Are Dealers Invading the Online Auction Space?

Flickr/Garry Knight

Online car auctions have been going on for a long time. EBay Motors launched in April of 2000. By 2006, eBay announced it had sold its 2 millionth passenger vehicle. Many eBay Motors cars were, and still are, classics. But given all the variables in a classic car purchase (high cost, physical location, authenticity, correct parts, condition, rust), bidding online carried a certain amount of risk.

It wasn’t until the 2010s that curated, enthusiast-driven online car auction platforms established themselves. Bring a Trailer started its auctions in 2014, and flourished during the pandemic years as car prices rose, live events took a pause, and people were stuck at home with money to spend. Other platforms popped up (including Hagerty Marketplace), and we currently track results from 14 separate online auction sites in the U.S., U.K., and EU. Some have been more successful than others, but in general online auctions have become a trusted and established component of the collector car industry. So established, in fact, that another element of the industry—classic car dealers—make up an increasingly large share of the listings on these sites.

Does this trend mean that dealers, who are in business to make a profit, are eventually going to flood sites like Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids? That you’ll no longer be able to find a deal, and that peer-to-peer transactions on these platforms are going away?

Before anyone rings the alarm bell, it helps to zoom out. Spiffy visuals and the ability to source some very special rides may put dealers in the online limelight, but like with anything on our screens, perception and reality may not necessarily be the same thing. Dealers, of course, have been around way longer than the Internet, and far more cars are sold privately than at auction, including both live and online.

With the high visibility of online auctions versus a physical showroom, it makes perfect sense that a dealer might want to move inventory that way. The sites we track list a seller as either dealer or private party, and although private parties still make up the majority of sellers, the share of dealers has been ticking upward.

It has been trending that way for a while, but in 2020 many individual sellers turned to online auctions because they had fewer options, and their share of listings increased. The dealers’ share started picking up again in late 2021 and since resumed its upward trajectory. It’s not a sign of business elbowing out the little guy—there remain ample opportunities for private sellers, and for the buyers who’d prefer to deal peer-to-peer—rather, it’s just a sign that this corner of the hobby is still changing and maturing.


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    Auctions in general have helped prices but hurt the hobbyist that just does this for pleasure.

    It used to be where you could do your own searching and find the cars you wanted. It was not always easy or fast but we found them and often got decent deals as there was little competition.

    Dealers were always there but they too had to work to find cars.

    In step the big auctions that have drawn in more than the hobbyist. Today we see many from all walks of life at these events. Some just looking for a car. Some who are trying to make a buck and dealers moving cars to make money on them.

    The buyers are regular people to high rollers who came just for fun and get to drinking and showing off by paying too much for some cars. We have seen the million dollar Chevelle that was way over sold. It was one of many. They end up back at the auction for resale a year or so later and bring half as much.

    Any was many cars today are artificially high priced. While some cars deserve the price many are well over played price wise. I expect them to drop at some point. But then again they may remain high as there are few cars today that are exciting enough to be an auction car int he future.

    Having “won” an auction on BAT a couple of years ago, for an E39 BMW, I learned after the fact that the seller was a dealer who was flipping low mileage cars without disclosing their condition. I failed to get a pre bid review of the car from a trusted source and ended up with a car I never would have purchased otherwise. BAT was good enough to refund their fee. The seller/dealer would not refund my money or accept a cancellation. Having been burned in this way, I no longer look at any auction sites. I agree I am to blame, but I don’t trust the auction sites as their motivation is to move “units” and make money. Ever notice the lack of negative comments? The sites will pull your comments down in minutes if you criticize a seller. Let the buyer beware!!

    This is so true. I’ve made comments to protect bidders by showing the fraud being perpetrated by more than one seller on a C ertain competitor to B ring-a-Trailer, and they not only removed my comments but suspended me permanently. This after having bought 2 vehicles on that site in the previous two years. Yeah, Doug DeMuro is all about the benjamins, period, full stop.

    Dealer or private seller, the keys to online auctions for potential buyers remain the same as for any other type of vehicle purchase. Do your due diligence and have any car you are seriously considering inspected by a marque expert. Many of the dealers and brokers on auction sites sell there regularly and have reputations to uphold, which can give a buyer confidence. Private sellers can be more suspect, which is where vehicle inspections become especially crucial. Knowledgeable input from online commenters is an additional benefit for buyers. Yes, some are trolls, but many are marque owners and experts in their own right. They often ask salient questions and provide valuable background information and insights. The bottom line? Anyone who bids and buys online without gathering the maximum amount of information available about the seller and the vehicle being auctioned bears much of the responsibility for any less than ideal outcome.

