How to buy a classic car at auction

What's the right model to purchase at auction? How much should you spend? How much will it cost? Here are our specialist’s top tips – whatever the vehicle, wherever you are

It is a very dangerous thing to sit on the sofa on a Saturday watching classic auctions on the TV. Invariably you see many cars changing hands for tremendous amounts of money.

But then something more interesting happens; something sells for a fraction of what you figured it was worth. Anyone who’s watched or attended an auction has seen this happen, and it’s a big reason as to why there are so many bidders at these events.

You’re now firmly hooked, and considering being one of the people in the room with a bidder’s paddle. If you’re smart you’ll want to know how things really work, as well as get a few tips on how to do well at an auction.

You’re not alone. Many collectors buy cars at auction, attending scores of sales each year and buying frequently. Auctions can be an excellent place to get a classic – and even if you don’t end up with anything, they can be great fun to attend as a bidder. They also have many advantages over searching the small ads either in print or online.

Why buy a classic car at auction?

Cars are often found at auction that are found nowhere else. Special one-offs (say a Works Jaguar C-type), models with a storied history (the Goldfinger Aston DB5) and most other top-tier collector machines are sold at auction more than on the standard person-to-person market, or even at by top-flight dealers. This is because all the buyers gather in one room, competing for the opportunity to buy.

Auctions also offer a large number of cars at the same time, giving you a greater breadth and depth of options than you are likely to find by searching websites. Think of an auction as a classic vehicle show where everything is for sale… you get the idea.

Another reason to buy at auction is that, despite the record prices you hear about, every event I’ve ever attended has had several very good deals, as well as a number of classics that sell for low to mid-retail prices.

Buying at auction can also be a lot of fun. The process of bidding can be as exciting as it is stressful, and the tension goes up exponentially as the price rises. There’s real strategy involved, and the process can be as addictive as gambling.

Finally, you can sometimes find a truly amazing deal – especially if it’s the wrong car at the wrong auction. Last year I saw a 1977 Porsche ROW 3.0 Carrera at a primarily muscle-car auction sell for around half its retail value.

These are all great reasons to buy a collector car at auction – but you need to consider some things before taking the plunge. The experience could be successful if you do your homework, and a complete disaster if you don’t. To avoid some of the pitfalls, I’ve put together a beginner’s list of what to consider, what to do, what not to do, and how to do it.

Before you bid, consider these points

1. It’s inadvisable to buy at a classic auction if you’ve never attended one before. There’s a lot to learn about the saleroom environment, which you’ll only find out once you’ve attended such an event. It’s easy for an over-excited first-timer to bid more than a car is worth. You only learn how not to get emotional about a purchase by attending a few of these events.

2. Be sure to pre-register for the auction. This often saves you money (many companies charge less for pre-registration), and allows you more time to spend examining the cars you’re considering instead of waiting in a long registration line. You also tend to get the catalogue weeks before the sale date, which allows you more time to consider the vehicles offered and research them properly.

3. Is an auction is the correct place to buy a car you’re considering? This tends not to be the most suitable venue to find entry-level classics, such as a Triumph TR6 or Porsche 944, for the best price. These more common models can often go under the hammer for considerably more than their retail values, so if you’re looking for one do first research the ads on autoclassics.com and other for-sale sites. As a rule of thumb, auctions are not the right place to look for cars costing less than £15,000.

4. Be sure you know exactly what car(s) you’re interested in, and research it/them before the event. Study the description carefully, in the catalogue or on the website, and read between the lines. If it’s not explicitly stated that the model in question is a matching-numbers example, there’s a good chance it isn’t. This can work both ways, though; it’s not uncommon for people to walk away from a great car because of a poorly written description that’s merely omitted to mention matching-numbers credentials.

5. Research the car beyond the auction description. Look at books on the model, as well as club websites and specialist forums. A very rare model can often slip through the cracks, especially at the lower end of the market, where the auction company simply doesn’t have the time or space to document that lower-cost car.

