By on December 31, 2006

datsun1222.jpgAs the New Year dawns, serious car collectors are about to take Horace Greely’s advice. They’re heading into the Arizona and Nevada deserts for the annual automotive auction feeding frenzy. Barrett-Jackson, Kruse International, RM Auctions, Russo & Steele, Silver Auctions— there’s enough action west of the Mississippi to satisfy the most voracious automotive aficionado. But as Public Enemy advised, don’t believe the hype. While the warm weather bidding frenzy appeals to high rollers, the best opportunities to locate a future heirloom at a bargain basement price usually lie within a 50-mile radius of your front door.

To wit: last February, Silver Auctions held a small sale not far from this desk, in the small town of Puyallup, Washington. A fine-looking, clean living 1967 Datsun 1600 roadster sold for $3200 plus the usual “buyer’s fee” (six percent in this case). If the exact same car had rolled up to the podium during the Monterey Historic weekend in August, it would have probably sold for the NADA Classic, Collectible and Special Interest Appraisal Guide estimate, at twice the Puyallup price.

To find local old car auction action, Google “collector car auction companies” with your state and/or your neighboring states’ initials before the word “collector.” Check out the classifieds in your daily papers. Scan enthusiast magazines like Old Cars Weekly and Hemmings Motor News. Keep your eyes open for estate sales or auctions held at salvage yards that are closing up shop. While the cars available at these venues aren’t always running examples, a little due diligence and do-it-yourself can yield significant savings. In general, the more local (i.e. obscure) the auction, the further out into the boonies you travel, the better the potential deal.

The operative word is “potential.” Unless you’re prepared to waste a day on a random fishing expedition, it’s always best to contact the auction company well in advance of sale day for a list of consigned vehicles. It’s also a good idea to chase a particular vehicle, rather than allowing a temporary infatuation with a winsome stranger– stimulated by bucolic boredom– to suck the money straight out of your wallet.

Bone-up on your potential takeover target. Learn where rust lives and which bits are bound to fail. Check out what it will cost to repair the stuff you can’t see– should it prove to be malformed, cancerous or missing. Get to the auction early. Look the car over thoroughly, bottom to top (rust starts low and hides, sometime bubbling through cheapo paint jobs). Open and close doors, play with major and minor controls; poke, prod and ponder.

If you can’t afford to bring a pet expert with you, have one teed-up on speed dial. Establish a fair purchase price before entering the heat of battle. At the same time, if you or your proxy aren't thrilled with what's on offer, walk. When it comes to car collecting, you are your own worst enemy, not the seller or a competitive bidder (they’re just allies in your self-inflicted stupidity). Then-– and I know this will sound whack– seek out the auctioneer. Tell him or her you’re interested in a particular vehicle and exactly what you’re prepared to pay for the privilege of exchanging cold cash for old steel.

This is not a scam, nor is it illegal. In fact, such prior disclosure is a tremendous boon for the auctioneer; providing a realistic idea where the bidding should start (somewhere back from your limit). As you observe a car auction, you’ll probably notice the auctioneer pull away from the microphone from time to time to talk to certain steely-eyed individuals. These seeming conspirators are usually collector car dealers doing exactly what you should do before the main event: set a floor for the bidding.

Obviously, the auctioneer won’t stop taking bids when he or she hits your limit. At this juncture, it’s absolutely imperative that the words “it’s only money” or “this can’t go on for much longer” do not find fertile ground inside your mind. Dean Kruse of Kruse International, one of the first auction companies to sell collectible cars, likes to confront buyer’s remorse by saying, “Hey, you didn’t pay too much; you just bought too soon.” If Dean's words sound frightening rather than funny, you’re free to attend without your spouse. Otherwise, I suggest you organize some on-the-spot interventionist or have the words "caveat emptor" tattooed on your forearm the night before the auction.

All that said, it's still possible to scoop-up a deal at a bigger venue— providing you’re willing to go where automotive angels fear to tread. Consider the 1966 Barracuda Formula-S fastback sold during the Hot August Nights auction in Reno, Nevada. The primer finished Plymouth was powered by a 273 cubic-inch V8 hooked-up to a four-speed manual tranny. At $2k, the ‘Cuda was a terrific buy for someone looking for a diamond in the rough. Of course, there are even better ways to buy old cars, but that’ll have to wait ‘til next week.



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13 Comments on “Car Collecting: We Got Auction Fever!...”