    I can only speak about BAT. Crazy prices, far above Hagerty values. Plus a buyer’s fee. Easy to track subsequent sales by the VIN. I mostly watch the air cooled 911s. Around 70% show up on other platforms, within about 13 months, usually with extensive delayed maintenance taken care of and 20% less than they sold for at BAT. Interesting to watch; I never bought a car at auction. I also never bought a car I did not see in person and have a PPI. I definitely am in the minority.

    Timely article. I wrote an email to one of the more popular sites expressing my dismay at so many dealer offerings last week. Their response was basically, “No way.” I still beg to differ and have spent less time looking over selections. And “Reserve Not Met?” Way up too.

    I have been in this hobby for over 30 year. I recall the “search” for cars before the internet. Something I have noticed in the last 5 to 10 years is no one wants to make the effort to go look at a car anymore. Maybe time is too “valuable” but I have had a car for sale for a while and hardly anyone comes to look at it. Everyone wants to negotiate online. Some are just “dreamers/BSers”. I actually accepted a low ball offer (just to see if the person was serious) only to have the person “ghost me”! I think people have changed thier buying habits. Many do not want to incur expense or time to actually see and drive the car. They want a quick “experience” and immediate gratification. I think this leads to a lot of “buyers remorse”. I can see the appeal of a in person auction, lots of cars to look at, and they are all for sale. A little bit of due diligence by the auction company (title VIN must match car VIN) and the ability for a legitimate financial transaction (no monkey business with fake checks/etc). However I do believe that classic car dealers are becoming the majority for online auctions. Just take a look at eBay. Almost all the cars for sale are dealers. Not too long ago I would have not considered selling at an auction. These days it seems the place where buyers want to purchase.

    Thanks for publishing this most interesting article. I have to agree with Chris Boone; BaT has censored me for comments I’ve made on several occasions. A prominent BaT seller, 911r, failed to return any of my phone calls on two separate auctions. But, there’s no one to complain to, because BaT and Hearst Corp, who owns them, will not publish anything negative about their prominent dealer/sellers , or anything else for that matter. It is their website to run as they please, and I get that; legitimate criticism will never see the light of day on BaT.

    I’ve purchased one car on BaT, and sold three and have had fairly good experiences in all four transactions. I had a PPI done on the XKE I purchased, but it was worthless and a waste of time and money. The car arrived at my house with the red warning light on the dash for a leaking front master cylinder, and the paint had 8 or 10 “fish eyes” which were never reported, nor seen in any of the photos. I kept the car and still have it; it does have beautiful paint, but only from 6 feet away. Obviously, I fixed the brakes. Most of the PPI’s, I’ve done have been worthwhile, but not all. There is no substitute for seeing the car yourself, but for me, that has not always been possible, even on expensive purchases.
    “scheherazade”/Steve Meltzer.

    Perhaps an article on PPI companies would be helpful. I commissioned one well known company and specifically required that the car be driven. The inspector did not confirm the appointment with the owner and when the inspector arrived the owner was not there and the owner’s nephew, who was there, would only let the inspector look at and photograph the car but not drive it. Rather than reschedule the inspector did what the nephew allowed because the inspector didn’t want to get lunch late. Waste of money.

    Why the animosity toward dealers? Buying and reselling is called commerce. It’s what makes the world go around.

    Steve Meltzer Is on point re BaT. And the prominent seller 911r is one of the kings over there. He sure knows how to maximize 3m hand glaze on top and dry ice on the bottom. Once they get wet, they return to their original condition. Those cars of his are soooo often resold at a discount after BAT. Search the VINs- on one.

    My biggest complain with BaT is how many dealers get disguised as a “private seller“. There is a guy who is selling around 10 – 12 Mercedes SL R230 or R231 cars per year. Buys them somewhere and sells them within 2-3 months. For me clearly a dealer. I complained to BaT, that this guy is avoiding dealer warranties and taxes and they finally responded after 4 week that it’s fine, it’s up to him how he wants to be seen… so buyer beware!!

