A Day At The Car Auctions

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Originally published here: http://blog.paulstaxi.com/

So I found myself with the need for some more taxicabs and some money came in.  We could have spent a whole lot of time and energy looking through Craigslist, and other websites, and visiting private party sellers, or we could go to an auto auction.  A private sale is a bit difficult at times.  Unless you spot exactly what you want on the side of the road with a sign on it, you end up wasting a lot of time.  First you have to call the seller, then actually get in touch with him, then link up somewhere and view the vehicle.  Then the haggling begins.  Now, I have made some good deals in buying private party, but it is a lot of headache.

I decided to go to the auctions instead.  The first thing I did was to look at the auction house web sites for Phoenix.  I can’t say what the websites are like in other cities, but here in Phoenix, most of them are a waste of time.  The sites are invariably difficult to navigate, with lots of flash animation or slide shows that are just annoying as hell.  Furthermore, the vehicle list is usually partial, and usually inaccurate.  This is because they are adding new vehicles to the pile to be sold up until the day before the great sale.

Frustrated, I drove by Five Star Auto Auctions, an auction house I knew of, and talked to the man I saw on the lot.  He told me that the next auction was Saturday morning.  This was on a Thursday.  I was in luck.

Friday afternoon, I blocked out about an hour of my time, put the phones on forwarding to one of my drivers, and popped into the auction yard for a look-see.  There were literally a hundred and fifty vehicles, of all makes and models, and all colors and conditions.  Some were police impounds.  Some were wrecks.  Some were stolen car recoveries.  A couple were seizures from the DEA or some other alphabet soup agency whose primary job it is to keep Johnny from getting high while destroying civil liberties.  My first stop was the payment window at the front of the yard to fetch a list of vehicles.

The list is fairly comprehensive, and up to date, as opposed to the crap that is on the website.  However, it says right on the front page that the list is a draft and can change up to the day of the auction.  New vehicles get added.  Some vehicles are taken out due to title problems.  Others are on consignment, and the seller changes his mind at the last minute.  Basically, human stuff.  List in hand; I began to make my way down the rows and rows of cars and trucks looking for things to bid on.

All of the vehicles were unlocked, and you are allowed to poke under the hood and in the trunk to see what you can see.  I came across a few vehicles that would serve my purpose:  Create new taxicabs.  There were three Mercury Grand Marquis, two Ford Crown Victorias, a Lincoln Town Car, and a Ford Expedition I wanted to look at.  All three of the Mercs were serviceable as cabs.  One of the Vickys was a former taxicab complete with meter and top sign, but with almost 400k miles on the odometer. Yikes!  That one would have to be a parts car if I took it at all.  The other Crown Vic was a 1997 and looked like it was used primarily as a paint removal experiment.  The Expedition had some minor body damage on the rear fenders (both sides.  How the hell do you do that? Squeezing into a narrow garage?).  But where was the 1999 Town Car?  I searched and searched the lot, looking for it, finally asking one of the auctioneer’s assistants where it was.

“Over there,” he said, pointing.  “It’s kind of grey.”

The Lincoln was a total wreck.  Whatever the idiot driving it had hit, ended up shortening the front end by 2 feet.  All the airbags had deployed, and the front was so mangled, it was doubtful we’d even be able to pull off any salvageable parts, save the tires and some interior stuff.  Ouch!   I made a quick note on its line in the auction list, and was done.  Tomorrow was the big day.

The auctions start right at 8:00 am, and the gates to the auction yard open an hour earlier.  So, bright and early, I got my mechanic, and my son out of bed, and we piled into the trusty Expedition to the auction yard.  We made a quick pit stop to McDonald’s for some scrambled egg biscuits and hot coffee, and rolled up right as the doors opened.   Together, my mechanic and I looked over the vehicles I had noted down as cars to bid on.  We went over every inch of them, making mental notes as to what needed fixing, and how much we were willing to spend on them.  Then it was time to go buy a bidder number.

I panicked when I slapped my pockets and found that my wallet was missing.  I had money, and all my credit cards and ATM cards in it, as well as my driver’s license and airport ID.   I said a quick prayer,  then sent my son and my mechanic to search the Expedition, while I made inquiries at the office.  No wallet was turned in.  In a complete panic, I headed to the SUV to see if the guys had had any luck.  My mechanic met me 20 feet from the truck, holding my wallet aloft in victory.

