By on January 18, 2012  BCA Auctions in Derby, UK; Courtesy of

I get a lot of emails from auto enthusiasts. About 60% of what I get comes down to this question.

“Can you get me a high demand vehicle at a disgustingly low price at the auctions?”

The short answer is no. Just as an athlete can’t contradict the laws of physics, I can’t control the free market aspect of a dealer auction. In my world a car is bid on by dozens of professionals until the last man pays the most. If you want a Toyonda or the latest and greatest wheels that are based on yet another ‘”Fast & Furious” ripoff, then you have to pay the premium.

As for unpopular cars, they are a different story.

I usually put unpopular cars into five distinct categories.

1) The Dented

Let’s say you have a nice large dent right where the hood, front bumper and quarter panel meet. We’re talking about an impact that pierces the paint and damages the body to the point where no pdr guy (paintless dent repair) can salvage those parts.

That hit will usually be a lot more expensive to repair than one where the driver’s door gets bashed in a good four inches and can’t even open.  Why? Because doors are kept in strong supply at most junkyards. On the other hand good quarter panels and hoods aren’t always easy to find. Even if you choose to go aftermarket, the costs are far more than what you would expect.

In many cases you may be looking at between $600 to $1500 for a complete repair job on what may seem to be minor damage. Heck, even a hood alone with a repaint is going to run around $400.  On the other hand doors can be bought for $75 to $200 and then re-sprayed for $100.

When it comes to damaged cars at the auctions, the question isn’t what. It’s where and to what extent.

In light of that you can sometimes get a deal on a good running car that got into a fight… and lost.

2) The Old

The definition of old has changed a lot over the past four years.

Back in 2008, any vehicle over 10 years was considered old. Now it’s closer to 15 years, and if it has good miles  and is in good overall condition, you still get plenty of competition for it.

I have seen 15 year old Nissan Maxima’s with low miles sell for over $3000. Then again. A 1996 Olds Cutlass Ciera with similar miles will more than likely get only a third of the Maxima’s price.

Can you buy a good cheap popular old car at a dealer auction? No.

Can you buy a good cheap ‘unpopular’ old car? You bet!

3) The Walmart Car

Cheap cars with cheap interiors. Tauruses, Stratuses, Windstars, older Galants and 626’s. They are good enough to get you back and forth wherever you need to go; so long as you choose the right powertrain. But they are also complete plasticized cost cutting commuters with no joy in their drive.

They’re also not cheap anymore.

When the buy-here pay-here dealer is looking a vehicle that they can finance for $700 down and $250 to $350 a month, they are looking squarely at the Walmart cars. Why? Because they cost thousands less at the auctions and replacement parts are usually cheap. Junkyards and aftermarket parts suppliers see to that.

The Walmart Car used to be a sweet spot at the auctions. Now they still can be found with rental and fleet companies. But you’re likely to get a better deal off a Walmart car that is a repo or one with an off color. Than to get a nice silver one from Avis that can be financed by JD Byrider at $300 a month for 60 months.

4) The ‘Issue’ Car

Branded titles. True miles unknown. Frame damage. Previous Canadian history. Repos. Salvage Titles.  Miles exempt.

All the things that make the general public recoil in horror may represent an excellent buying opportunity for those willing to do a bit of digging. I’ll give you a recent example.

I bought a 2003 Buick LeSabre with 45,000 miles for $3800 (plus auction fee) at a Carmax sale. It was announced on the block, “Branded Title”. Most dealers when they hear those two words automatically assume the worst. Flood damage.  Salvage/Rebuilt. Things of that nature.

The issue with this car was, “Exceeds Mechanical Limits”. This notation is usually reserved for those vehicles with five digit odometers.  Except the LeSabre has a six digit odometer. So why was it put on the title?

Because the DMV screwed up. It even said so in the Carfax history. Delaers at this sale are offered free Autochecks. A good provider of history as well… which is why I always use both services. The two services used in concert can help resolve a lot of issues.

I’ve managed to buy low mileage ‘true miles unknown’ cars that simply had the first two numbers on their odometer switched on a new title.  ‘Frame Damage’ cars that only needed a front quarter panel replaced. Repos that had been dealer maintained until the last new owner kept it for three months and 1500 miles.

Issue cars take time to find. But if you’re willing to do the research, they can be absolute steals.

