The Auto Auction Experience
Having been contracted to pick up vehicles for a few Massachusetts car dealers, I’ve been given the opportunity (or “charge” depending on who you ask) to attend dealer-only vehicle remarketing auctions.
I was pretty stoked at the prospect of being paid to wander around a car show, even if I’d be looking at Muranos and Civics instead of E-Type Jags. And what auto-industry enthusiast wouldn’t be interested in seeing how the proverbial sausage of the car remarketing business was made?
Well, as soon as I strode in to my first warehouse auto auction I remembered why that “origin-of-sausage” saying was meant to have rather negative connotations.
As I stepped out of the summer heat into the city-sized facility I was met with a wicked amalgamation of exhaust, cigarettes and bad cologne launching a full-blow assault on my olfactory senses.
I could feel years falling off the back end of my life with each breath I took in, and another saying altogether came to mind- Obi-Wan Kenobi’s righteous line to Luke Skywalker as they enter that sketchy desert neighborhood in a galaxy far, far away…
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
So it would seem.
No more than two paces deeper into the building I’m met with a second barrage, this time on the ears.
The cacophony of a hundred engines revving, weezing, and coughing their way around a metal-walled building makes listening to Gilbert Gottfried sing “Call Me Maybe” through a fan sound like a solid alternative.
The auctioneers, masters in their craft of attention-getting, yell over each other in an attempt to drive up prices and generate excitement.
As for the bidders, they span the range of ethnic minorities, but one thing they seem to share is a disagreeable attitude and a penchant for Ed Hardy t-shirts.
I was… right at home?
I gave up trying to make my friends after being told to fuck off for the third time and focused my attention on the cars.
The cars drive, limp, and sometimes are pushed around the facility in front of the various auction blocks- dragging their feet (tires) like they’re heading to interment camps.
The auction sells about ten vehicles simultaneously, every ninety seconds or so, with each lane having a per-determined order so buyers can theoretically time when to be where to scope out their targets. Reality is that the times and order answer to no one, including basic numerical logic. Getting in front of a car you read about on the pre-sale runlist is as much a game of luck as one of being able to read a schedule.
This ceaseless stream of cars marches through the warehouse like a torpid caterpillar of steel and plastic.
And what an assortment of cars.
Literally everything from 200,000 mile Honda Odysseys to Nissan GT-Rs to telephone-pole reaching crane trucks are trotted out for an audience of hundreds of car dealers vying for deals in a seemingly endless contest of machismo and wits… such as they are.
Since car values proclaimed by sanctioning bodies like NADA and Manheim are accepted across the industry, one would think auction prices would be easy to predict. But they aren’t.
Sometimes a great car can roll across the block when everyone who can afford it is off eating soup (which is sold from a vendor within the facility and is surprisingly popular). Conversely, two bidders can get caught up in egos and send the price of a Pontiac Aztek through the roof.
When a buyer and seller can’t agree on a price, an auction official might even step in and reduce their fees to expedite a transaction.
The business is run on turn, not margin. A given auction house will hustle 2,000 cars across its blocks in a day, and in the scheme of their operation $100, even $1,000, is hardly a blip in their ledger.
You probably have an idea in your head of what an auctioneer sounds like from cartoons or movies. That rapid-fire “Foghorn Leghorn” voice is exactly what you think it is. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s just say it’s nothing like the creepily-deliberate voice from the auction at end of Taken.
The abstract and disorganized nature of the world’s largest retail market is enough to make an MBA shake his head, but I find it hilariously endearing.
Wrought with corruption, underhandedness, bad manners, and worse smells it takes a stalwart stomach indeed to wheel and deal in the auction environment. That, or somebody who loves cars and can tune out the anger of a thousand anxious immigrants. Such as myself.
Now if only my employers would pay me enough to take advantage of a great deal on a third-gen RX-7, I’d be the happiest guy in the place.
In the meantime, next time you buy a used car from your neighborhood dealer… however it ended up on their lot, you can rest assured that it had quite an adventure getting there.