By on June 12, 2012

When over 60 dealers are looking at the same vehicle at the same time, your chances of a finding a good deal at an auction decline dramatically.

That 2009 Nissan Versa that you like? At least five large-scale buy-here pay-here dealers will be fighting for it along with two other wholesalers that have a warm relationship with a Nissan dealer.

The scuffed up low-end Impala with over 200k on it? A public auction on the south side of town will be all over that. As will many other used car dealers who finance older vehicles in the urban areas of Atlanta. Don’t even think about buying that car as a cash flipper these days; because financing is the new elixir of older, popular used cars.

But an 11 year old Buick? Midsized? Unpopular? Well cared for? That’s my niche!

I spend a lot of time looking at a car’s history on Carfax. Most folks don’t bother with dealerships anymore… but some do. Conservative vehicles that receive regular maintenance tend to be a bit more pampered on average, and they make better finance vehicles as a result. This 2001 Buick Regal LS may represent little more than an oozing vat of mediocrity for most enthusiasts. But it’s money in the bank in my world.

Leather seats matter for a lot of folks who want to feel rich. These are in excellent shape. The paint shows no sign of fading and all the miscellaneous outside trim pieces that tend to degrade and peel in the Georgia sun are in good condition.

One other surprising reality are the center caps. They are all there. Usually Buicks of this era have anywhere between two to four of these pointless emblems donated to an adopt-a-mile program. This model has all of them present.

Instead of the minor detail that most dealerships perform on their recent trade-in’s before auctioning them off, this particular firm decides to just leave things as is. I prefer that. Slobs tend to be more abusive to their metal and leaving the evidence intact helps me get a more complete understanding of the prior owner.

GM should have done the same thing back in the day as Volvo owners do now. Leave extra bulbs in the trunk for their inevitable replacement. I usually get so many of these extra bulbs in the gloveboxes and trunks of old GM models that I never need to buy them.

This Regal has 158k on it, needs an oil change, and either needs to have the EGR cleaned or replaced. The bidding went down to $1500 thanks to my signaling, “Hold the bid!” to the auctioneer by placing a closed fist close to my body. One of many, many implicit signals veteran buyers use to express their interest. One other dealer jumped in with $50 bids, I kept up with my mild signaling in the thick of the crowd, and the competitor jumped off on the belief that the auctioneer was running him up.

I bought it for $1800 + the $115 auction fee + more than likely about $200 to $300 in recon and repairs. Once you replace fluids, filters, maybe a tire or two, and one unexpected part or so, you are generally looking at about anywhere from $300 to $500 more than your winning bid.

The Regal managed about 32 mpg on the short ride back from the auction, which is great given that gas guzzling cars usually tend to sit longer on the lot. Due to their cost of repair and durability, I try to get a lot of GM cars that come with the 3800 Series II engine. So long as the intake manifold is properly tended to and the electronics are as they should be, these cars tend to be fairly tolerant of abuse. Especially compared to most Tauruses and Intrepids.

Then again, nothing from that era can compare to a Panther or a four banger Accord or Camry. Today’s auction prices reflect that as well. That one Regal I bought was less than half the price of an Accord or Camry with the same features and specs.

One other car of note was a 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis LS with only 25k miles. The transmission was recently overhauled and the miles, unlike the 1990 Geo Tracker that went through with supposedly only 32k miles, were verified and accurate.

That car only had one problem. It was abused. I didn’t find out until I came to the sale, but the prior owner obviously never had the oil changed with any level of regularity. The bumps and bruises that were hidden online, were all too apparent in person. The A/C was inop. The rack was loosey goosey, and their was fertile evidence that the inheritor of this once prized Panther had ragged it out.

I had sold a Grand Marquis engine for $500 several months ago from a vehicle of mine that got wrecked. Once the bidding went to $2300, I bailed, and didn’t look back. Few folks outside the business understand the futility that comes with ‘polishing a turd’. Most old vehicles that were not well maintained, regardless of the miles, end up becoming rolling turds.

Turds, even popular ones, can kill your bottom line. The unpopular car that is well kept is almost always the better buy.

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25 Comments on “Auction Day: Finance Kings & Dealer Queens...”


  • avatar
    Synchromesh

    This reminds me of the same tactic I used when buying used/broken computers before. I guess buying used cars and computers has a lot in common.

    Except that buying a well-maintained unpopular model didn’t usually work well. Even a reconditioned popular model (polished turd) always sold better.

