Use these 3 little words to find your next online car steal
My name is Chris, and I find cars. While that sounds like it could be an intro to a video series dedicated to the spelunking skills of a barn find hunter, I’m not nearly that adventurous. As I’m afflicted with children, a chronic lack of cash, and hay fever, I’m not dragging a trailer across the countryside knocking on doors. But my online methods are nearly as effective, with much less chance of contracting tetanus along the way. I’d like to share them with you.
Why listen to me?
In a word: experience. Good and bad. I’ve been shopping vicariously for friends for years. I’d email or text links of advertisements to my friends who I knew were looking for their next project. I’m not the only one to do this, of course—an entire website, Bring A Trailer, was founded on this premise. Incidentally, for several years I worked as a deal spotter for BaT—back before they focused on their own auctions.
Like the song says, I keep my eyes wide open all the time. And I keep the particular requirements of various people in the back of my head all the time as well. When I stumbled upon a listing in the Grassroots Motorsports forum for a somewhat obscure sports-racing car painted in a lurid shade of green, I grabbed the link and quickly emailed it to Hagerty’s resident club racer, Jack Baruth. That car ended up having six offers made on it in the space of a few hours—but we were the first. As I’m sure he’ll detail elsewhere in these pages, a deal was quickly consummated and Jack now has a motorcycle-powered racecar, combining two of his notable passions. I’m looking forward to the inexplicable additions of both a BMX number plate and a hand-wound overdrive pedal to this hand-built Radical. This was the second car I’ve found for him; in 2019, I happened across a one-owner Neon ACR with two decades’ worth of racing experience, for $1500 including spares.
It might be genetic. My mom likes to say that she was born to shop. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that she was born on the same day that the country’s first shopping mall opened here in Columbus. While subsequent research tells me that the strip mall opened several months prior, she was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
Dad, on the other hand, spent enough years working retail that he had to be dragged into a mall. However, the gearhead within him never stopped shopping for cars. Many a Friday night after the dealerships sent their poorly dressed sales staff home for the night, we’d pile into the family Oldsmobile and drive through a half a dozen dealerships, gawking at the possibilities. I distinctly recall Dad ordering me out of the back seat in a rainstorm to check the Monroneys on a brace of Buick Reattas with which my stepmother was briefly infatuated.
I’ve been shopping for automotive deals for as long as I can recall. An unhealthy proportion of my middle school allowance was directed to the magazine section of my local newsstand, where I’d enrich my mind and blacken my fingers with the cheap ink of the weekly Auto Trader classifieds. The AutoWeek classifieds were the highlight of my journeys to the mailbox. In early high school, I blew off term papers to write a letter to Chrysler, asking for brochures on the new Neon ACR. Today I line my bookshelves with books about cars I’ll never own—who else has a guide to collecting Ferraris shelved next to the story of Yugo?
How to find the cars
As the medium for used car shopping has changed, the skill involved has similarly evolved. Digital ink is cheap, so no longer does one need to decipher the “PW/PDL/AC/CC” shorthand that developed when classified advertisements charged by the word. I’ve honed my online shopping time to a point where I can easily scan hundreds, even thousands of cars every day in less than half an hour.
No matter what car you’re looking for, cast a wide net. If only a 1970 Boss 302 will do—a fine choice, mind—then my tips may have little relevance, but if you’re willing to look outside a narrow window of automotive fandom, you can easily find your next bargain.
Also know that the seller may be an idiot. Harness that stupidity. Misspelt names and descriptions are common enough to have become a meme – think of how many Chevrolet Cameros you see with Manuel transmissions – but if you don’t consider these typical errors when considering your search terms, you could miss a gem. Also, avoid using checkboxes to narrow options. Even if you absolutely must have a manual transmission on your next car, don’t dismiss cars listed with slushboxes. It’s a common error when listing a car—so common, in fact, that I’ll often see cars that never had an auto trans option listed as automatic.
The boundless options returned from an open-ended search can seem overwhelming. Relax your eyes. Much like the Magic Eye “art” craze of the ’90s, I find the best way to find the treasure is to casually scan the screen, looking for cues alerting you to something of interest. A distinct fender profile or headlamp bucket in the thumbnail of an eBay auction will register a visceral reaction, and ultimately a click.