  • avatar

    i never understood the infatuation with buying someone else’s old junk. if the goal is strictly an investment that’s cool; but the idea that old poorly performing cars have great “value” is to me a case of the emperor’s clothes looking grand. the speed channel just did a nice eval of the best of the muscle cars. they looked at 0-60, quarter mile, braking from 60, slalom, and a current Accord V6 would have smoked them all while providing light years better quality, reliability and fuel economy.

  • avatar

    My buddy rebuilds 71/70 Chalengers and Cudas.Many times
    he has seen and corrected the repairs and doctoring jobs that a 35 year old car has endured.
    You don’t know whats up untill you see it disassembled.
    I pesonally wouldn’t touch an old car with out an expert opinion.
    Terry is right the key words are BUYER BEWARE!
    Sentiment and nostalga are not the best emotions when
    your wallet is open.

  • avatar

    Phil, it is never about performance, reliability, or economy! Driving a true Classic is its own reward. I have two cars that are truly polar opposites – on the one hand is a 2002 VW Jetta TDI. It is frugal beyond belief, and reliable and ergonomic to a T, as in Teutonic. On the opposite end of the scale, if fact off the DEEP END of the scale is a family heirloom 1965 E-type Jaguar. It gulps fuel (and capital in other forms), it barely seats two, it has less space in the trunk than a FedEx envelope. It is impractical beyond belief. While being a world beater in the early 60s, it could probably be slaughtered by a Honda Civic these days. But who cares? The thing is drop-dead gorgeous, a JOY to drive, and draws a crowd and thumb’s up wherever it goes. Try that in a Honda, even an S2000! It is an honor to be a caretaker of a classic, and something to be treasured… not measured on a scale of “practicality” or “performance”.

    Here, take a look:
    Autocrossing with my son
    Shot by a pro for a local radio station classic car calendar

    As for the article, well done Terry. The hype surrounding the “big” auctions is a bit over the top, and in my mind, negatively impacts the market. I too would never go to Arizona (or Monterey, or Amelia, etc) as a buyer. The carnival atmosphere seems to buoy prices ever upward. One only needs to look at the current muscle car market to see the very dictionary definitions of “insanity” and “bubble”. BUT, if I had a car to SELL, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

    I’d also add this little tidbit of advice: Seek out Internet forums or mailing lists devoted to your make/model of choice… “lurk” there a while to determine who the knowledgeable folks are. They can be a wealth of knowledge and support both before and after you buy your dream machine. In my case the E-type guys over at have been my virtual support group for years. I suspect that a like group could be found for any marque. In days past a local Club may have been the only recourse, but I have found that if I attend a Jaguar Club event I lower the mean age by half… and I’m in my forties. Hence the Internet option.

    BTW Terry, I’m in north Snohomish county if you ever want to get together and swap lies about old cars… or go for a drive.


  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Well Phil, I understand what you mean – to a degree. But you know that old saying about “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” probably. (Amend that to person, since more women are running auctions and buying there, too.) The cost of something at auction is determined many times by the emotional value someone puts on whatever is being purchased, whether it’s a painting, a piece of fancy furniture or a clapped-out VW microbus. Buying a vehicle – or anything – at auction as an investment is a real throw of the dice; and something even the dealers sometimes loose big on . I am of the old school that feels you should buy what you like, what means something to do; especially in terms of automobiles. Of course, justifying that to friends or a significant other can be difficult, at best.

  • avatar
    Bob Elton

    The more rational old car purchases I have made (assuming there are such things – perhaps less irrational might be a better phrase) have followed lots of research, joining a club to peruse the newsletters and ads, and talking to people who have similar cars. Finding the weak spots, knowing what to look for, are all part of a prudent purchase.

    That said, I am of the “buy what you like” school. I have never planned on making a profit on an old car (or any other kind of car). I now have cars I bought in 1973, 1979, 1986, and so on, taking up space in the garage. That also keeps me from buying any more old cars. I will probably die with my 50 Hudson, 37 Terraplane and 79 Caprice. And a few others.

    That said, I also plan on leaving these cars to museums that will appreciate them. None of my relatives car the least bit about any old cars, and we don’t have any kids to pass on family heirlooms.

    I figure that every dime I spent on these old cars is money I’ll never see again. Sort of like going to the movies. As long as I enjoy these cars, it’s money well spent.

    Everyone has to do what feels best for them.

    Bob Elton

  • avatar
    Walter Pabst

    Great article. Owning and building a classic is rewarding in many ways, but is so rarely a good monetary investment. Truly restoring a car almost always costs more than the car is worth, even if you do most of the work yourself. (Note to self) If I want a project, I will make sure I have the time, storage, and means to complete it. Otherwise, I will buy someone else’s project, accept any imperfections, and spend a lot more time driving.

