that they can stay on the road. I doubt I'll ever change and in the meantime I just heard about an old MG behind a barn that might have my name on it...

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By Kevin Clemen
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