“A little learning”, wrote the crippled poet from his infamous grotto, “is a dangerous thing.” Here’s an example. What effect does the choice of a manual transmission have on resale value? If, like me, you’ve bought and sold cars for more than twenty-five years now, your snap response will be “Manual transmissions sell for more.”
This being 2014, however, some kid with access to secondhand Manheim auction reports will strain his mousing finger with a detailed correction of that assertion, complete with dozens of copy-and-pasted sale records. You cannot argue with his data — it’s right there in black and white. Manual transmission cars are worth less. But you know he’s wrong somehow, because you’ve been in the trenches and you’ve worked deals yourself.
Maybe the problem isn’t with you, or the kid’s data. Maybe it’s a case of simply not understanding what that data means.
To explain why, I’ll reach back into the past, all the way to July of 2010, when I sold my lime-green Audi S5. Having owned the car for two years at that point, I was well aware of the fact that my color choice had made the car “resale poison”, because every fifteen-year-old in America had voiced that opinion on some car-related forum at some point. As far as I can tell, the reasoning behind that opinion was:
- Most people who want an Audi S5 want it in a “German” color.
- The only German colors are silver, black, grey, and white.
- Therefore, in order to be worth anything on the secondary market, the car has to be one of those colors.
Let’s put aside for a minute the staggering historical ignorance in thinking that German cars have always been limited to non-colors. After all, the Porsches of the Sixties and the Audis of the Seventies came in colors from lime green to light tan and at no time was the integrity of the German people harmed in any way as a result. Trabants were always wacky colors and that was despite East Germany being pretty much a collection of unheated concrete buildings. The monochromization of the Fatherland’s automobiles didn’t start in earnest until it became possible to lease them cheaply and all the newbies wanted a silver BMW with the lowest possible payment. What can you do about that? It sucks and that’s why when you drive by your local Bimmer dealer the colorful Bavarias and 320is of yesteryear have been replaced by a line of grey blobs with BMW Financial’s preferred package of auction-friendly equipment.
Sorry about that. I got distracted. Back to the core issue. I believe that grey and silver Audis are more popular than Lime Green Audis. Were Audi to have to pick a single color for next year’s entire A4 production, I believe that silver would be a much better choice than Lime Green. Were I a fleet manager for a major corporation, I’d order my company’s fleet of Audis in silver and not Lime Green.
Yet the fact remains that I paid extra money to get my car in that color and — surprise! — when I sold it, I sold it for approximately six thousand dollars above the average retail sale of grey/silver/black Audi S5s with similar equipment. Can you reconcile these disparate statements of fact? Only if you understand that I am an individual, not a corporation or a dealership, and I sold my automobile to another individual.
I wasn’t buying Audis in bulk, nor was I selling them in bulk. I bought a single car and sold a single car. The color was worth more money to me and it was worth more money to him and that’s all that mattered. It wasn’t necessary for there to be ten thousand potential buyers for a Lime Green S5 out there. I only needed one. And to that single buyer, the desirability of having an S5 in something besides a non-color made it worth his time to pay significant additional money for it. He wasn’t even comparing the asking price of my car to the asking price of black S5s on dealer lots; he was comparing the asking price of my car to the asking price of having a new custom-color Audi built. Which made my car a bargain even at a price that exceeded the average.
With that example in mind, let’s talk about the resale value on cars with manual transmissions. Obviously, we’re discussing cars where there are multiple transmission choices, not the Viper or the Fiesta SFE. If you try to trade in a stick-shift car at the dealer, that dealer will tell you that they don’t want it, and he’ll point to the auction numbers. Yet if you sell it privately, you’ll get better offers for more money than you would with the same car as an automatic. What gives?
It’s important to remember that dealers and auto auctions — and every other entity involved with the sale of automobiles except private owners — depend on a fast turnover of inventory. Given a choice between selling 100 cars a year at a $5000 profit and selling 1000 cars a year at a $500 profit, a dealer will choose the latter every time. Volume is king and it always will be and there are no exceptions. Not even with the exotics. Turn and burn, that’s how it’s done.
The vast majority of buyers for new and used cars want an automatic transmission and will accept no other choice. Nine of the ten people who step on a lot, even if it’s a Ferrari lot, want the car to shift for them. Therefore, if you want to sell a car in a hurry you want the automatic. Even if the manual would sell for more money, it’s not worth holding the car in inventory longer to make more money on it. Dealers have a fixed amount of “floorplan” they can use and they want to use it on inventory that turns quickly, not high-profit-potential showroom Stegosaurs. A Honda dealer can sell ten automatic Accords in the time it takes to sell a manual-transmission one, so when it’s time for them to buy Accords — whether new, from Honda, or used, from an auction — they will buy automatics exclusively.
Since dealers are ninety-nine percent of the customer base at an auction, dealer preferences dictate what sells for good money. Fast-turning automobiles in high demand sell for good money, period point blank. No dealer wants to take a risk on an odd color or an unusual equipment group (think: Sebring convertibles with the expensive folding hardtop, stripped-out Explorer XL trims from the Nineties, loaded short-wheelbase S-Classes) or manual transmissions. They’d rather buy what sells easily and go home. Therefore, auction prices reflect dealer desires, not customer desires.
This disconnect between dealer and customer desires punishes the customer at every turn. It’s why Honda and Acura make you take a non-color with a stick-shift Accord or TSX: the dealers don’t want to stock a brown Accord V6 six-speed even if there’s a guy (YO!) willing to buy it. It’s why you see interesting combinations of colors and options in the order brochure but never at the dealers. It’s why the flotilla of individual options that marked the Detroit era of new cars has become a maze of packages and mandatory tie-ins, even when the car in question is manufactured in the same state as the selling dealers.
The dealers want the stuff that turns quickly. That means silver Camrys and red Ferraris and automatic convertible Corvettes and all-wheel-drive S-Classes. Your desires have nothing to do with it. They aren’t listening to you. They don’t care. While you’re busy displaying your autism spectrum disorder by lecturing the salesman about the actual cam lobe profile on a car you’re thinking about buying two jobs from now and for which you expect to pay invoice minus holdback, three families in used SUVs have come in and bought new SUVs and the store has grossed them front, back, used, and F&I. You mean nothing to a dealer. Period.
Eppur si muove, however. There are people out there who want a manual transmission and they really want it. They aren’t casual or uncaring buyers like the SUV families. What they want, they want. And you only need one of them to buy your used manual-transmission car. Best of all, the manufacturers are working night and day to make your stick-shifter a rare and desirable item. Even in this degraded era, this dark age, there are still drivers who want to shift for themselves. There is no surplus of cars for them. A friend of mine drove 2,150 miles this past weekend to get the Dodge truck he wanted. Drove all the way to Miami. Because there were two trucks that met his spec in the whole country, and Miami was closest. No prize for guessing that he wanted a manual.
When I bought my Accord, there were two Modern Steel V6 manuals available in the whole country. When I go to sell it, there won’t even be that many on the market. If you want it, then you’ll have to understand that you’re buying something that’s about as common as a Mickey Mantle card in an old Topps set. So take my advice: Call early. Bring cash. And leave your Manheim printouts at home.