    I can’t relate with the buyers at Barrett-Jackson; I wish I could. They clearly have money to burn, and the excitement of the event is undeniable. Actually, some cars not badged “Camaro” or “Hemi” have been ignored in Scottsdale in recent years.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Note to Chuck: tried to contact you via your blog; but there wasn’t a “contact us” link; and when I tried to register, to leave my e-mail, it wouldn’t accept my e-mail as legit. I wouldn’t mind a ride in your father’s Jaguar, but spring is looking like the best time for me to try that, given the demands of my life right now (long story). You can contact me via TTAC and the Main Man should forward it. That’s a wonderful shot of your father’s Jag in front of the mountain mist. I know you feel that new cars can’t rival the old, but nonetheless, I still feel it’s too bad that Ford pulled the plug on Jaguar’s plan to build the (two seater) F-type. Methinks it would have helped the marque’s entire line up. But then again, I could be wrong.

  • avatar

    Well Phil, It’s not about the 0-60 and 1/4 mile times; it’s about an emotional connection to somthing in your past or something that you wished was in your past. Personally, I own a 58 Chevy Apache Fleetside truck. This truck was my grandfather’s before me and holds so many wonderful memories of him and our camping trips together, I can’t imagine ever selling the old “Buckin Bronco.” I belong to an online community of “Stovebolters”, owners of these old Chevy trucks, and there are many similar stories, usually about the “truck my father owned when I was growing up” or “the great old truck we had on the farm years ago.” Others may remember a cool kid who had a 68 Fastback Mustang, or maybe just like the movie “Bullitt.” Some enjoy the styling, the artistry in some of the classic vehicles. Whatever it is, we should all be thankfull that there are people out there with this “disease”, this unfathomable love of classic cars. If it weren’t for these people, we wouldn’t truly know what a 235 straight six looks like, sounds like, and performs like, because they would no longer exist.

    Of course, the people paying $100k+ for some of these cars are just plain crazy. ;-)

  • avatar

    Terry, I posted a contact link on my blog this morning.


  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Hey “Lumbergh21” a friend and associate of mine, Kevin Loewen, editor of the five edition auto trade publication Parts & People, also owns his grandfather’s vintage pickup. I’ve never seen it – Kevin’s in Denver CO where I have yet to visit – but recall it as a 1958 Chevrolet Apache with a in-line six cylinder engine, same as what you have. From what I have seen, vintage trucks usually have even greater emotional value to the people who either inherit them, or buy them (perhaps because of someone they knew who once owned such a truck). Because they were often used as work trucks, there’s stories galore; and the stories make the purchase worthwhile, maybe not always in a financial sense, but because history matters – at least to some of us.
    Ironically, the man who created the pickup for farmers, such as he once was, Henry Ford, thought “history is bunk,” as I recall.

  • avatar

    Terry Parkhurst,

    If your friend doesn’t already knwo about it, tell him about It’s a great site for owners of classic Chevy trucks including the “Big Bolts” like COEs, dump trucks, etc. Lot of great guys on that site swapping stories and providing help.

  • avatar

    The big name auctions with large dollar sales has been both a boon and a curse. The curse is basically anyone with a rusted out old beater now thinking it’s worth a fortune. I’ve seen some ridiculous asking prices.

    That said, the boon is that they are actually trying to sale those old wrecks instead of crushing them. Daily I see antiques for sale on my drive to work, some good and some not. Since we’re in a frozen supply situation (there not really making anymore Hemi cuda’s right now), the old cars will only get more expensive. Doubly so if many are simply destroyed.

    Another boon is the large restoration market. I’ve had the same antique for over 20 years, and I can tell you that it is easier to find parts today then it was 20 years ago. Maybe not cheap, but an available expensive part is way better than no part at all.

    So while I cring everytime Hemmings announces some new record sale, at least I know the aftermarket will be around for parts.

  • avatar

    ya know, i LOVE goin to shows, i LOVE lookin at all the old cars, especially from the late 50’s to mid 70’s. All the huge boats, I love em.

    Recently I fell madly in love with a mid 70’s caddy coupe deville, all black, looked like it came from a funeral home, or a priest – it was BEAUTIFULL. BIg as a barge and had immense presence.

    Then I remembered the weekly tune-ups, the scraped knuckles. the bad handling, the lousy milage, the questionable reliability – yes i remember cars in the mid 70’s… overpowered behemeaths, with faith based braking…

    i passed it up. But I am sure glad that others have the bug, so I can go look at the fruits of their labors at car shows! Bravo! Keep up the good work!

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