    I had the same complaint with BaT a number of years ago with one of their prominent sellers. He was selling dozens of cars there a year and listing them all as “private party” – I think he probably felt he could get away with it because they weren’t his cars – he was selling them for other owners who happened to probably store their cars at his facility. I contacted a friend who happened to work for BaT at the time and got a non-answer answer from him but I did notice that some time after that, that particular seller did switch to “dealer” for all his listings. He’s still selling a lot there to this day.

    There are many companies out there that know how to hide flaws in a vehicle. these companies purchase these cars and know how to make them look pretty for auction. they bondo over rust, use crappy materials for upholstery and cover up mechanical flaws, whatever it takes to make a sale. within a year or 2 the bondo starts to pop off and all the other flaws start to surface.
    A good friend of mine has owned a restoration shop for many years and he has seen these cars way too often. Customer’s bring them into his shop, wanting to correct all the flaws and do a correct restoration. some of these vehicles are so bad, they are not repairable to within reason. They then get sold to someone else who thinks they can repair them. Then someone takes them apart in an attempt to restore them and that’s as far as they get. All in all, several people along the line have paid way too much for a vehicle, good money gone down the drain.
    Sometimes a customer will “bite the bullet” and pay for the shop to do a proper re-restoration. Now the customer has spent twice the amount for a vehicle that will probably never be worth what they got into it.
    Then the customer gets mad at the shop when they tell them this will take a year or more to do a proper restoration. These owners see it done on these tv shows where they restore a car in a few weeks. My friend hates these shows because they make reputable shops look slow.
    Buyer beware, this SCAM happens more than you think. it’s become an industry of deceit.

    I guess my complaint with the online auction sites is the number of dealers that masquerade as private enthusiast buyers. Getting outbid at a reasonable value to one of these ‘guys’, only to find the same car on a dealer website, within a week, listed for $10k more than that reasonable value.

    I follow BaT everyday like many of you seem to. I get amazed at what some cars go for too. I recently stopped at a “Classic Car dealer” near me, to look over an XLR-V. This dealer seems to sell exclusively on BaT, and had sold (or not sold, RNM) some other XLR-V’s. The one they had looked in very good shape but did have some minor flaws (which did not show up in pics on the BaT listing about a week later).
    One thing I did notice and may be contributing to more online auctions. The seller was fairly young (probably in their 30’s), and really had NO INTEREST in communicating with me. His main comment was “are you here to buy anything, we usually are appointment only”. This tells me that the days of in-person discussion and reviewing cars for sale are dwindling, due to younger people NOT liking to communicate face-to-face.
    MUCH easier for them to post on an auction site and answer a few questions via a post reply.
    I did make a comment on BaT about what I observed on the XLR-V I looked at (including the above statements), and to my surprise, BaT did not “flag as non-constructive”, which I was half expecting.
    I got a few “likes” on the comment, so maybe that helped bidders.
    The high bidder did say they would look for the damaged part (not shown in the pics) and thanked me. I was hoping to get in contact with the high bidder, to communicate more with them, but BaT will not share members emails, only seller/high bidders emails.
    Like many of you said, it is always best to see a car before buying The XLR I bought a year ago (non-V one), I purchased from Facebook Marketplace, and looked at it in-person while working in that state. Having looked at many of these cars over a few years, would be skeptical to purchase one without seeing it, as many little things can go wrong with them, and not show up on pics or videos.
    As was said, some got burned by things that did not show up on the auction site pics.
    Hopefully there will still be some dealers in future that do not mind “in person communication” like it used to be!

    “This tells me that the days of in-person discussion and reviewing cars for sale are dwindling, due to younger people NOT liking to communicate face-to-face.”

    Flag on the play (comment). Data sample too small for conclusion. That was one interaction, extrapolating that out to “all young people” is absurd.

    I find it somewhat amusing to see the discussion around on-line auctions. Back in the days when you either read the ads in the back of a newspaper (a what???) or bought the specialty “buy and sell” papers each week, anyone buying used cars knew ALL about the folks called CURBERS. Dealers who sold commercial car dealer inventory from their home masquerading as a private seller.

    It was a common practice and we always knew who the shady dealerships were who regularly did this practice. It was pretty much all gravy for them, and common enough that car enthusiasts knew all the signs and signals to flush out the real personal sellers from the curbers.

    So now curbers have gone online. The more things change…

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