The Skinny on Old School Auto Auctions
There’s been a lot of talk about auto auctions in the car community over the past few years, mostly to discuss, and, like fellow Everyday Driver writer, Erik, to try new online auction sites like Cars and Bids. Wistfully scrolling though listings is certainly a fun way to waste time for those of us not officially in the market. Televised auctions like Mecum are fun to watch as well and engender a lot of discussion about how much people are willing to spend on classic cars.
But what about the OG auto auction? My understanding of them was always that you could save A LOT of money IF you know a guy and you were ALLOWED to attend the wholesale bidding. I imagine an inner circle of men in late middle age, huddled together muttering to themselves about how there’s no possible way they will pay that much for a 2010 Honda Civic at a “stealership” when their sixteen-year-old is just going to crash it anyway.
What is a wholesale auction really like? Thankfully, I have an inside source, my brother-in-law, who recently started working for one. Here’s the inside scoop. TLDR; it’s nothing like I thought.
How is the auction site set up?
“Physically, the auto auction, in East Windsor, CT, is the largest auto auction in New England. It’s 300 acres of cars—basically a giant parking lot. It’s so big there are cars parked everywhere. There are approximately 33,000 cars on the lot.
There is a giant auction barn with 20 lanes. It looks kind of like what you’ve seen on TV.
There’s an enormous back office with about 100 people organizing the administrative sales of all the cars. Cars are driven away with dealer plates, and some are taken away on flatbeds.”
What do you do there?
“I’ve been helping move cars on and off over the last two years due to COVID. My role is to drive the cars through the lanes. There is an auctioneer. Next to him is an assistant who helps call stuff out. A third person is an administrative person who logs everything. Also, the dealer selling the car may also be up there to encourage bids on the car. There’s also the driver who brings the car through. It’s a constant flow. Typically, there are about 200 cars in each lane. Multiply that times 20 lanes! Ten drivers help with each lane, and there is a lane chief in the giant parking lot helping to coordinate. Picture a play or production on which they’ve been working all week. Everything needs to flow in an organized manner, though it’s really organized chaos. Out in the field, with the lane chief, there’s an assistant (car-starter) that checks each car to see if it needs gas and that it will start. Tow trucks pull cars through if needed. Also in the auction lane are safety monitors to make sure all the drivers are following the ten main rules. They even have a “Board of Shame” that details when the last accident happened and how much damage it caused as a way to promote safe driving.
We don’t get paid by the number of cars that go though. A coworker advised me to just go slowly and have fun. I’ll probably drive 10-15 cars each day.”
Who is allowed to bid on cars?
“Only car dealers, wholesalers, can bid. At the registration desk is a person who checks dealer credentials upon entry. The general public is not allowed in. Of course there’s always someone who knows someone and can enter with a temporary pass to assist dealers. They can then put a dealer plate on the car and register it later after the sale.”
How do people bid on cars? How much are cars discounted?
“Each car has a barcode and QR code. The dealers use a device to scan it to get the information about the car— specs, mileage, CARFAX, etc. They are allowed to come in seven days prior to bidding, but they often are too busy to do that until the morning of the auction.
Dealers can bid in person or online. I haven’t seen how the online portion works, actually. It is definitely the future of the car auction business, and there will be less and less need for drivers like me.
Cars aren’t discounted, really. The transaction is from dealer to dealer. For example, the lane I’m in is for a specific auto group. An employee from the group will try to get bidding action going—to get buyers interested, saying things like “this car has low miles. It still has a warranty!” Sometimes people try to outbid each other just to mess with each other. It’s like the trading pits on Wall Street; it’s competitive, and they’re trying to best each other in any way possible.
This past week I drove a 2014 Mustang. I overheard it sat on a dealer lot for six months, and they were trying to sell it for $15,000. But the bidding started at $9,000, and the price didn’t move too much higher. I’m no expert, but there must have been something wrong with it. That’s the case for a lot of the cars. Dealers are planning to fix the cars or just sell them as is on low-end lots. Everyone has budgets to be aware of and are trying to make a profit.”
What kind of cars do you see?
“There are always one to two cars in the lobby meant to get interest when dealers walk in—usually a high-end Audi or Porsche. Before the auction begins, they usually line up nice models. I saw a pristine 1974 Toyota Land Cruiser that I was amazed by. Modified Raptors, Tacomas, stuff like that. I’m not really allowed to have my phone out while working because of safety concerns. I take a lot of pictures before auctions for sure!
There are also a lot of cars with 150,000-200,000 miles, though. If anyone asks “how does this car run”, I say it runs like a car with high miles! Most of these high mileage cars have a check engine light on, or a loud exhaust, or soft brakes, or faulty air conditioning/heat.
Some of the lanes have nicer cars than others. There’s a pecking order, in a lot of ways, as to what is sold and to whom. There are auction lanes dedicated to the large auto financing companies. Those lanes usually have newer vehicles in near-mint condition.”
What are some surprises you’ve encountered?
“The supply of cars has shrunk greatly. The number of lanes has gone down to as low as six. When I first started, there would be about 4000 cars going through. Now they’re down to 1200-1600 cars. But the demand is still there. The prices have really gone up. For example, a used CR-V with 21,000 miles, a 2021, wholesaled for $36,300!
One of the cars I drove this past week, a 2019 Ridgeline with 60,000 miles, went for $27,000. I’m kind of thinking of selling my own Ridgeline at this point!”
What is your favorite/least favorite car you got to drive?
“I have often thought about how an enthusiast would enjoy being around so many cars. But a lot of the cars I’ve driven lately have been pretty bad. This past week I drove a Benz GLK that had a massaging seat which was pretty great while putting around the lot. I obviously like the Ridgelines. I drove a couple of nice Silverados; I love a truck. I drove a 2016 Honda Civic Type R with 5,000 miles that probably had the most comfortable seat I’ve ever been in, and it had a 6-speed manual transmission. The bidding started at $48,000. A recent Maserati Ghibli felt special. I’m not really a car guy, but I started to get why you like cars so much. It’s really fun to test drive so many cars, even if just moving around a parking lot. I definitely get a sense for interiors. I don’t like a lot of European cars and how they’re controlled, to be honest. Dodge trucks definitely don’t hold up, even though they’re really nice when new. Toyotas always get top dollar for resale value which is a major plus.”
What are some additional things you can share?
“The side conversations I have there are good. I try to talk with dealers I’d like to buy a car from in the future. It’s a pressure-free way to meet them. Although the few dealers I've met and struck up conversations with have been from other states. I like the atmosphere—the interplay of watching dealers engaged in bidding wars, the dealers trying to offload their cars. It’s an interesting vibe and energy. You know something is going to happen. And people can smoke cigarettes outside the auction bay which is so foreign nowadays to see so many people smoking. There’s a lot of machismo. It’s a very competitive space, but the few women in attendance are absolutely not pushovers. It’s clear they know their stuff too.
There’s car culture all over the country and the world. There are many different demographics represented and many languages spoken. It’s cool to be around so many interesting people: rural and inner-city dealers, dealers who speak English, Spanish, or Arabic–everyone needs a set of wheels at some point.”
Sold to the Man in The Corner with the Funny Hat!
Is the wholesale auto auction house as mysterious and exclusive as I thought? Not really. Is this essential car enthusiast knowledge? Probably not. But I always wanted to know more about the inside world of cars changing hands on the wholesale market. Now you know, too!
Bill hosts a blog and YouTube channel that lead him to think more deeply about what it means to drive. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.