Auction Day: Finance Kings & Dealer Queens

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
auction day finance kings dealer queens

When over 60 dealers are looking at the same vehicle at the same time, your chances of a finding a good deal at an auction decline dramatically.

That 2009 Nissan Versa that you like? At least five large-scale buy-here pay-here dealers will be fighting for it along with two other wholesalers that have a warm relationship with a Nissan dealer.

The scuffed up low-end Impala with over 200k on it? A public auction on the south side of town will be all over that. As will many other used car dealers who finance older vehicles in the urban areas of Atlanta. Don’t even think about buying that car as a cash flipper these days; because financing is the new elixir of older, popular used cars.

But an 11 year old Buick? Midsized? Unpopular? Well cared for? That’s my niche!

I spend a lot of time looking at a car’s history on Carfax. Most folks don’t bother with dealerships anymore… but some do. Conservative vehicles that receive regular maintenance tend to be a bit more pampered on average, and they make better finance vehicles as a result. This 2001 Buick Regal LS may represent little more than an oozing vat of mediocrity for most enthusiasts. But it’s money in the bank in my world.

Leather seats matter for a lot of folks who want to feel rich. These are in excellent shape. The paint shows no sign of fading and all the miscellaneous outside trim pieces that tend to degrade and peel in the Georgia sun are in good condition.

One other surprising reality are the center caps. They are all there. Usually Buicks of this era have anywhere between two to four of these pointless emblems donated to an adopt-a-mile program. This model has all of them present.

Instead of the minor detail that most dealerships perform on their recent trade-in’s before auctioning them off, this particular firm decides to just leave things as is. I prefer that. Slobs tend to be more abusive to their metal and leaving the evidence intact helps me get a more complete understanding of the prior owner.

GM should have done the same thing back in the day as Volvo owners do now. Leave extra bulbs in the trunk for their inevitable replacement. I usually get so many of these extra bulbs in the gloveboxes and trunks of old GM models that I never need to buy them.

This Regal has 158k on it, needs an oil change, and either needs to have the EGR cleaned or replaced. The bidding went down to $1500 thanks to my signaling, “Hold the bid!” to the auctioneer by placing a closed fist close to my body. One of many, many implicit signals veteran buyers use to express their interest. One other dealer jumped in with $50 bids, I kept up with my mild signaling in the thick of the crowd, and the competitor jumped off on the belief that the auctioneer was running him up.

I bought it for $1800 + the $115 auction fee + more than likely about $200 to $300 in recon and repairs. Once you replace fluids, filters, maybe a tire or two, and one unexpected part or so, you are generally looking at about anywhere from $300 to $500 more than your winning bid.

The Regal managed about 32 mpg on the short ride back from the auction, which is great given that gas guzzling cars usually tend to sit longer on the lot. Due to their cost of repair and durability, I try to get a lot of GM cars that come with the 3800 Series II engine. So long as the intake manifold is properly tended to and the electronics are as they should be, these cars tend to be fairly tolerant of abuse. Especially compared to most Tauruses and Intrepids.

Then again, nothing from that era can compare to a Panther or a four banger Accord or Camry. Today’s auction prices reflect that as well. That one Regal I bought was less than half the price of an Accord or Camry with the same features and specs.

One other car of note was a 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis LS with only 25k miles. The transmission was recently overhauled and the miles, unlike the 1990 Geo Tracker that went through with supposedly only 32k miles, were verified and accurate.

That car only had one problem. It was abused. I didn’t find out until I came to the sale, but the prior owner obviously never had the oil changed with any level of regularity. The bumps and bruises that were hidden online, were all too apparent in person. The A/C was inop. The rack was loosey goosey, and their was fertile evidence that the inheritor of this once prized Panther had ragged it out.

I had sold a Grand Marquis engine for $500 several months ago from a vehicle of mine that got wrecked. Once the bidding went to $2300, I bailed, and didn’t look back. Few folks outside the business understand the futility that comes with ‘polishing a turd’. Most old vehicles that were not well maintained, regardless of the miles, end up becoming rolling turds.

Turds, even popular ones, can kill your bottom line. The unpopular car that is well kept is almost always the better buy.

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2 of 25 comments
  • Mistermau Mistermau on Jun 13, 2012

    I've got a real soft spot for these Regals. Back in the early 2000s, during my traveling Consultant days, this was my preferred rental car to grab when I flew into anywhere. Comfy. Leather. Good power. My second choice was the Impala. Sigh...the good ole days.

  • Jtk Jtk on Jun 13, 2012

    I had that exact model, except a different color. Mine was awful. The suspension was shot, even after I had lower control arms replaced (the struts were also bad). It wore out brakes at an alarming rate (3 times over 60,000 miles). The "leather" was practically indistinguishable from vinyl and the seats were squishy and unsupportive (and the driver's seat in mine partly collapsed, requiring repair). At 73,000, it was done... coolant in the oil, bad transmission, the aforementioned suspension problems, dead vent fan, etc. I sold it to Carmax for $1700. I should mention that I never got higher than 28 mpg, and averaged 20-21 on a daily basis. Worst car I ever owned by far.