Purchasing the cheapest vehicle in Monterey and living to tell the tale

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1998 GMC Suburban SLT front 3/4 Mecum

I will never be able to gloat about buying a car on the coveted Top 10 Monterey Sale list. After all, the top sale this year was the Ferrari GTO that brought $48,400,000. Second? A $22M Duesenberg SSJ. Even the “cheap seats”—Nos. 9 and 10—tied at a paltry $4,515,000 each. I suspect they had to be quite pedestrian, judging by their sales prices.

But while all these millions were being exchanged, I, quite accidentally, took the honors for doing something very far removed from headline news. I bought the #1 cheapest vehicle sold during Monterey Auction Week. How cheap? Well, the second-cheapest car in Monterey sold for $3300. Mine was 40 percent less than that. Yes, for $1925 all-in, I bought a 1998 GMC Suburban SLT at Mecum’s Monterey Auction. I won’t tell you what my hotel room cost for the week, but it was more than that. And, unlike the Suburban, it didn’t have air conditioning.

But let’s get into the “why” of it all. First, I freely admit that I broke every rule about buying at auction that I’ve preached in articles and seminars for years. So do as I say, not as I do. Please. What follows is a story of acting in haste and repenting in leisure.

It was late afternoon Thursday at Mecum, the point where the lower-priced stuff starts rolling over the auction block. My wife, after being at the auction all day, had just left the tent to go mitigate her carbon monoxide levels or something like that. And, in my defense, when she left she didn’t give me the usual “don’t do anything stupid” line. Looking back it was basically an invitation.

1998 GMC Suburban SLT gauges
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum
1998 GMC Suburban SLT engine drivers side
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

I mean, I had just been untethered and was sitting at an auction. Sunrises are less predictable.

So there I sat, having just been left to my own devices, watching cars cross the block. A behemoth 1998 GMC Suburban rolled onto the block (Lot T200, for those of you who would like to take a closer look). I hadn’t seen it before and I really had no interest in it at all. Until the auctioneer started literally begging for a bid. “Folks this truck is NO RESERVE and I don’t have a bid. Can I PAY somebody to take it?” Yep, that did it.

The old used car dealer in me, who had been to thousands of late-model car auctions back in the day looking at stuff like this, had to check it out. I walked up to the block and sure enough it was running. Sounded good, in fact. There was a fresh California smog certificate on the dashboard, the A/C was blowing cold, and the truck was actually reasonably clean. Good tires, 154K miles, and a third-row seat. And then I remembered my wife has mentioned more than a few times that she would really like something with a third-row seat for the kids… and earlier that day had pointed out a green Pinto wagon that she liked because she liked the color. Green. This truck was green. I never knew she liked green. I confirmed the Suburban was a 4×4, a big thing for those of us who live in the Midwest, and it was also a rust-free California truck—another big plus for us rust belters.

I bid $1000. Another bidder followed at $1250. And another at $1500. The auctioneer was asking for $2000. Me, being the savvy auction veteran, gave the “half” signal to denote I’d pay $1750 for this big green thing I really knew nothing about. The hammer fell about 30 seconds later, making me the owner of a Suburban that, even at $1925.00 all-in, cost less than 0.1 percent of the buyer’s premium on that Duesy SSJ. Which, if I may point out, only seats two. My new Suburban? EIGHT. Boom.

1998 GMC Suburban SLT doors open wide
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

What’s the worst that could happen? Well, it’s now been a little more than a month and I can tell you.

First things first: I had to get this thing from Monterey to Wisconsin. When I bought it I thought that would be no issue, after all, I finally had a vehicle I could send on an open transport truck to save money. But the reality is, after car week in Monterey there are no cheap transport options. Or virtually any options at all. Tried as I might, I couldn’t find somebody to haul it. I looked on Central Dispatch, a dealer-only website, to see what the going rate was for this trip and it looked like around $900. So I posted the load for $1000. Then $1200. Then $1300. I also posted it on U-Ship for the same numbers. No takers. By this point I was in Wisconsin and the Suburban was literally sitting in the parking lot of the Hyatt Monterey with the keys under the seat. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t considered just letting it get towed away.

