Meet the king of Bring a Trailer
Bring a Trailer’s having a moment. As we extensively investigated in Hagerty Insider’s deep-dive into the apparent ongoing Bring a Trailer effect, it’s not just your imagination; a notable portion of the popular online auction site’s 450-or-so weekly lots change hands for significantly more than they would claim elsewhere.
Naturally, such returns attract would-be sellers to the comment-rich automotive sales portal like cheap eBay coilovers to a rusty Miata. And to be sure, there are still a fair number of Johnny Enthusiasts listing their mid-mileage E92 BMW M3s in hope of picking up a different toy with the proceeds. Yet an outsized chunk of the hefty profits go to a relatively small share of power sellers. In 2021, the top 1 percent of sellers on Bring a Trailer have accounted for nearly 25 percent of sales.
The most successful seller of all so far in 2021 is Matt Crandall, known on the BaT site as user 911r. His Portland-based Avant-Garde Collection shifts some thing like 25 cars each month on Bring a Trailer. His success is a lens into how the game of selling cars has changed in recent years thanks to the internet—and how it really hasn’t.
“Our success is the result of all the time we spend on the prep, the detail, and the presentation of the car,” Crandall told me over the phone. “
Perhaps the first piece of advice you’ll hear when buying a classic car (even from us) is to get the best example you can afford. Crandall, like many successful dealers, seems to apply that simple advice at scale. The overwhelming majority of the incredible cars he offers on the site are impressively clean, well-running examples of their breed. Seldom will a winning bidder actually need to, ahem, bring a trailer to Oregon for pickup.
Where Crandall has evolved from typical online sellers is in the way he's able to convey the quality of his product. Contrary to most BaT sale shots—usually taken on a phone or point-and-shoot camera in a parking lot, driveway, marina, or forested backroad—Crandall’s cars pose in a variety of different backdrops, ranging from a hushed studio warehouse, the graveled pathways of a trainyard, or in front of a wall drenched in technicolor graffiti.
"Josh [Bryan, the photographer] started with us, and then spun off his own. He’s got a great eye, and knows how I want things shot.”
This focus on quality presentation isn’t just for the hottest stuff, either. Between his listings of automotive weaponry like a Porsche 991.2 911 GT2 RS and McLaren 675LT, there are minty fresh GM Squarebodies, rally-prepped Volvos, Land Cruisers, low-mileage WRXs, hot rods, muscle cars, and time-capsule JDM rarities, each sitting pretty in its own jewel-like mega-gallery. The expected financial outcome doesn’t matter—every one of Crandall’s cars gets the full presale cocktail of mechanical assessment, detail, photography, and video.
Crandall also has the advantage of being an auto sales veteran and an early adopter of BaT. After a successful spate of automotive wholesaling in the 1990s, he joined Ron Tonkin’s Gran Turismo Ferrari dealership as general manager, then launched Tonkin’s MotoCorsa Ducati franchise a few years later. “I was also a dealer principal at a Lamborghini dealership for a few years [around 2007, 2008] at just about the worst time in the world, so that didn’t last too long,” he laughs.
His time on Bring a Trailer started right around the time he split from the shuttered Lamborghini venture in 2009. “How it happened was a Renault R5 Turbo I had—I bet I’ve sold a dozen of those things—was listed, and I came to work one day to the phone ringing off the hook,” he recalls. “I found out it was on Bring a Trailer back when it was just a blog. I look it up and see these guys like all the cars I like, so they must be my friends!”
So, he started following the nascent BaT. This was before readers could submit their own cars, but two or three of his listings would land on the site a month. Even in the early days, Crandall put a focus on presentation. “We always put a lot of effort into our photography, and made sure our cars were cool. I was one of the first guys to have a photo turntable.” Crandall jumped in head-first when BaT launched its now-familiar online auction, and hasn’t looked back. Although he opened Avant-Garde in 2014, he admits his showroom really is the Bring a Trailer feed.
“I’m exclusively on Bring a Trailer. I don’t try to retail anything regularly,” he said. As to why he has no interest in trying any other growing auction platforms, his reasoning is simple. “Eyeballs. We’ll regularly get between 15,000 and 30,000 views per car.”
Fair enough. Hey, the numbers don’t lie—Avant-Garde’s presale methodology contributes to a greater than 90 percent sell-through rate on the 25-or-so cars listed each month on BaT. Crandall says most of the cars are either purchased off the street and from posted listings, or they will come to him directly from estates. A workshop shares part of Avant-Garde’s 10,000-sq-ft main office, where four full-time master-level techs perform deferred and preventative maintenance on all newcomers.
He says it all starts with a mechanical assessment. “If the car has no records, I’ll start at ground zero. I’ll do a major service on it, we’ll make sure the tires are within five years old, flush and change all the fluids, go through everything.” It’s more than just quality control, too; with all work done in-house, there’s no waiting on anything outsourced to a busy local specialist. “I’d like to think anything that leaves here has my name on it—or been blessed—so I want to make sure it’s all correct.”
Detail and photo prep comes next. It’s not a simple wash-n'-wax, either; “Our detail process is fairly intense,” says Crandall. “We spend a lot of time on the underside of the car, probably as much as we do on the top-side.” Detail can take his team between a day and a week depending on the car, with the resultant photo and video effort eating up another two or three days.
When a car from the Avant-Garde Collection sells—and it usually does—shipping is the next hurdle. Between the 10,000 sq-ft office/shop and the adjacent 25,000 sq-ft storage and detail facility, Avant-Garde has 15 cars ready to ship at any time—all managed by one dedicated logistics guy.
Crandall has clearly figured out how to maximize the Bring a Trailer effect. He matches the site's clean, bidder-friendly interface with an efficient, consistent method of preparation, presentation, and delivery. Yet he dismisses our suggestion that there really aren’t any deals to be had on BaT anymore.
“Sure there are! There are some times when a car just won’t make it. Maybe there’s nobody in the room, it’s bad timing, or it’s bad this, bad that,” Crandall explained. “It’s really about timing—there’s definitely deals to be had on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Of course, it all circles back to his winning dogma regarding presentation. “If a car’s poorly presented, it’s not going to be well-received, no matter how cool it is. It’s kind of like buying the ugly shack in a neighborhood of million-dollar mansions.”
That just left us with the nagging feeling that if Matt Crandall sold houses, what ugly shacks he did stock would be the cleanest, best-photographed shanties in the next three zip codes.