Mechanic’s Tale: Going, Going, Gone!

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A regular customer towed in two cars he just purchased at an auction. Since he is an otherwise intelligent guy who sells real estate and has managed to acquire a few properties, I was somewhat surprised. The likelihood of getting a good car at a general auction open to the public is pretty slim. What was he thinking?

I met a professional auctioneer once who was always surprised at what people would pay for an old refrigerator that often didn’t work. I think a certain fever takes hold of people at auctions. Hormones and pheromones are all released and like a drunken sailor who hasn’t seen port in fourteen months the wallet opens and the money flows. My mechanic looking at the cars simply said, “He is crazy.” As I began to write the estimate on the one car that seemed salvageable I said, “We’ll find out how crazy.”

Three times you will reject me

For a car to wind up at an auction open to the public it has to have been rejected at least three times, and possibly more than that. First, the owner of the car, for one reason or another (or a bunch of reasons) has decided to get rid of the car. Rejection Number One. Second, no one in his or her immediate family wants the car. Same for the circle of friends. In my world, a functioning car at a cheap price is a fairly hot commodity. Rejections 2 and 3. If the car was traded in, the selling dealer did not consider it worthy of their used-car department. Rejection 4. And if that were the case, the secondary dealers who buy at dealer-only auctions also passed it over. Rejection 5. And if, by an incredible fluke, a decent car made it to auction, the insiders who have time to look the cars over days before the auction would see to it that one of their friends got it. Do you see the odds of finding a good car slipping away?

But my friend...

Everyone seems to know a story about a friend, or a friend of a friend, who gets spectacular deals at auctions buying vintage Corvettes for $500 and reselling them for $25,000. Try and find the guy. Try and find a guy who got a decent Honda Accord at auction. You won’t. Decent Honda Accords are kept by their owners, given to their families, or sold to their friends. But like the shills in the audience of a traveling snake oil salesman or a faith healer, people continue to repeat the stories of great cars bought at auction. Look — some people make a living beating the house at blackjack. But it probably isn’t going to be you.

Rules for fools

So you’ve decided to go to the auction anyway. Set aside the amount of money you are willing to lose gambling, same as if you were going to Atlantic City. Do not exceed that amount under penalty of death. Friday night, looking to score? Maybe you shouldn’t go after the best-looking girl at the club. Same here. You’re looking for a functional car. Everybody is bidding on the one with the nice body. But you don’t care if there are some obvious dents, scrapes, scratches, or rust if the engine, transmission, and brakes work. Never waste your time at an auction where they don’t start the engines and drive the cars a few yards.

Exceptions to the rules for fools

Federal, state, and other local government entities regularly auction off vehicles. Generally they will provide whatever true information they have about the vehicles. Generally the vehicles have received some form of regular maintenance. State police cars often have high mileage — but it’s the best kind of mileage — and often they are one-person vehicles, which makes them less abused. Various parks departments may have a fifteen-year-old vehicle with very low mileage as it only made the rounds of a very small park. But these auctions are well known and publicized and frequented by cabbies, dealers, and companies regularly needing vehicles. So you might get a decent price, but don’t look for any steals unless a major storm stops everyone else from coming to the auction.

The other exception to the auction rule would be to purchase a junker with the intention of stripping parts off it for a car you already have, but this is tricky stuff, as you really can’t verify the condition of any part at an auction unless it’s cosmetic. So take my advice. If you’re bitten by the auction fever, just go on eBay and bid on an album or CD you’ve always wanted. You’ll still overpay, but it won’t hurt nearly as much and you won’t have to pay someone $45 to tow away your mistake.


Doug Flint owns and operates Tune-Up Technology, a garage in Alexandria, Va.


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