Insider Insight: Will the return of in-person auctions crash Bring a Trailer’s party?

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More of us got used to buying cars this way in 2020. We may never turn back. Matt Tierney

You might have heard that online collector car auction platforms are having a bit of a moment. Car enthusiasts, stuck at home for much of 2020, bid online at an unprecedented rate. The biggest and best-known site, Bring a Trailer, sold more than $400M in classic cars last year. That’s a 66 percent increase from 2019.

Smelling opportunity, more have joined the fray. New platforms have sprouted so quickly that even we can barely keep track of the names—Collecting Cars, Cars & Bids, Rad for Sale—as traditional houses and even brick-and-mortar dealers conduct ever more of their business digitally. Just last week, Gooding & Company announced its annual Amelia Island auction would take place on its Geared Online platform.

Through it all, Bring a Trailer has continued to offer more and more cars. But what happens when we can all kick tires in-person again? Will the desire to buy that E30 online dampen, or will the growth of e-commerce continue? Early returns from 2021 point to the latter. Physical auctions have slowly returned, led by Mecum, and more big sales are planned for later this month. That shift hasn’t, however, come at the expense of Bring a Trailer, which just recorded its best-ever January and February.

The auction site reported sell-through rates above 80 percent for both months, indicating that the sales growth is coming from strong demand, not simply from a flood of additional cars. (A caveat here: Since Bring a Trailer doesn’t handle the actual transaction, we can’t be positive that some of these sales don’t fall apart after the hammer drops.)

Mind you, none of this spells doom for traditional ways of buying cars. In-person extravaganzas like Monterey Car Week will be the highlights on our car-auction calendars whenever they are able to return. However, as with so many things, the way we buy and sell cars is unlikely to return to the way it was before the pandemic.

For more analysis of the classic car market, head over to Hagerty Insider. You can also get a dose of Insider delivered to your inbox every Sunday by signing up for our newsletter

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