  • avatar
    ixim

    I had a 2002 Regal LS. “Joseph Abboud” model, no less. Yes, 30mpg+ on the road; lotsa toys [loved that 8-speaker Monsoon radio!]. Camry-like reliability and a lot prettier to look at; faster, even sportier, too and cheaper parts. 143K zero trouble miles. True, fit ‘n’ finish were below Toyonda standards, but it was fast, quiet and comfy all day long. Like a Buick should be.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    Damn you man…I am from the South Side of Atlanta and I don’t want all these old W bodies littering the roadside.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    How do you kill a transmission in a panther in 25K miles? I thought these things had the durability of granite?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Every transmission has a weakness… called the rear main seal.

      Most cars that sit for years from that era eventually get a tranny leak right there.

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        Been there, done that, now know better. I also think they were still using an AOD variant through ’94 in these, something like it was virtually the same unit but had a computer/sensor from 92-94. Saw quite a few pre ’95 RWD Fords with weird tranny shifting issues which could be cured by changing something electrical on it.

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    What does it mean to “hold the bid” as referenced above?

  • avatar
    David Sacci

    Today I Learned: there are hordes of Volvo owners that burn through bulbs as quickly as I do.

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    Steve is my hero – I look for exactly the same kinds of vehicles when I help somebody looking for a used car. I just got my neighbor into a 1999 GMC Safari (Astro) for $3K, only one owner, every single oil change and all other repairs done at the same dealer, and an immaculate interior. It needs CD player repair, a drag link, and a thermostat.

    This to replace a 1996 Windstar which just losts its third intake manifold gasket and has oil in the coolant as well (indicating deeper problems, probably head gaskets). The Windstar was purchased used 12 years ago for $8K, and my neighbor put over $10K into repairs since then (no joke). It’s getting towed away this week.

  • avatar
    86er

    That Marquis deserved better.

  • avatar
    chicagoland

    “Most cars that sit for years from that era eventually get a tranny leak right there.”

    Biggest myth about old cars is ‘anything with low miles is like new’!

    This Marq sat and rotted. Never mind miles, it’s age that wears a car, too. Rubber dries out and decays over time.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I think Steve has pointed out once or twice that yeah you do want to see a certain number of miles per year, basically a 10 year old car with a 100,000 miles (10,000 miles per year) is going to be in better mechanical condition than a 10 year old car with 25,000 miles (2,500 miles per year) all else being equal.

      The exception to this is if our hypothetical 25,000 mile car suddenly becomes the property of the estate (sorry Grandpa, RIP) and one of his kids decides to start driving the geezer mobile for a while and actually fixes all the stuff that goes wrong before getting tired of the car. Then the car comes up on craigslist and all the work has been done.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    I was visiting my next-door neighbor a while ago coming home from walking our dog and noticed a Hyundai Sonata he was fooling with. Of course I stopped to talk and check out the car. Yup – he just bought it at a car auction in Franklin, OH. It is a 2012 model with the full glass roof and all the trimmings. Black. Stick-on sharkfin and B pillar chrome and rain guards on the doors. Other than those details, a very nice car.

    He out-bid a Hyundai dealer by $250.00.

    I asked “Why?”

    He “needed” a car and never owned a “foreign” car…

    He currently owns a perfect 1991 red Miata, all origial, an almost-new Malibu LTZ for his wife, a 2001 dark red Corvette covertible that never leaves the garage but says he’ll give me a ride in it ths weekend – I’ll report on that if it happens), and an SSR, also pristine he keeps in storage.

    He clearly has the knack for this sort of thing.

    BTW, those Buick Regals are nice sedans – we rented one a long time ago and I was impressed.

    Question: How do you kill a transmission in a new Prius? I believe a friend did just that but won’t admit it..

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      How do you kill a Prius…

      1) Shift from reverse to drive while it is in motion. A criminal act that is punishable by death in most developed countries.

      2) Trying to hypermile the Prius by shutting it off while it is in motion. The revs will spike and the transmission will have an excessive level of stress. This also can happen if the electrical system has a collosal screw up.

      3)Wearing out the transmission mounts and then trying to floor it after coming to a complete stop. The transmission will have to endure the added stress that comes from a lack of support. Other parts attached to the transmission may start to wear as a result as well.