“Found it!  You threw it on the dashboard when you paid for McDonald’s, dumb-ass!”

Oh thank God!

The bidder’s deposit is $400.  Once you give that and your ID to the cashier, she hands you a bidder number card.  If you buy something, the deposit goes toward the purchase price.  If not, it is cheerfully refunded when the auction is over.  You need to hang onto your bidder number card, because if someone takes it, they can bid on stuff with it, and YOU are responsible for the purchase. (“I paid HOW MUCH for a 1997 Kia??”)

The Auctionmobile

For the first part of the auction, the auctioneer and his assistants ride on the back of an old GMC 3500 flatbed truck that has been rigged up with writing desks, and chairs, and a PA system.  They drive up and down the rows of cars, selling each one as they go.  One of the assistants holds a flag with the auction house company logo on it, and stands in front of each car being sold, waving the flag so everyone knows which vehicle is being bid upon. The bidders follow along in an unruly mob. The first to go was a 1997 Acura Integra which was hit very hard in the front.  It went for $1000, which I thought was astronomical, considering the condition this wad of metal was in.  But soon the bidding settled down into a routine, and some of the vehicles went for real bargain basement prices.  The first one to go cheap was a 1988 Pontiac Bonneville in pretty good condition.  Only the grill was missing, but the rest of the car was straight, the paint was in pretty good shape, and the interior was in good shape as well.  One of the assistants started it, and it sounded strong.  Final bid on it was an amazingly low $425.

As we worked our way down the rows, several auctioneer assistants worked the crowds, moving among them, joking, and encouraging higher bids.  And when a bidder offered higher, the assistants would loudly yell “HUP!” and point to the bidder.  Eventually, the bidding on each vehicle would slow, then stop, and the auctioneer would call out the highest bid so far, and the bidder’s number.  A quick note was made, and it was on to the next car.  The auctioneers rarely spent more than two minutes on each car, though they did have to stop every once in a while, and clarify things.  Their hyperkinetic helpers working the crowd would mistake someone scratching or yawning for a bid.  But things went very smoothly, and no one was disappointed or upset by the procedures.

It’s almost a convertible!

The auctioneer himself showed a lot of humor, and worked the eager crowd himself.  One battered old pickup truck, a 1991 Dodge Dakota, went up for sale.  The entire roof had been crushed by a falling tree or something.

“Next up is the 1991 Dodge; a former new truck!  Look guys!  It’s almost a convertible already!”

It went to a guy from a junk yard for $450.

The first car that I was interested in was a retired taxicab.  With 400k miles on it, ample body damage, and a wiring harness that looked like a terrorist raid on a spaghetti factory, it had seen better days.  When an assistant fired it up, it made a horrible grinding noise.  My mechanic and I both looked at each other, and said in unison, “What was THAT noise?”  I had never heard a vehicle make a noise quite like that.  But, it ran fairly smooth.

“Garrett,” I barked at my son, “Go behind this one, and see if you see any smoke out of the tail pipe.”

“A little,” he said from behind the cab.

“Blue or white?”


My mechanic and I looked at each other knowingly.  The rings or valve seals were shot.  The engine was junk.  The auction truck arrived, and the bidding started.  I expressed interest in the battered machine, and bid on it until the price hit $400.  I can get $300 out of it to a recycler, and there were many good parts on it, not least of which was the $200 taximeter.  At $400, I bowed out.  One of the assistants kept looking at me, and encouraging to go higher.  I just shook my head.

The next one I bid on was a cute little 99 Ford Escort.  It was teal, with no visible body damage, and a decent interior.  The engine purred like a tiny kitten when started.  I thought it would make an excellent first car for my 19 year old daughter.  But when the bidding reached $500, I paused.  The assistant nearest me kept saying, “Go $550.  It’s a nice car!  Go $550!”  My mechanic was less impressed.  He shot me a look that said, “Are they PAYING you to be stupid, or are you doing it pro bono?”  I shook my head and let the little car go for $500.  I was determined to save my money for the Marquis. When we got there, the bidding opened at $400.  I immediately raised my number and was acknowledged.  And I found myself in a bidding war with some guy I could not even see on the other side of the auctioneer’s truck.  $800… $850… $900… Theprice quickly climbed higher.  Finally, at $1050, my opponent gave up.  I found myself the lucky owner of a 1998 Mercury Grand Marquis with 128k miles on the odometer.  It would need some paint, some hail damage repair, a stereo, a good interior cleaning, and a bunch of little doo-dads, most of which we had back at the house.  But it ran like a dream.  All in all a good find.

