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Autophile

From ‘lookie-loos’ to hard-core bidders, auctions attract an eclectic cast of characters Add to ...

When Gregory Ransom was a kid, a poster of a red Ferrari hung on his bedroom wall. It took a number of years of hard work before he was finally in a position to buy one.

But on this day, while I’m ogling Ransom’s mint-condition 1990 Ferrari 348 Targa for sale at a local auction, the question is, why is his dream car headed for the auction block?

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Parental duty calls, and it doesn’t include a Ferrari.

“It doesn’t fit with my lifestyle right now,” says Ransom, a father of three. “My kids don’t appreciate my hobby. I’ve got family and career; we’re all busy.”

Ransom knows he’s likely not the only one here sacrificing a passion for the sometimes unfair world of being a responsible adult.

Jeff Hill, proprietor of this car auction (the longest-running in Canada), also knows the broken-hearted car romance story all too well: “Cars are not marriage. People have fun with them for a time and then move on.”

Perhaps it’s time for someone else to own the rosso corsa (Italian for racing red) Ferrari. Ransom’s sale strategy is as simple as it is pragmatic: “Set your heartbreak price that you can live with and walk away and sleep.”

Hill would say Ransom’s outlook is sage advice for sellers. But what about would-be buyers?

Some, says Hill, have lost sleep over the one that got away; others over bidding too high. Auctions, it seems, can have all the twists and turns of a mountain highway.

Hill grew up around car auctions. His uncle, Grant Hill, owned and ran the Okotoks Collector Car Auction for more than 35 years, until Jeff bought it from him four years ago.

In this world, people like me are the idle spectators, or “lookie-loos”; there to soak up the vibe – French fries, hot dog, rubber and engine exhaust smells included – and watch the at-times intense bidding competition. There’s always a winner and a loser, says Hill. As the T-shirts sold here say: “It’s better to be the high bidder.”

This auction attracts thousands of people from across Canada and the United States, hoping to either score a set of wheels, or who are just plain curious.

As diverse as the cars and car culture tchotchkes on display are – everything from vintage gas pumps to a rare 1987 Buick GNX said to be worth $100,000 – so, too, are the folks who frequent car auctions, says Hill.

“I grew up seeing a lot of these faces. It’s probably the most diverse group of characters you might ever come across with eclectic tastes.”

Hill lists the cast of characters:

Brand/model hounds: The folk who love, say, a Camaro or a Corvette, and want one. One of Hill’s recent customers was there to top up his stable of 30 Corvettes.

Impulse buyers: They get caught up in the moment, says Hill, and say, “‘Wow, that looks neat,’ and the next thing, they know, they own one after they threw their hand in the air.”

Nostalgists: Focused on a particular era, usually the cars of their youth, such as 1960s muscle cars.

Genuine enthusiasts (a.k.a. Jay Lenos): Knowledgeable about cars, they identify something special about a vehicle and pursue it.

Pickers: Unsure about what they want. But when they find it, they appreciate the car for what it is and try to bargain.

Spectators: Not ready to buy, they just want to be part of the event and track the market.

Once the auction revs up, things happen rapidly as the parade of cars rolls out before the audience, each vehicle getting a moment in the spotlight like a beauty queen on stage.

With the staccato delivery of the auctioneer’s calls, the buzz of the spectators’ reactions and the spotters who keep their eyes peeled for subtle bidding gestures, it’s easy to fathom how someone could get caught up in the moment and throw their hand in the air.

Still, says Hill, “I’m more surprised by the deals people pass up than the deals they get.”

AUCTION TIPS AND TRICKS

Thinking of buying at an auction? Many are first-time buyers, says Hill. Here are some of his tips and tricks from the auction floor.

Buyers

  • Have your funds organized and ready. Auctions houses only hold onto inventory for a short time; they are not a storage facility. You have two days.
  • Do some due diligence on the vehicle you’re looking for and the market. The cars do not come with a warranty and they can be previewed and inspected before the auction.

Sellers

  • Research the market. Don’t look at the asking price but rather what price it actually fetches.
  • An insurance appraisal is not the value someone will pay for your car; that’s a conversation I have to have all the time, says Hill.
  • Have it detailed and show-stopping worthy.
  • Describe it accurately.

Auction etiquette

  • Don’t walk around someone else’s car and badmouth it. You can really offend people.
  • During the bidding process, don’t wave at someone across the room – or you might buy a car. A bid is a binding contract.
  • Don’t ask people what their reserve bid is. It’s a tacky question, says Hill. People deal with an auction so the organizers can deal with the money. They put it in an auction to see what the market can bear.
  • Look, don’t touch. It’s in poor taste to touch the car.

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