6. Before you get to the auction, determine the value of any car you’re considering. Use online tools such as the Hagerty price guide, Sports Car Market’s Platinum Database, as well as searching for similar models for sale on autoclassics.com, eBay and craigslist. Get an idea for the car’s value in various conditions, and not just at the top level. That #1 condition vehicle you’re thinking about could be actually a #3 condition example, which affects price dramatically.

7. After determining what the car you’re considering is worth, set a maximum price that you’re willing to pay. Don’t forget to figure in auction fees, sales tax, transportation fees and all the costs of attending the auction, as these can quickly add up. Also figure on spending between $2500-5000 minimum on any new purchase once you get it home. If you think those figures are too high, look at how much you spent in the first year on the previous classic car you bought.

So, you’ve done your research, pre-registered and made your travel arrangements; you are ready to go. What should you do while at the auction to ensure you get a good result?

At the auction

1. No matter how smart you think you are about a specific marque, model or type of car, always bring a collector friend with you. Have them look at any potential purchase, and ask them to point out any flaws. They don’t have the same connection to the car as you do, and will always see things that you will miss. I’ve been attending auctions for 18 years, and still bring a friend. Besides, bringing a friend will make the adventure more fun.

2. If you’re not an expert on the car in question, find one. Chances are there’s one at every auction on virtually every model on offer. A number of people provide this service, and contracting them – especially on a more expensive machine – can save you a lot of grief and aggravation later. Ask their views on value, as they may have a better idea of market worth then you do.

3. Don’t fall in love with the car you’re considering. With very few exceptions there’s likely to be another for sale, possibly at the same auction. Take a long, careful look at any potential buy. This means getting on hands and knees to see what the underside looks like. It can be a good idea to wear jeans on preview days.

4. It’s bad form to open the doors, bonnet and boot without an auction-company specialist present. Ask them to show you the car’s details instead – even if you see other people help themselves. You don’t want to be the person who damages someone else’s car.

5. Ask the specialist whether the owner is present and willing to have a conversation about the car. The key here is to listen more than you speak, as owners will often disclose a lot more info about a vehicle if you simply let them tell you about it. Think short questions from you and long answers from them. No subject should be off limits, and while it might be uncomfortable to ask difficult questions about things you notice, it’s completely in bounds to ask whether a car has ever been hit or is the correct color. Don’t forget this is an auction, not a car show; you’re a buyer and the owner is effectively a salesman.

6. Ask the auction specialist whether there’s any documentation for the car. In many cases, there’s a file that provides much more information than the catalogue description. Closely examine everything in this. This can be like a treasure hunt, and you’re likely to turn up information that should have been included in the description but was forgotten or not seen. This knowledge can give you a serious competitive advantage over a bidder who’s not taken the time to go through the file.

7. Also before bidding, ask various transporters about costs to get the car home. These can vary, so it’s worth looking into. Be sure the transporter is licensed, bonded and insured. In some territories, an out-of-town auction will charge local sales tax for a car that’s simply taken by the owner with no transporter involved, and you can end up paying sales tax twice. It sounds crazy, but people have done this by mistake.

8. Before your potential buy goes on the block, ask your friend to work out whom you’re bidding against. This can help you get a read on the room and your competitors. That friend can try to ready body language or interest, and give you cues as to what is happening while you concentrate on the bidding process and strategy.

9. Let that friend know the final hammer price you’re willing to pay, and ask them to stop you if bidding goes over that. Again, unless you’re chasing something extremely rare, there’ll be another for sale soon.

10. When the car is on the block, you needn’t be the first bidder. Wait, and watch the room – and then bid after the initial excitement diminishes. Remember, it’s the last bidder who buys the vehicle, not the first. Also be very clear about the amount you’re bidding. If the auctioneer makes it more than you bid, immediately correct them via an auction-company bidding assistant.

11. If you’re the winning bidder, congratulations. Be sure to thank your friend and your auction-company bidding assistant, and be sure to celebrate.

If this feature gives you the idea that buying at auction is complex, then I’ve done my job. It is complex – although the process really isn’t much different than what you should do when buying from a dealer or private party. The excitement of the room, with the auctioneer, lights and other bidders, merely changes the dynamic.

If you follow these steps, stay clinical about the process and do your homework, buying at auction can be an amazing, exciting and rewarding experience.

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