Don’t waste time on something that might be awful by clicking and inspecting it right away. Instead, use the right button on your mouse to open the listing in a new tab. Do this with everything that is remotely interesting or even simply weird. After fifteen minutes of scouring the usual sites, I’ll often have 40-50 tabs open—at which point it’s time to cull.
Craigslist was, for a long time, was a haystack with the occasional needle. That changed in April 2019 when the service started charging (gasp!) five dollars for a used car listing from both dealers and individuals throughout the US. In theory, that should widen the chances of finding something good among the constantly reposted commuter snoremobiles showing improbably low prices—often with odd photos like this upside-down Mazda.
Instead, sellers have generally moved their wares elsewhere. It’s still worth searching, however—especially if you’re looking for something obscure, or are willing to travel. I’ve bookmarked a number of frequent searches to ease the burden of typing. One folder of bookmarks will open half a dozen Craigslist search pages—all for major cities within an easy flight and a day’s drive. I can easily picture myself booking a one-way flight and driving a new purchase home the same day. One click opens half a dozen tabs, opening up hundreds of possibilities.
eBay Motors is one of the largest online marketplaces, where one can easily sell nearly anything. That, of course, includes cars. As of this writing, there are 85,725 cars for sale in the “Cars & Trucks” category—which excludes subcategories of interest to Hagerty readers such as classic or collector cars. While those subcategories are worth watching as well, I focus on the primary cars/trucks category. I’m under the assumption that sellers will want to catch more eyes by not segregating their listing. That leaves a massive selection that will need some winnowing.
Here, I again cast a wide net rather than focusing on specific search terms. I’ll often look only at cars from a wide time period—my favorite has been 1946-1990, which grabs everything from immediate postwar British sportscars to musclecars to Radwood-era econoboxes, while leaving out most of the non-enthusiast options from the past decade or two. This thins the herd to (again, as of this writing) 9910 cars—still a pile, but manageable. Now, move to the top right of the results, and sort by “Time: Newly Listed.” This way you can see what’s been most recently posted. I find that running this search once a day lets me scan everything quickly, stopping once I recognize something I’ve seen before.
Three other eBay search terms are part of another folder of bookmarks—all terms that reveal the weird tastes. Those terms: unique, custom, and kind. If those terms appear in a car listing on eBay, I’m certainly happy to browse:
The “custom” term is typically the best populated – the range of “custom” cars spans absurdly-painted econoboxes to hotrods to (my favorite) the Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagons.
“Unique” shows me cars that are both very unusual and those that are barely notable. Still, it’s a great way to find something remarkable.
The “kind” term brings up everything a seller might deem one of a kind. Technically, every car wears a different VIN, so it would indeed be one of a kind—so you have to sort the chaff from sellers who think their snowflake car is special since it was one of forty-seven built on the second shift on a Thursday in this particular paint and drivetrain combo. Again, however, notable (and remarkable) exceptions appear in this category.
Zuckerberg’s favorite tool for stalking exes has exploded into every facet of our lives. Witness Facebook Marketplace, which has seemingly usurped Craigslist as the dumping spot for anything and everything.
It’s a bit clunky to browse, however—made worse by Facebook’s insistence on keeping you local. Indeed, you can’t easily search more than 100 miles from your home without changing your search city. Here, I’ve moved my search radius north by looking at Cleveland—a city a bit over 100 miles away from my home. Constantly moving outward to other, far-reaching cities seems to be the best technique for general browsing.
However, if you are looking for something a bit more specific, Facebook has a great feature—buy/sell groups. These groups could be either local or nationwide, made up of like-minded enthusiasts offering or buying the same type of car. I’m a member of several such groups—I’ve recently sold surplus Miata parts to one of these groups. As they can span the globe, it’s a great way to open up your search parameters.
Tell me, how do YOU shop for your cars?
Readers, I know I’m not the only one who can’t keep from finding and sharing their online shopping gems. Do you have any tools or techniques that you’ve used to unearth something impossibly cool? How about sharing stories of your best online car finds? Tell me in the comments below.