Hammer Time: The Chosen

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Every night before I go the an auto auction, I do a mental exercise. It involves figuring out exactly what I’m going to bid on and why. My lot is small and as a consequence, I’m very minded of what is chosen. If the vehicle you buy is bought at a great price but sits, you just screwed yourself. It’s always better to get the popular cars… unless you find something really out of left field.

Then you can get a real killer deal.

This past Monday I got really bored. All the cars at the auction were ‘sitters’. Common cars that nobody wants. Old Malibus, Stratuses and Galants. Vehicles that can easily stay on the lot for time immemorial. But then I found something strange.

It was an old 1995 Cadillac Deville. Nothing special… except the miles were only at about 110k according to the online run list. Since I had been driving around in a 2001 Deville I decided to give it a thorough going over.

The history was surprisingly good. No accidents. A long period of ownership. Dealer records. It was doubly surprising since this vehicle was going to be sold by a title pawn. Most vehicles that go through title pawns have usually been owned for three years or less. In fact I would say based on my experiences running an auto auction that the average is just a little over a year. A very abused year and change in most cases.

This one had been kept for four years prior. Not bad for a pawn car. Only one owner before then. Plus the mileage figures seemed to be a constant 7k a year since day one.

That’s unusual. Most of the time you’ll get an owner who has run the wheels off the vehicle and put it away wet at some point. 10k a year creme puffs get ridden 30k a year, and within 2 years the car is all worn but out because the last owner didn’t take care of anything.

This Cadillac had the right history even if it had the wrong seller. So why not check it out? I had fewer than 20 vehicles on my list for that evening auction. Not much at all. Most of the stuff turned out to be junk. Burnt tranny fluids. Oil leaks aplenty. Neglect. Blown heads. Truth be told this was a public auction and at those sales 90% of what’s out there is trash.

The Deville had been parked out in the back lot with the words TMU on the windshield. TMU means true miles unknown. But it wasn’t TMU at all. The auction got lazy and didn’t even bother jump starting the vehicle to find out the actual mileage.

Auctions often times will do the absolute minimum of what’s needed if the seller chooses to have it that way.

You want 30 vehicles for the evening sale? Great!

Don’t want to get any of them inspected? Fine.

No keys for cars that are perfectly fine? OK!

Everyone thinks that it is the auctions job to get a vehicle prepped up for the sale so it can bring the most money. It’s not. That is the responsibility of the seller. Title pawns in particular tend to shoot down anything that involves spending money. Even if it makes sense. So what you end up with as a buyer is a massive number of question marks amongst a sea of garbage.

That car may have been a recent mint vehicle that runs perfectly fine. Or it has a blown engine that will cost $2000 to replace. You don’t know. But once you inspect the vehicle and look at it’s history, you can put most of the pieces together.

I saw a spill on the rear floor and some minor interior wear. Engine was in great shape. The 4.9 Liter instead of the Northstar. Thank God! Nothing is guaranteed though. Only time and my risk tolerance would tell.

When it came time for the Cadillac to cross the block, it was me and only one other guy. I think the fellow must have been the repo driver for the vehicle. I saw his beady eyes fixated on the car well before it got on the block. At that point I assumed this guy had been bent on the vehicle and would put the bid well past the car’s value.

My eyes met with the auctioneers. He’s known me for over 10 years. Been over his house. Calls me ‘cousin’, and I even managed to help his son get an auction job back in the day. I flash four fingers and a fast swish motion with a fist. Translation: Put me in at $450. I then start pretending to look at the other lane so that the other bidder doesn’t think the auctioneer has money. 15 seconds later and two futile $300 bids from Mr. Beady eyes, and the Deville was mine.

Plus $125 auction fee the total came to $575. Only a few years ago that auction fee would have been $45 or $50. Now the sales screw all they can and we dealers get charged up the wazoo. No matter. I’ve been on both sides of that fence. I sign the paperwork. Pay the office… and get the keys.

Turned out to be a good car. I would also buy a Cherokee that evening. But the real story for me was the Cadillac. It had been a long time since I was heavy on the Cadillacs.

I had tried giving my parents a 99’ Deville as a thank you gift a few years back when my father pulled me aside in his brusque German accents and said, “I don’t think your mother can handle that big of a vehicle anymore. Go find a Camry.” I sold the Cadillac to a PITA buyer from Florida who quickly decided to give it 22” wheels and a gold paint treatment. I’m sure it’s either been title pawned, totaled, or the Northstar finally bit its usual big one.

Since then I have been light on Caddies. My mentor who had a ‘buy-here pay-here’ lot was a heavy buyer of the models a few years ago, and I was still a ‘cash’ dealer back then. Volvos. Subarus. Any import without a Toyonda premium that had a great history and a leather interior I was more than happy to buy.

People paid a premium for peace of mind back then. Plus new car dealerships were more interested in financing thanks in great part to the liberal lending standards of the time. It was easy to buy good product and sell it quick.

Now you just have to find good product anywhere you can get it. The usual fishing holes will often have more dealers than they will cars. It’s become a ‘funny money’ business. Everyone is trying to chase after the poor schmoe who needs to buy a ‘tote the note’ car and the auction prices reflect the groupthink and greed.

I don’t think I’ll ever get rich buying old Cadillacs. But perhaps I need to start buying more of them. They ride a lot nicer than most folks give them credit for. Plus older folks love them, and I love dealing with older customers.

Maybe I am a Cadillac Man.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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2 of 24 comments
  • Serj Serj on Sep 24, 2011

    sweet buy. I just picked up an 01 DTS for under 10k, and it's a killer drive. fast, smooth, black on black, power everything, and it's the year AFTER they stopped doing liquid-cooled alternators. I'll probably never get my money back out of it but 300hp tri-zone climate control and heated seats front AND rear seal the deal. now If i could only get it to return closer to the 25mpg econ and further away from the 17 city. I'd get an 05 DTS with the same trimmings in a heartbeat if i could and avoid having to replace all the automatic/self-adjusting struts. the 06+ just went cheaper on the interior and the pointy nose does nothing for me. I guess if i never find one I'll just wait for a good deal on an 08+ STS V8 Performance trimmed one.

  • Aquineas Aquineas on Sep 25, 2011

    Man I know the perfect person for this car; a distant family member who's not had a rough time as of late. Wish I could buy it.

  • Theflyersfan I guess I should have kept my first ever car which was also a 1987 Nissan. Probably could have sold it for $50,000 by now if I was living in this fantasy world where used up 37 year old Nissans sell for the same price as a new Versa. I wish a link was here so all of us can check out this treasure among junk 200SX. The only way this car is even remotely worth that kind of money is if there are illicit substances hidden somewhere in the frame that, as part of the sale, you have to drive across the border and "make a delivery." Otherwise, get that thing off of my lawn.
  • Sobro Needs moar Roots.
  • RHD Questions? None, no, not really. Interested in some random Hyundai? No, not at all. Yawn.
  • Formula m Alfa-Romeo had the great idea to unveil my all time favourite car at the world expo in Montreal. Never built or Sold in North America. The called it the Alfa Romeo Montreal. Never even sold in North America.