But I couldn’t quit that easily. Finally by raising the offer to $1500 on Central Dispatch I found a shipper willing to haul it. A week later it arrived in Milwaukee on the back of a semi converted into a one-car hauler, with a nice woman driver who travelled with her parrot. But that’s a story for another time. She informed me when she arrived that the Suburban didn’t run. Uh oh. Thankfully it turns out it has an alarm system that just interrupted the starter. A press of the key fob and it fired right up. Off the truck it came.

When I first opened the door to drive it I was reminded that when one looks at a car being driven across an auction block you can’t see that the leather on the driver’s seat looks like Edward Scissorhands used it in some kind of attempt to carve another angelic shrub sculpture. So, the list of required repairs had begun.

1998 GMC Suburban SLT hood
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum
1998 GMC Suburban SLT wheels tires
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

1998 GMC Suburban SLT interior dash
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

A quick test drive revealed it actually drove really nice, which was a huge relief. Of course, shortly afterward I noticed the smell of coolant and a large puddle of the same growing under the truck. It appeared to be coming from around the intake manifold. I sent a text to my brother-in-law, who owns a repair shop that specializes in late-model vehicles: “Coolant leaking from the intake of a 1998 Suburban with a 5.7L. Is that a thing?” Ten minutes later came the reply: “Not really. I’ve only done a few hundred of them. It will also need the heater hose connectors. And if any coolant got into the oil you’ll do the job and a week later have a rod knock. Paper thin rod bearings.” Oh, great. The good news is there were no signs of coolant in the oil.

So off it went to the shop to reseal the intake. Thankfully he agreed that no oil contamination had occurred and the engine was healthy. He also changed the oil and replaced a stuck brake caliper, installing new front pads while he was in there. Total cost $500.

When I had the truck back, the driver’s seat went out to be repaired, along with the passenger’s seat and the second row armrest, as they both needed to have some new leather stitched in; $400 took care of all that.

Then my paintless dent guy came over to do his best on the 900,000 door dings on the truck. He removed roughly 887,000 of them for $250. And, after that, as long as the front seats were out, our ace detailer attacked the interior and cleaned it to where it looked almost new. That was $250.

1998 GMC Suburban SLT rear 3/4
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

On the outside, both rearview mirrors had seen better days—one was missing the glass and the other was loose. Did you know a new pair of exact fit power/heated mirrors can be had for $65? So I had to do that. And the famous GM opaque plastic headlight issue was fixed with a $70 kit that included all new headlights and marker lights. The price for both items is indeed indicative of the quality of these replacement parts. They are a far cry from Genuine GM stuff, but I have no plans to enter this truck into a judged concours any time soon.

For those keeping track, the cost of my $1750 truck is now $4960, plus some incidentals. Which is probably retail, or maybe even a little better. But I gotta tell you it is actually a really nice vehicle. It is smooth, quiet, and reasonably swift for something the size of my first apartment. The body, paint, and interior are all very nice, and again, around here we don’t see 20-year-old trucks with no rust. It has a great factory stereo, power everything, heated seats, and front and rear heat and A/C. And it all works.

With winter on the way I’ll likely end up doing the old farmer trick of spraying down the chassis with a mixture of motor oil and kerosene to keep it from being attacked by road salt, or maybe Fluid Film if I want to get fancy. I happen to have a nice set of Blizzak winter tires in the right size lying around as well, and with those I have every confidence this heavy, long wheelbase, four-wheel drive machine will make an excellent snow runner.

1998 GMC Suburban SLT interior rear seat
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum
1998 GMC Suburban SLT side view
1998 GMC Suburban SLT Mecum

In the end, I didn’t need a $5K GMC Suburban, but I’m starting to see the value of having one around, especially given that it can haul both people and cargo. Plus it is nice to have another rig here that can pull a car trailer if needed. Plus our kids love the third-row seat as much as I love having a truck I don’t care they climb all over.

And no, my wife hasn’t driven it yet. Even though it has that third row. And is green—her secret favorite color. But I’m thinking she might try it out after the first good snowstorm. With any luck, at that point I’ll get to move this deal out of her “stupid things he’s done” column.

Best of all, I bought the cheapest vehicle in Monterey and lived to tell about it.

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