      On second thought, consider what I wrote about 70% knowledge and 30% pure prognostication. 1 is definite. 2 is maybe. 3 is right, but I don’t know the degree of harm that can inflict on a planetary gear system.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        1) Shift from reverse to drive while it is in motion. A criminal act that is punishable by death in most developed countries.

        That one I’m trying to teach a friend who managed to kill a transmission in a 4cyl Accord.

      • 0 avatar
        DannyZRC

        I’ve seen you mention the forward-reverse shift a few times, and wanted to ask for clarification.

        In the case of a conventional automatic, the actual shifting part wouldn’t be hard on any of the shift elements unless you’re shifting from reverse to forward under load, but if you’re still rolling backwards when forward is engaged this would cause the input shaft to rotate backwards. Since the torque converter is a fluid coupling, this backwards relative motion shouldn’t be anything super special, it’s essentially the same as the “slip” under load you get from the torque converter as a function of torque transmission.

        Am I missing something other than this torque converter stalling effect that would cause the damage to the transmission you’re alluding to?

        As to the prius, why would shifting from reverse to drive cause any harmful effects? the prius “transmission” doesn’t have any shift elements, the drive motor (mg1) would just produce reverse torque and the generator (mg2) would still do what it always does, spin at the appropriate speed to regulate engine rpm.

        case 2) I guess means that if you shut off a prius’ ignition all the electronics go limp, which means mg2 goes slack and probably blows up its bearings from overspeeding.

        case 3) I have nothing to add, worn mounts means the whole assembly can get moving pretty fast and then slam into the limits of worn out mounts, filling the world with badnes and clunkitude.

        I’ve got a fair handle on how the prius works, I have a decent concept of automatics but I know there are quite a few implementation details that vary from transmission to transmission.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        “the actual shifting part wouldn’t be hard on any of the shift elements unless you’re shifting from reverse to forward under load.”

        That is specifically what I am talking about in the first case.

      • 0 avatar
        DannyZRC

        so if you take your foot off the gas and shift into drive while rolling (at idle speed) in reverse, it shouldn’t damage anything?

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    I have a soft spot for cars like that Regal, its Century brother, and the mid-2000s Tauruses. Comfortable, efficient enough, powerful enough, innocuous and underappreciated. Great used car buys if you don’t mind a numb cruiser.

    What kills the Regal and Century for me are the god awful front seats. I don’t need sport buckets, but I do need more support than a bean bag chair.

    • 0 avatar
      EdSTS2000

      Yup, the seats suck – more so when the previous owners abused them and wore them out (take a guess as to how I know). I’m planning a fix for my bad seats – replace them with seats from an 04-08 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP or GXP (reputed to be much better).

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      I actually very much like the plush bean bag feel of those type of seats, reminds me of the Cadillac seats of old. I have never driven one of these a long distance so perhaps all of that comfort can work against you at some point and a firmness is preferred. To each his own.

  • avatar
    Bushwack

    I had a 2000 Regal GS. Bought it new & was the best bang for your buck car at $24K. 4 years & 39,000 miles later, ABS went out. Buick was nice and paid for the repair out of warranty ($2,700). 5 1/2 years and at 53,000 miles, same thing happened. Blue book on car was $5,300. ABS repair had to be done at a Buick authorized shop (independents wouldn’t touch it) and cost was $3,000 w/ 90 day warranty. Tried selling the car for 3 months and nobody interested. Sold to CarMax for $4,700. Bought a Lexus GS350 and never looked back.
    .
    Bottom line. Great car but once you have major electrical issues, chug it to the side and walk away.

  • avatar
    mistermau

    I’ve got a real soft spot for these Regals. Back in the early 2000s, during my traveling Consultant days, this was my preferred rental car to grab when I flew into anywhere. Comfy. Leather. Good power. My second choice was the Impala.

    Sigh…the good ole days.

  • avatar
    jtk

    I had that exact model, except a different color. Mine was awful. The suspension was shot, even after I had lower control arms replaced (the struts were also bad). It wore out brakes at an alarming rate (3 times over 60,000 miles). The “leather” was practically indistinguishable from vinyl and the seats were squishy and unsupportive (and the driver’s seat in mine partly collapsed, requiring repair). At 73,000, it was done… coolant in the oil, bad transmission, the aforementioned suspension problems, dead vent fan, etc. I sold it to Carmax for $1700.

    I should mention that I never got higher than 28 mpg, and averaged 20-21 on a daily basis.

    Worst car I ever owned by far.


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