By on September 24, 2011

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.

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24 Comments on “Hammer Time: The Chosen...”

  • avatar

    Nice! I just sold one of these (also a ’95 even) to an elderly couple, had it sold within like 12 hours of posting on craigslist. I bought mine post-deer damage and obviously can’t get ridiculous deals like Mr. Lang here… but I loved that ride! Perfect car for road trips and the in-car computer in these is ridiculously advanced for the age, I’m pretty sure my favorite feature is the reminder if your blinker stays on for over a minute! Since I’m 21, the only way I found this out was from reading the owner’s manual, of course :)

  • avatar

    Great write-up Steven. I love to hear your “dealer`s” perspective of buying and selling cars. I miss the older Cadillacs which were apologetically American- big, stylish, comfortable cruisers. The new Cadillacs are nice, like the CTS, but its seems Cadillac is trying to mimic the Germans instead of creating there own original style.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I love the irony of the picture frame. Choose your GMC Yrs ago my co-worker had one of these. It was like riding in a leather lounger. Cadillacs shouldn’t be wrong wheel drive. It is unbecoming.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    4.9 with the super areo dynamic styling, sign me up! But only at the price you just paid, not at what you’re gonna sell it for.

  • avatar
    dvp cars

    ……nice bit of buying…..your pre-sale hands on diligence paid off. But despite your earnest belief (and I tend to agree with your reasoning)) that the TMU tag is due to seller indifference, in most jurisdictions, the ultimate buyer, your customer, will have to acknowledge that stigma on the bill of sale. I’m sure I’m not telling you something you don’t already know, and equally sure that your salesmanship skills will easily overcome such a minor road bump. Hey, if it were too easy, everyone would be a dealer. And besides, if you decide to add this guy to your famous “keeper” fleet, the issue becomes moot. Car looks mint in the photo.

  • avatar

    If you’re a Caddy guy, check out “Carfellas” on Discovery Channel.

  • avatar

    I wish I lived near Atlanta. This would be my next ride for the three months my kid is home for college summer vacation. I have a 2 mile commute to work and a big reserved parking spot….and I’m old enough to appreciate the turn signal cancellation feature!!!!

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    That story made me smile. Thanks for sharing Steve.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the Caddilac story, Steve. I really enjoyed it.

  • avatar

    love caddys… wife owned an ’83 with leather… she cried when we sold it… and now, we are finally the target age for Cadillac (she is 54 and I am 57)… those old bones really appreciate the soft ride and quiet inside!

  • avatar

    I love the Northstar, because its stink rubbed off on ALL the Cadillac models and cratered the resale prices.

    Five years ago I bought a 1992 Seville with the 4.9 and 52K on the clock for $1,500. The only problem was a non-functioning instrument cluster…the digital display was out….repaired with a $40 U-Pull-It replacement. I still have the car, has 77K on it now. I only use when I need to haul the entire family somewhere….gas mileage is about 14 around town. Runs fine, although the paint is getting a bit nasty looking. Probably the best ROI on any car I’ve ever owned.

    • 0 avatar

      A guy I knew bought one of the first 1992 Seville STSs to make it to Virginia. I borrowed it for a few weeks when I was in college. What I remember was that the remote opening trunk really wowed them in Blacksburg supermarket parking lots in 1992, the rear seat was almost floor height, and word that the next model year would have the engine needed to compete with Lexus. At the time, I recall thinking it was typical GM to have an exciting new product that was released with crucial pieces missing. Who knew that the Northstar would become Cadillac’s next Achilles Heal? Probably people that owned V8-6-4s, diesels, or HT4100s, come to think of it.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought the car from an elderly neighbor (WWII vet) who owned it since new. He almost didn’t buy the 92 because he wanted to wait for the “great” new Northstar engine. Almost shot himself in the foot with that idea.

