By on February 8, 2009

It pays to have friends in high places. Just as politicians have favored constituents, the automotive auctioneer almost always has a good memory for those who help them during the sale. More than anything else, the auctioneer wants to generate a market and get his own share of greenbacks. Some are easily corruptible. Others less so. But supporting him at times when the bidders that are ‘working the sale’ (a.k.a. colluding) can be worth far more to the auctioneer than the occasional greenback. Doing it the right way, at the right moment, can create a very nice win/win situation that goes straight to the bottom line.

For example, If you bid when others are intentionally sitting on their heels, he and the dealer/finance rep may reward you with a cheap buy. My personal favorite is to stand in the back with a fist on my chest for one second. That literally means ‘hold your bid’ and the auctioneer will honor your bid. If the other buyers don’t join in, and it’s a unit that has to be liquidated, you get the deal.

What I usually do is flash a few fingers when I hold the fist to determine the hold value. Flipping the British bird of course means two. Alternating fingers on your first can offer a $1200 or $2100 bid, while just flashing two numbers in a second’s time, like three, then an open hand for five means $3500. There are also outright sign terms. Thumb up means six. A crooked pointer finger is 7. Crossing your pointer and middler finger is 8. Thumb down means 9. Making a zero with thumb and fingers signifies ten. Raising pointer and pinky makes 11. And adding the ring finger gives you twelve.

Is this an easy thing to do? Hell no! Really. You have to sense the auctioneer’s rhythm when he’s asking for a bid, make your sign at a time when he usually won’t break his chant, and be inconspicuous enough to not tip off fellow bidders who want the same vehicle. The auctioneer also has to sense what you’re doing and expect some type of ‘thank you’ for it. My work as an auctioneer often helps me when I jump to the other side of the block. But in this business, everybody can make a friend and make a deal.

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10 Comments on “Hammer Time: Fast Talk...”


  • avatar

    I never really knew what the fist on the chest deal meant exactly besides, “I’m in, keep me in, keep me on top, bascially I’d like offer of last refusal.

  • avatar
    97escort

    I have bought several used cars at state auctions. I don’t recall seeing anyone using any of these signals.

    My rules are never be the first to bid and never buy if there is a large crowd. The last bid is the only one that counts. Most of the sales have from 100 to 150 vehicles. I do not think about buying until about 50 cars have been sold.

    Those who are not dealers are usually done when they buy one car. As the sale progresses, generally the crowd gets smaller and smaller because those who already bought leave and others get sick of the whole thing and leave.

    Around car 75 and up the deals can get pretty good. I try not to ever bid above trade in value. That is pretty low so I let a lot of cars pass. At many sales I don’t buy anything.

    My best deal was in 2003 when I bought my ’97 Escort wagon with 100K on it for $1300. The interior was almost like new. The hood latch didn’t work, so when it came though the ring the hood was ajar. And the driver’s side rear door had a small dent.

    That is another trick. Bid on a car that has some obvious but easily fixed defect. Sometimes cars that have been in accidents but repaired by the state are good deals since the state only hires reputable body shops and won’t fix a car that is very badly damaged.

    I popped out the door dent and push in the hood release so that it says locked. That car has 140K on it now and does not use oil. And it is still worth in the area of $500.00.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    There are a lot of variances in techniques between different dealers. What’s interesting to me is that the mannerisms of many dealers are actually a good reflection on the local culture.

    For example, in the northeast many dealers can be downright flagrant and obnoxious in their bidding. To the point where some will literally stand right in front of the block and bid until they’re no longer interested.

    Another unique Northeastern variant is having some worthless prig yell at you with lowball offers while you’re conducting the sale. I’ve seen reps get in shouting matches and even throw pens at such creatures. Needless to say, these fellows are usually booted out of the lane. Then they come back in a few weeks hopefully the wiser.

    In my neck of the woods (Georgia to be exact), I’ve seen dealers stare down members of the general public if they get a bit too nosy and parasitic. Can’t really blame them for doing it. One of the bigger problems you will have at the public sales is folks who are completely clueless will leach onto those that are regulars. That’s one of the many reasons why most dealers try to be a bit more subtle when bidding at ‘open’ auctions.

