Want to Buy an Older Classic? Deals Abound IRL

Diego Rosenberg

The time has come—you kept your powder dry through the market boom, and now that prices have softened, you’ve begun to think about making your next collector car purchase. But where to shop? Though the vast majority of transactions remain private, public auctions continue to increase in popularity. If you’re considering looking toward the auction world, the marketplace has changed dramatically in the last few years, and the answer of where to look—online or live auctions (the IRL, or “in real life” referenced in the headline)—depends largely on your taste in vehicles.

Most people’s first inclination would be to take to the keyboard, and that makes sense. Everything’s available online, right? Well, yes and no. It’s understandable that there’s a massive buzz surrounding the rise of online auctions in the collector car space. In 2016, online auctions accounted for $42.45M worth of collector car sales, but by last year, that number was a staggering $1.65 billion. The car you want has to be out there in the ether, right?

It very well could be, but if you’re looking for an older car, you might want to consider heading to a live auction, too. Even with the dramatic increase in online auction sales within the last decade (47,842 collector cars sold online in the U.S. in 2023 vs 28,751 in-person), it turns out that some differences still exist between the in-person and virtual forums, and one key factor is the average age of the cars offered.

The average model year of a car headed to a live auction at the end of 2023 was 1977, while that of cars listed online was 1990. To a degree, this isn’t surprising. If you’re looking to sell your 1912 Simplex, you’re going to meet the buyer on their turf, and that still happens to be at a live event with a real person holding the gavel. Conversely, certain cars, like Nissan Skyline GT-Rs, have done well live but tend to thrive on places like Bring a Trailer. For all the promise of a marketplace at your fingertips, buyer behaviors and preferences still dictate optimal forums for where to sell a car, and live auctions continue to be dominated by older cars.

There are a couple of takeaways from this differentiation. The first is strategic, and plays into how you want to buy. You can go to where you’re most likely to find a great example of the car you’re seeking, or you can try to jiu jitsu the logic in an effort to get a deal by finding a car that’s potentially mismatched with its audience. Think of a ’90 Lotus Esprit bought at Mecum, or a ’50s Cadillac on Bring a Trailer. Given the rise in percentage of no-reserve auctions, a bit of gamesmanship might well pay off, but you’ve got to be willing to bide your time to find the right opportunity.

The second is that this widening age gap between sales forums is one sign among several that live and online auctions are beginning to carve out niches for themselves. This is apparent in business models, and even recent tactics—in keeping with the interest of online buyers, Carsandbids.com focuses on modern enthusiast cars. On the other side of the coin, Mecum recently made an upscale push at their live Kissimmee sale. As the market continues to settle and online sales platforms mature further, the two are likely to get more specialized and coexist with less market overlap than we see today. Just one more thing to think about when you’re planning your next purchase.

 

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Comments

    I shy away from many auction sales. It can be a mine field of flipped cars and over prices models. We just saw a bargain Viper sold in FL but the truth was it needed a ton of work.

    I try not to make rushed decisions and seek out the best deal possible for the best car for the money.

    There is a lot of hype and excitement but you have to really be careful. When dealing top end cars are well documented but on the lower end it could be just like a dealer auction.

    It would be interesting the online vs. IRL average car age data corrected for the average age of the buyers in each category. I suspect older buyers buy older cars and do so more frequently at IRL events. So the buyer age may be more causal to the discrepancy than type of event.

    I believe you’re correct. I’ve read that people who buy older cars tend to want cars that they wanted as teenagers. In my case, that’s the ’63 T-bird the gym teacher had, the MG TC I read about and saw at a car show, the hotrod deuce coupe I saw at a gas station, the early GTO one of the local mechanics had, etc.

    I’ve seen beautiful rotisserie mods auctioned at Mecum for 15-25k then the same or worse vehicle sold at our local Street side Classics for 50-100k so be careful and don’t jump the gun.

    Places like the huge online consignment sales companies offer zero value to the cars, but boy oh boy do they expect you to pay a MEGApremium for the privilege of buying from them. I watch the market carefully, and it is insane how much more they ask for the same car than auctions, private sales, or even small independent classic car dealers, with condition being the same or very similar. Not saying they always get those prices, but just the brazen overpricing is enough to make me never darken their doorsteps for a lawnmower, much less a classic vehicle.

    I just watched a video of a 39K mile Benz a guy tried to flip here. the roof did not even work. It did not sell. You need to really be aware what you buy at these events. Too many just see a car on the block and get burned Like any buy seek out the car before the event and check it out well before you bid.

    Now 74, I have wanted a classic car all my life. I live in Canada so last spring I bought a 1939 Chevrolet Master Business Coupe off Collector Car Canada. The car actually turned out better than I hoped and the former owner was easy to talk to and I can call him any time still and ask him questions. Definitely can’t talk for everyone that has bought one off this site but my experience was good. Liked the car so much I bought a ‘37 Ford in the fall but this was off a dealer! Still looking for another!

    Donald, read your comment and noticed your interest in another 1930ish vehicle. I have a Ford 1936 roadster coup convertible, flat head V8, rumble seat, 6 volt system, all original, looking to sell. I live in Rochester, Michigan. if your interested let me know and I can send you pictures,

    I’ve been interested in cars since I was in a stroller. Now I’m retired with disposable income and have a hankering (yes, I’m that old) for a classic from the ’60s or ’70s. I keep looking at the auction sites, and I do have a friend who is a mechanic and a collector as a guide. However, I just don’t know if I really want to jump in and how best to go about it carefully. I’m taking my time and am looking for articles like those from Hagerty for guidance and inspiration.