      • 0 avatar
        dvp cars

        ….the North Star was the new Achilles Heel, replacing the old Achilles Heel. One of it’s trumpeted breakthroughs was it’s ability to limp home without coolant. Overlooked was it’s ability to blow gaskets WITH a full load of DexCool!

  • avatar

    Three questions about the Northstar:

    1) Are the headgasket and other issues as big of a problem as one would be led to believe based on the volume of data out there regarding these issues;

    2) Is the cost for replacing the headgasket on a 4.6L Northstar really into the $2500+ range (because the entire motor has to be pulled)?

    3) Is there any significant reliability improvements between 2006+ Northstars?

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      What I’ve always heard with the Northstar is “the newer the better” and that the “2003 and up are significantly improved.” All of the Northstar powered Caddies seem to have low resale value, low enough to tempt me to buy a 2005+ DTS, given that many sub 70,000 mile examples are selling for sub $20,000 price points.

    • 0 avatar
      dvp cars

      ….I’ve heard that the biggest obstacle is finding a reputable shop willing to tackle the job. Replacing every single vulnerable part runs the bill into the thousands, and few people will authorize that sort of expense. The alternative is a still pricey repair focusing on just the obvious faults. Knowledgeable shops are wary of doing this, fearing comebacks on 20+ hour jobs. Finding a guaranteed good unit at the recyclers presents it’s own set of problems.
      I have a fondness for STS/DTS’s too, but find (virtually bulletproof) 1997-2006 Park Av’s, and their 30 mpg highway cruising abilities, more than sufficient to satisfy my recently aroused geezermobile tendencies (I have two “keepers”). Look for one with the “ultra” suspension and “office” seating, the last real 6 passenger conveyance.

    • 0 avatar

      After I sold my 4.9L DeVille I entertained the idea of buying a blown-gasket N* version and doing work myself. The biggest obstacle is getting the motor out of the car; since it’s a transverse-mounted V8 the only way (as far as I know at least) is to drop the subframe and get the whole drivetrain out, then separate the engine and do the work. This makes it totally unrealistic to a backyard mechanic like myself without a proper hoist to lift the car up. Also, to do the work properly inserts must be installed into the block (TIME-SERT for example) and this is a very finnicky procedure that is easy to screw up, shops do not want to risk repeating a 20 hour job as someone has mentioned!

    • 0 avatar

      Nice car, Steve!

      I am currently driving a 96 DeVille with 25K miles. I bought it from the estate of a relative…all in I’m in it for less than $1500. I love the styling…it looks and drives bigger than it actually is. It’s just screams “classic Cadillac” to me, and it’s almost silent in the cabin while blasting down the road at 80+ mph.

      Anyway, the two mechanics (that I trust) who I’ve talked with feel that, with proper maintenance, the Northstar is as reliable as any other high performance V8 out there. I was told that the key thing was to maintain the cooling system to the letter according to GM’s latest recommendations. That means keeping the system properly filled, flushing the system at proper intervals or sooner, and doing all of it with the right materials. Keep in mind that GM has almost 20 years of experience with this engine now, so their latest information is backed up by a lot of engines and a lot of miles.

      Yes, the engines have had problems but the internet hype machine, aided and abetted by old-school mechanics who don’t appreciate the need to be careful and do the job right (as defined by the factory vs. their own experience) have probably not been totally fair to the Northstar.

      There are great deals to be had on Northstar cars. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the old adage of buying the right car with records to show that it was treated right is a good one. I really love mine…tons of power, and it’s fun to hear that V8 growl in such a big, comfy car.

      • 0 avatar

        When you’re working on the Northstar, a torque wrench is a must. A lot of mechanics skipped the torque wrench, including dealer mechanics. Since I can’t be sure how the car was serviced, I stay far away from Northstar engine cars.

  • avatar

    Those late 1990s DeVIlles were the best. I drove through a blizzard in Wyoming in one at night and it rode like a cloud.

    Too bad that was just a friend’s, I wish I owned it.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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