5) The Ugly Body

Who wants a minivan? An old-school luxury coupe? Or a base model wagon with 27 dings and a stickshift?

Okay, the last one is a TTAC special. But in most cases the unfashionable car simply does not sell at a dealer lot. It sits or gets driven by the dealer out of pure pity.

Consumers buy with their eyes… and the same is true with dealers. While the consumer is buying their version of great transportation, most dealers are pondering two questions whenever a car goes on the auction block.

1) How much can I sell it for?

2) How long will this thing stay on my lot?

The key to success in selling retail goods is turnover and profit. Ugly cost money in the retail world on both sides of that ledger.

So if you can stomach the bass faced fascia on a Buick Riviera, it’s all you! Or in the case of my recent Christmas buys, it was just me. I got a supercharged version for only $815.

Now I just have to sell it.  Anyone interested? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller?

Questions about used cars? Feel free to email me at [email protected] . It may take a day or two (or five) but I always make it a point to write back. 



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37 Comments on “Hammer Time: If You Want A Deal, You Have To Pay For It...”

  • avatar

    this article really makes me sad, it pretty much confirms what my pocketbook has suffered through an almost destructive hobby. I enjoyed fixing up cars for the past 10 years. i’ve learned quite alot of mechanical skills, but finding that used gem on craigslist is now beyond difficult for the hobbyist.

    • 0 avatar

      Amen, it is not the cost of the tools (diagnostic or otherwise) anymore, too much risk for the extra cost to buy a fixer-upper.

    • 0 avatar

      The gems of the past used to be $50 to $100 and the seller, happy to be rid of it, would deliver it to you. Now, the scrap guys will give you $400 for the same car that needs lots of repairs. No opportunity there. Also, you’re competing with the car donation programs who offer blue book value for a worthless car. No opportunities there either.

      • 0 avatar

        The car donation racket is long dead. The IRS changed the rules a while back, now all you can deduct is the ACTUAL amount the charity gets for the donation WHEN they sell it or scrap. No more donating an unsaleable hooptie and getting a mint low-mileage valuation tax deduction for it. You generally get scrap value at best.

  • avatar

    What’s “previous Canadian history”?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Just what it sounds like. A vehicle that is originally sold in Canada and has kilometers prominently displayed on the dashboard instead of miles per hour.

      In almost all cases, the dash has already been converted. But this announcement is often a clue-in to look carefully for rust issues.

    • 0 avatar

      A potentially replaced speedometer (KM for Miles) and it’s famously hard to import a vehicle from Canada, the title could have problems. Some Canadian vehicles are different, a few won’t pass emissions here, a raft of things.

    • 0 avatar

      If that previous ‘Canadian History’ states that it spent it’s life in the lower mainland in British Columbia, you can be pretty sure that there will be minimum rust as no salt is used on the roads here. Also, vehicles more than 10 years old have to go through the ‘Aircare’ emissions control program here. The website for which has a handy VIN search, allowing you to see the cars emissions test history. They also record the mileage.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought an ’88 Pontiac 6000-SE with 120,000 miles on it from a mechanic in the Army town I lived in at the time. It was not much to look at but ran like a dream, got 30 mpg, A/C worked and had working power everything. It also had an engine block heater, tachometer (horizantal sweep needle to match the speedo) and yellow fog lamps. Had major problems with the title, cost me about $600 to title it in Kansas because it was a Canadian car and had never been titled in the US. However, the DMV never asked me twice about it. Just titled it. I drove the D-S out of the ugly thing for another 100K kilos.

        Two and half years later, parked it at the Commissary with a for sale sign for $1200, 400 more than I had paid for it. Not ten minutes away my mobile rings and I drive back and sell it for cash right there, passing the title over to a man who was thrilled to have an efficient car with working A/C and didn’t care it was a Canuck-mobile.

  • avatar

    “Or a base model wagon with 27 dings and a stickshift?”

    Wow! Don’t tell Educator Dan! ;)

    We once bought a Dodge Spirit that I should have known better. One of the worst car-buying decisions I have ever made, and I have made several. My brain obviously was left at home, as that car was a rebuilt wreck. It showed 4500 miles on the clock. This was early 1994.

    I hope I never make such a decision again.

