How to Buy a Classic Car at Auction

red corvette at auction surrounded by crowd and photographers

Maybe you’ve spent a few hours in front of the TV watching amazing cars roll across the auction block at gatherings like Mecum and Barrett-Jackson. Or perhaps you’ve attended an auction in person, watching cars go to bidders at Bonham’s or RM Sotheby’s. And maybe after spending enough time watching the action, you’ve decided you want to participate. Exciting!

Buying a car at auction is something that happens every day, millions of times a year - but for classic cars, things are a little different. We’re not talking about putting in a bid on ten-year-old as-is fleet vehicles or daily drivers with a dead battery and four flats. And we’re not talking about an online auction either (though those make for good practice).

No, you’re interested in taking home a real prize: a classic car, sold to the highest bidder (potentially you) for a price (hopefully not too high) that comes in the closest thing capitalism has to one-on-one combat: The bidding war.

Before the auctioneer’s gavel hits the sounding block and you get to hear the cry of “sold!” ring out through the room, there’s a few things to know before participating in a classic car auction. Here are the broad strokes of classic car bidding and buying:

Before You Bid, You Should Simply Attend

Going to your first classic car auction with the intention to buy is a great way to spend far more money than you’re planning to spend, and getting a much worse car than you want to have in your garage. Joining the bidders in an auction can be a high-adrenaline experience. Spend some time attending auctions and you’ll get to watch the other bidders go at it, and hopefully make the mistakes that you can avoid.

red car auction

Know What You Want...

There are a few kinds of research you should be doing when getting ready to bid on a classic car. First, you should know what kind of cars you’re looking to acquire, and also know as much as you can about the market values of the vehicles you’ll be looking at. (The Hagerty Valuation tools are great for this.)

Once you’ve figured out which car (or better, cars) you’re interested in, looking at the available auction lineups is a must. Every good auction will offer an online preview and a vehicle catalog so you can know the types of cars on offer and some of the basic details about them. Know enough to know what they’re not saying about the cars, either - for example, if a listing doesn’t say anything about being a numbers-matching car, you can bet it isn't.

… and Then Know What You’re Actually Looking At

After you know as much about your cars in general, you should then find out as much as you can about the actual car you’re going to be bidding on. Once you arrive at the auction, do whatever you can to inspect the car closely. Does the color match what it said in the catalog? Are there any dents or scratches undisclosed or invisible from the online photos? Talk to the owner if you can, and ask any questions you need answered. This will help you get a feel for where your bidding should max out.

Set a Budget, and Stick To It ...

Much like walking into a casino, know how much you’re willing to gamble before you walk away. Most of the time you’ll be up against multiple equally knowledgeable buyers (or “players,” if you want to extend the casino metaphor), and if they’re determined to get the same car you want, you will be competing to take it home.

Part of attending auctions before making your first bid is more than just knowing the process - it’s a good idea to also know the regular bidders. If you’re up against a dealer who’s a regular auction attendee and you know they need to keep the price below retail to make a profit on the car, you can adjust your bidding strategy accordingly. If you know you’re up against another retail purchaser who is only there to take that car home, you can focus more on your max price to win your bid … or simply knowing when to let the other party win.

And if you win…

Be Aware of the Rules, Registrations and Fees for Winning Buyers

Every auction will require bidders to register, and depending on the auction you may be asked to provide evidence of payment, usually pre-approved financing or in some cases, straight up cash. Many auctions will allow you to pre-register online, which will definitely save you time filling out paperwork, and may also save you money (as pre-registering can be cheaper than same-day). If you can pre-register online, you’ll have more time to spend inspecting the cars up for auction, which is well worth it.

When you’re figuring out your budget, know what the buyer’s fee will be. It’s usually a percentage of the overall price of the car, and you don’t want to be surprised by a four- or five-digit fee at the end of the auction day.

When you place a winning bid and that gavel strikes the podium, that is, in effect, a contract. You are no longer the bidder, but the buyer - which means you then have to complete the process of taking possession of the vehicle. In addition to the buyer’s fee you will need to factor in things like registration, taxes, shipping and transport costs (if needed). It’s possible to drive the vehicle off the lot at the end of the day, so if that’s your plan, have a backup in case someone outbids you for your ride home.

Once you’ve won your dream car at auction, you’ll need to get that car insured as soon as possible to protect your prize. The best time to reach out to a Hagerty agent is before the auction even takes place, so you’re as ready as you can be once you place the winning bid.

Whether you’re taking home a 70’s-era muscle car, a modern-day exotic supercar or even a collectible motorcycle, we’ve got a Guaranteed Value solution for your special new purchase.