    Hello Harry,
    I have a 65 GTO that I decided to sell. Just had it restored I’ve had it since 1969. I can give more info if interested.

    It’s all about the seller when buying remotely on-line. I purchased my last four cars on-line, including a collector car, a race car, and a couple of daily drivers….via both auctions and classifieds.
    Ironically, the worst experience I had was with the newest car, purchased from a franchise dealer….what a nightmare. The other three went through Indie dealers or private party and all were smooth as silk. All provided the information I requested in a timely manner and were in constant communication with me throughout the process.
    Regarding the difference in age of vehicles sold IRL vs. On-line auctions: is it due to more “everyday” vehicles being sold on-line compared to more collector vehicles being sold at the IRL auctions? I have no idea as I haven’t attended a live auction in 30 years and don’t watch their streams, but I see quite a few, non-descript 2010 – 2024 cars and trucks going across the on-line auction blocks. I can’t see somebody shipping their 2015 Camry to Kissimmee or Scottsdale, but who knows, maybe they do? 🤷🏻‍♂️

    Auctions scare me. I assume there will likely be a bidding war on anything I like, so I’ll be out quickly.

    I have spent a fair amount of time at live auctions in the past 47 years in the automotive business and am always amazed at the buyers that don’t really inspect what they are buying and then end up in an arbitration situation. The same goes for buying on line. I have purchased countless vehicles both live and on line and most have gone very smoothly due to knowing what you are buying. On line auctions are so much more productive and definitely a less time consuming venture.

    I have purchased numerous classic and late model vehicles from private individuals on several popular classified websites. From my experience, I strongly prefer private party transactions. You meet the owner (and can form your own opinions), obtain more information about the vehicle in terms of how it was maintained or cared for (or not), understand how long have they owned it, why are they selling, etc. Gaining this information as part of your consideration process is value added.

    When you buy from a classic car dealer or auction, you may get some 3rd party paperwork verifying the authenticity of the car itself and maybe some other records to a limited extent, but that’s it. Unless the restoration was heavily documented with photos, you simply don’t know what you are going to get. In addition to the bidding frenzy associated with these big-top “circus” auctions, you also pay their generous auction fee on top of the cost of your vehicle as well. No thanks.

    That’s not to say that buying from a private party is fail safe. I was only disappointed once – and it was my own fault. Bought it site unseen (don’t recommend) as I did not have a contact in that area to evaluate the car on my behalf. It was a classified ad, spoke to the owner at length over the phone, received pictures, car was as described for the most part, drove it home, and then had buyers remorse. After looking at the car in greater detail, it turned out to be too much of a project for what I was looking for at that time. The saving grace was I later sold the car as a project with parts I had accumulated and sold it for more than I had into it.

    I tend to shy away from buying at auction as one cannot drive the cars to determine the state of the mechanical systems. Also, a large amount of issues can be hidden by paint, undercoating, and assembly, as I found by recent experience working with a local shop.

    Within the last four years I have purchased four collector cars. I generally do on-line research to check price ranges and availability in the configuration I desire. The first was found at a dealer that was near enough that I could visit and drive the car. Prior to going, I asked the dealer for an honest assessment of what I would see when I viewed and drove the car, he was very forthcoming in his comments, the car was quite satisfactory, and I drove it home.

    The second car was out of state and was found on-line through a forum. It was a low mileage, unmolested example. Discussions with the owner gave me a history time line and pictures were provided. I bought this car without a test drive but was confident about its condition based on the mileage and history. The owner was also very cooperative in letting me spread the payments over several months and storing the car in his heated garage over the winter prior to my pick up.
    The third car was again out of state. I obtained the name of a local technician who specialized in repair of that marque and he performed an inspection and test drive and suggested that I would be hard pressed to find another body in this condition. Prior to shipping the car to me I had that technician perform some mechanical work on the car that he had noted in his inspection. Upon receipt of the car, some additional issues were noted but, as he stated, the body was excellent and the issues could be addressed over time.

    The fourth car was obtained from an out of state dealer who was a personal friend and had it in his collection. I had an opportunity to see and drive the car prior to purchase. Issues were noted but were within the bounds of being capable of correction. He also gave me a very favorable price based on the market for those cars, with the condition that he be the first in line to buy it when, and if, I chose to sell it.

    Summarizing, I have been quite satisfied with the purchases. As with any old car, there are issues, but if the basics are sound, most of those issues are correctable. Also, I do not buy cars to be show queens – they are purchased to be driven and to enjoy the variety of driving experiences.

    The big time auctions have hurt our hobby. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard”I saw one on tv that sold $xxxxxxxxx amonut”. I don’t try to reason with those people anymore. I just say,well that one had floors in it.

    FWIW, I recommend joining a marque club dedicated to the brand of car you want. This should be part of your due-diligence in searching intelligently. Marque clubs always have known cars with histories for sale and many members of such clubs- reference points- know the cars in question well. There are few surprises in buying such a car. As for those who treat cars as “investment opportunities” or commodities, car clubs are not where you find such people- only enthusiasts.

    It varies—I’ve bought 5 vehicles from a regional consignment dealer and recently sold one there. No issues, as I looked the cars over and did the test drives. Bought two sight unseen, but with lots of photos and some conversation. Both were good buys. Easily sold a boat and 3 cars from my driveway without advertising. One ended up next door!

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