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like a diesel Citroen AX I bought for a cheap runabout. Never had a good look at it before sticking my hand up. My suspicions as to why I was one of only two bidders on the car were confirmed when the head gasket blew the moment the engine got hot. Fortunately I managed to salvage the nearly full tank of diesel, some other parts and got 100 quid for it as scrap, which nearly covered the purchase price.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Hey, hey, hey… my 1997 Escort wagon was an automatic! (Though my ex-wife’s new husband is driving it around town now. Hopefully he takes better care of it than she ever did. Oh well, whatever, I’m getting married again soon.)

  • avatar

    I gave up on old cars years ago. I prefer motorcycles now. If the old girl needs too much work it an be easily and profitably parted out on eBay.

  • avatar

    The final generation Riviera is a cool car, and seems to have a following. I consider it the best looking of the final generation of luxury coupes, including the Eldorado and Mark VIII. The Mark of course does have the advantage of proper RWD. It is probably a slow turnover car, since it needs a particular buyer, but that buyer will be looking specifically for a Riviera, so it has high profit potential.

    I would warn the author of this post that one Jack Baruth is on the lookout for people using blog posts to sell things, but I’m sure the author of this post has enough dirt to keep him quiet. And, of course, the full disclosure is obvious.

  • avatar

    “Let’s say you have a nice large dent right where the hood, front bumper and quarter panel meet.”

    I think you mean fender, not quarter panel.

    If there is a dent where the hood, front bumper and the quarter panel meet then it is time for the crusher.

    Source: My claims-adjuster father. And horsies.

    • 0 avatar

      Semantics, front fender is the same as front quarter panel. I would cite Wikipedia but a group of greedy corrupt a–holes have them on strike today.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll cite it, since it agrees with me.

        “On an automobile, a quarter panel (or rear wing in the case of a rear quarter-panel) is usually considered the body panel that covers the section between the rear door and the trunk; however, the front section (fender), between the door and wrapping around the hood, is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a quarter panel.”

        Emphasis mine.

  • avatar


    I am interested in the Riviera. What is the best way to contact you?

  • avatar

    My success story: I once got a bike for a decent deal with lower miles than advertised at auction because the digital display was switched to km, not miles.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Same deal with cars. I got an Olds 88 at a great price not too long ago due tot he same issue.

      Except in the Olds case, all you had to do was press a button to switch the odometer back to miles.

  • avatar

    That Riveria is the *its.. Wish i could afford to take it off your hands!

  • avatar

    SAAB 9-5 Aeros with manual tranny from sweet spot years (2004-05) are near-unobtanium – at any price. I know because I’ve been looking for one since autumn.
    It is funny, considering that the maker is no more and the reputation of the brand is far from stellar.

  • avatar

    One man’s junk is another’s gold!

  • avatar

    I confess that until I started coming here a couple years ago, and reading these pieces from Steve Lang, I had no idea there existed a significant car market where old (10 years is still old to me), higher mileage cars were rented on a long term basis or financed. It strikes me as similar to Rent-A-Center, but for used cars.

    I can only speculate that suburban Boston is not a prime example of that market in action.

  • avatar

    I will gladly take a 2008 Passat Wagon with a stick shift and low miles. (but then this IS TTAC!)

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    Just a point of clarification, that photo is not Melbourne Australia. It is in fact the premises of BCA Auctions in Derby, UK – which as it happens is not far from a small town also called Melbourne (the two are indirectly related through the local top nob gentry). The auctions are not actually in Melbourne though, so it is puzzling why the caption would reference it.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Questions: Miles on the Riviera? What condition is the paint and leather in? Is it on your eBay? (And yeah I’m serious.)

  • avatar

    My auction guy recommends Cadillacs and high-dollar cars that are highly discounted at 2 years old. Big savings and he makes a better dime, especially becuase
    I’ve bought a couple of low-miles tauras’ from him. Research, give a price that I will not pay a dime over, but is a darn good price, and let him work the auction. These guys help each other get good deals.

  • avatar

    My crazy neighbor specializes in salvage title asian cars. He’s “that guy” for sure.

    Now, I’d be hesitant to buy some of the cars he’s flipped from our parking lot (based on extent of original damage), but they always leave looking cherry and some of them are just clearly great values. Example: He bought a low miles 2009 Honda Fit for less than $2k, needing front bumper, hood, quarter panel replacement and minor under hood work, radiator is fine. I’d own that car, and no matter how he gets the work done he’ll make a bucket of money on it.

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