    97escort, some of my best deals have happened during the very beginning of sales. Some folks in our field believe that it’s bad for momentum if you no-sale the first few vehicles. But this also depends a lot on the relationships that are already there. If a seller sees a powerful or friendly dealer bidding on their vehicles and it doesn’t hit the reserve, they may just let it go anyhow. In our business the buyer base plays a critical role in the overall success of a sale, and when you have close to a dozen auctions that said dealers can visit, you want to keep them bidding and happy.

  • avatar
    rodster205

    Mr. Lang, in my opinion your articles are truly the best thing on TTAC. The insight you provide is excellent.

    As far as auctions, the only auto auction I went to was a State of Alabama Highway Department auction, hoping to score a sweet deal on a fleet of 90-ish S-10s they were selling (in about 1995). It was a joke, these trucks were absolutely stripped, rubber floormats and no radio, all with around 200K showing, and should have gone in the $1,500 range and maybe 2,500 at retail. The auction company had done things like spray-painted the hoses gloss black to make them look nicer than they were. They were the first batch before they got to the pavers and such. There were hundreds of people there. I was astounded as truck after truck went for over $3K. The good ones went for $4K, which was plain stupid since you could have gone to a dealer at the time and bought one with a radio, bucket seats, carpet, and a color other than white for the same money.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Fascinating. Thanks for the article and thanks to the people who responded too.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Mr. Lang, I agree with Rodster205. I love to read your articles. They give real insight into parts of the auto business world that are not so out in the open.

    I for one would like to go to an auction. But like you pointed out, it seems that down here at least, the bond between auctioneer and dealers is total. They keep the best deals to themselves and are privvy to inside information as to what cars are good or not. At least allegedly.

    but I’ve always been interested. Recently a friend of mine came out of an auction with an almost brand new motorcycle for a song. Spiked my interest again!

  • avatar
    oldguy

    interesting site:
    http://japan-tradings.com/stock.htm
    It goes with your photo.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    As you know, there is a long and storied difference between interests and addiction.

    Most of us here are interested in current events and TTAC.

    I’m addicted to auctions… and good coffee. Oh, and that Niedermeyer Auto-biography series was the best short story compilation I’ve read since ‘The Fifties’ by David Halberstam. I could see reading six hundred pages of that over a nice long weekend.

    Folks, If it were up to me I would just buy cars, do a few auctions a week, and write about it. Period. Everything else related to all this work is a simple PITA that justifies all the fun I have.

    The auction and automotive world has always seemed to be more decent, genuine and ‘real’ than the corporate and academic world. If I had to do it over again, I would have simply dropped out of school and pursued this full boar instead of waiting until my mid-20’s.

    My dad’s now 84 and still works part-time. Hopefully I can say the same thing fifty years from now.

  • avatar
    cleek

    Another great article and comments.

    This is automotive anthropology for those of us on the outside.

    Thx for your insight as always, Steve.

  • avatar

    Steve, that’s usually full-bore as in wide-open throttle butterfly valve…but given the times and how gnarly the world is (and how mortally nasty a pissed-off boar can be), I don’t know but that your spelling is more accurate. Keep up the great work.

    And yes…I’ve only been to a car auction once, but would have to say that it’s got Woot! and Ebay and everything online beat all hollow…..

    A similar experience is going to the docks at Newark NJ to see the custom imports…The Ferraris and Lamborghinis yes, but also odd Land Rovers, 2CVs and even (yes) a Simca.

    The only mechanical experience that ever beat them was going to the Tank Museum at the Home of Armor in Fort Knox, KY. WWI tanks (the ones that looked like an enormous parallelogram…and I got inside it…They were so tall because they had an enormous LONG stroke engine that went from belly plate to the top…and separate water jackets for each cylinder), WWII tanks, German tanks, British Tanks, Russian tanks, tank destroyers, tank retrievers, oh my. That was 40 years ago, dunno how much you can get in and play with the hardware these days…..

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