I attended my first Barrett-Jackson auction 30 years ago, in 1992.

There might have been one or two other people on the plane to Phoenix from Portland who were going to the auction. At that time, it was a relatively unknown event.

When I arrived, I recall being stunned and delighted by the sight of hundreds of more-or-less collectible cars in one place.

This was before their auctions were televised, at first on Speedvision. (I was a commentator in the booth for the first 10 years of broadcasts.)

At that time, SCM was a kind of “secret-handshake” society. We were the only place you could find information about cars that had sold at auction, including serial numbers, condition and prices.

AutoTrader was the best place to find local classic cars; Hemmings was geared to a national audience.

I always felt the need to buy or sell something at Barrett-Jackson, as it would be a whole year before so many cars and buyers and sellers would be together in one place.

My sense of being “rushed to find something” lead to some profoundly bad decisions on my part. This was all fueled by the red mist of being surrounded by thousands of other buyers and sellers. I was in a hurry to make a decision.

The world is different now, with thousands of cars being offered online, and televised auctions a part of our everyday fare.

I no longer feel the frenzy of needing to buy something when I first become aware of it. Patience is my watchword.

I sometimes feel like that big catfish that has been in the deepest part of the pond for decades. It’s seen enough bait and hooks that it is neither easily fooled nor tempted.

Especially with online auctions, I carefully parse the descriptions that accompany the cars. The more sparse they are, the more my warning flags start to wave.

If a seller reports on something that is not working, whether it is a heater fan or interior light, I wonder what else is wrong that has not been disclosed. If a seller can’t be bothered to fix something simple, why should I be the one to deal with it? He’s making his problem mine, and I don’t want it.

Foolishly, I was recently looking at an Alfa 164L for sale online. The seller noted that the power seat mechanism wasn’t working. I’m not fluent in 164s, so I don’t know if that is a $50 or $500 repair job. But that issue alone is enough to keep me from bidding. The seller also made no mention of the heating and a/c problems 164s are notorious for. I fear nothing but bad surprises here. And at shop rates over $100 per hour, the thrill of your new acquisition can quickly be replaced by despair.

With the 1991 Alfa Spider I bought recently on eBay, the a/c was noted as not blowing cold. Sellers always say, “It just needs to be recharged.” I have never been lucky enough for that to have been the case.

I deducted $2,000 from what I was willing to pay before I closed the deal. And $2,000 was exactly what it cost to have the toasted compressor rebuilt and the system recharged.

When I eventually sell the Spider, I want to post pictures of a thermometer next to the a/c, registering in the 40-degree range. I want to say that every switch and gauge works the way they were intended to.

By immediately tossing out cars that have needs or flagrant omissions of any kinds in their written descriptions, I am able to ignore 80% of the vehicles that land in my inbox. I know that if I am patient enough, the right vehicle, in the right condition, from the right seller, will eventually appear.

There’s simply no need to be in a rush.

 

5 Comments

  1. J. Parrish

    Keith, I remember my first days at BJ in the early 2k’s. It was like my dreams of a 5 year old boy had come to life. Like you, I tried to sell a car every year as my way to pay for admission, and would dig for the whole year for a fun starter car. However, you bring a good point on rushing in a buy. I have noticed over the years almost like a quest to buy so you don’t have your friends see you not buy a car. These are the same guys that say it is nice enough for BJ. I don’t think that is enough research, as a seller I have never had anything of mine rejected and the whole interaction is done with a few pics and a short description. BAT was a bit more challenging for my sales there and they asked numerous questions before my listings. So the bottom line is there is still a need for homework and what you may say is a small issue to feed in that excitement of a buy may end up be much more than what meets the eye

  2. Ahh, the good ol’ days of Barrett-Jackson, when Tom Barret would cruise me around in his golf cart, and the Kruse Brothers were on the block. Ralph Loren’s Bugatti, and so many more incredible rolling works of art would have my jaw dropping in awe. In the early 90s, I was there in front of Don Williams’ motorcoach, representing Blackhawk, Rick Cole, and our World Classic Auction and Exposition aka The Monterey Auction, now known as RM Monterey. The bidding action was raw. Nobody was staring at a cell phone. People were engaged with one another. I recall someone buying a Ferrari one morning for $7200, because everyone had a hangover, and nobody was around to bid. By noon he had 20 biz cards under the windshield wiper from people offering to buy the car for twice what he paid. He kept it and gifted it to his wife. The good old days. Take me back.

  3. Ahh, the good ol’ days of Barrett-Jackson, when Tom Barrett would cruise me around in his golf cart, and the Kruse Brothers were on the block. Ralph Lauren’s Bugatti, and so many more incredible rolling works of art would have my jaw dropping in awe. In the early 90s, I was there in front of Don Williams’ motorcoach, representing Blackhawk, Rick Cole, and our World Classic Auction and Exposition aka The Monterey Auction, now known as RM Monterey. The bidding action was raw. Nobody was staring at a cell phone. People were engaged with one another. I recall someone buying a Ferrari one morning for $7200, because everyone had a hangover, and nobody was around to bid. By noon he had 20 biz cards under the windshield wiper from people offering to buy the car for twice what he paid. He kept it and gifted it to his wife. The good old days. Take me back.

  4. Vincent McLaughlin

    Great advice
    I keep thinking the car I purchase will come from a private collection

  5. J. Christopher Gemmell

    Keith –

    Your auction advice is spot-on and essential for those of us seeking a classic that is not purchased with a “flip” planned in a matter of weeks/months. Our passion for classics goes beyond investment interest. We want to enjoy the exhilaration that only a classic can offer. Accepting that they are not fail proof does not mean we’re willing to take on decades of neglect in deference to a quick “buff and fluff” or repaint that initially dazzles and distracts from recognizing the undisclosed issues that could have our classic spending more time in the repair bay (or worse) than mastering that perfect country road apex.

    Similar to your decision to walk away from an Alfa 164, last year I became keenly interested in a glossy Pistachio and Cream over black leather Lotus Elan Sprint. The color evoked the romance and excitement of the early 1970s shortly after completing my graduate degree. On surface, it seemed to tick all of the boxes. While not a Concours grade presentation, it was a striking “10 footer.” But, closer inspection revealed more than just surface rust on the undercarriage; a tear in the tonneau cover; seam splitting on the seats; an absence of windshield wipers; a delaminating windscreen; chipped and scratched lacquered wood fascia; and, a host of small but not insignificant issues under the bonnet, as well as worrisome suspension components.

    I backed away and watched as another Bidder, perhaps less discerning or, possibly, a restorer scooped it up for significantly less than SCM’s Median Price. That lost opportunity served to remind me again of the Caveat Emptor mantra. As you so correctly concluded, if the Consignor isn’t willing to resolve such cosmetic and safety concerns, what additional gremlins await the unsuspecting dreamer?

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