After the last of the cars in the rows were sold, the auctioneer announced to the crowd that we were going to view the driveable cars.  So, we all moseyed over to the drive through area.  A small stadium  was permanently set up in one area of the auction lot.  The grand stands were made from salvaged movie theater seats, except the front row, which looked like it was made from bench seats stolen from someone’s old van.  Across from the seats stood an old, stakebed truck from the early forties with liberal rust, and faded green paint.  The auctioneers moved their computers and notepads from the auction truck onto the back of this stakebed truck, and set up.  Meanwhile, the mob filled the seats, and found places to stand where they could see.  The seats faced the truck, and between us was a concrete pad they would drive the vehicles through.  The auction house drivers started up the vehicles from the driveable vehicle lot just to the left of the ersatz auctioneer’s stand, and slowly drove them between the auctioneer and the crowd.  As each vehicle arrived, the auctioneer gave a little description, and began the bidding.  Then, as each one sold, the drivers would drive it away to another lot on the other side of the building.  The auctioneer assistants again worked the crowd, and their cries of “HUP! HUP!” preceded each rise in the price.

After about 15 cars had been sold, the second Grand Marquis I was interested drove into the middle ground.  The bidding opened at a ridiculously low $300.  But this time, the bidding was not quite as quick, nor quite as intense.  I got the car for $850.  I quickly did some math on the back of the auction list, and came to the conclusion that I’d spent enough.  I had two cars today; that was good.

We watched for a while longer, and saw some incredible deals.   As the large auctions wear on, bidders start running low on funds, or just getting bored, and the prices on the cars start dropping.  This auction was no exception.  A very pretty ’05 Suzuki Forenza went for $3000.  A ’95 Cadillac Sedan DeVille went off for $600.  An exceptionally good condition 1966 Ford Ranchero sold for $3700.  And, the one that made me cry a little, the lovely white Ford Expedition, twin to mine, drove away for a mere $1900.

It was time for us to be on our way.  A quick trip to the cashier window, and we settled up.   There was the base price of the car, the 10% commission for the auction house, a $20 document fee, and of course the 9.5% sales tax.  (Is there anything the omnivores in government DON’T tax?).  My $400 deposit was applied to the purchase fee, and I put the remaining balance on my debit card.  For $2028, we now had two new vehicles to turn into taxis, both of them purchased for less than half of their blue book value!  We collected the titles, and the keys, and took them away, quite happy with what we had done.   Once they are painted, you can take a ride in them!

So here is what I can tell you about going to auctions:

First, do your homework.  The auction house lets people view the cars all day the day before a sale, and for an hour or so before the auction begins.  During the sale, there is no real chance to view the cars.  Make notes on the auction list about stuff you want to bid on.  When you go home, look up the cars on Kelly Blue Book’s website, and see what they are worth.

Bring a friend who knows a bit about cars, even if you know more about cars than he does.  After all, two sets of eyes are better than one, and often you’ll spot things the other guy misses.

On the day of the auction, eat well, and bring a huge steaming cup of coffee.  The auctions are often held outdoors, and the air can be nippy.  Besides, you will want to be fully awake and alert.

Bring a kid.  Kids love these things and it is good to continue American traditions.

When bidding on a car, realize the auctioneer assistants are there to help you.  However, they are there to help the auction house more.  So they will encourage higher and higher bids.

Unless you really REALLY want the car, never bid higher than two thirds of wholesale book value.  No car ever ended up in an auction yard because it ran too well.  You will most likely have to do some work to whatever treasure you come away with.

If you’re going to drive it, do not bid on wrecks.  These are insurance company salvage vehicles, and the insurance company has usually determined them to be total losses.  The cost to repair the damage to the vehicle far exceeds the value of the car.

Pay attention to the type of title on the vehicle.  A salvage title will destroy the resale value of almost any car.  And you may have to go through an additional state or city inspection on a salvaged car to get it registered.

Watch your budget.  Do not forget the lot fees, the commissions, and the taxes you will pay on each car you buy.  And it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of a bid and lose track of how much you are really spending.  Especially with guys yelling “HUP! HUP!” in your ear, and egging you on to higher bids.

Don’t worry if you don’t find anything.  There is always another auction.


Have fun!


  1. I used to go to Dallas and hit the computer equipment auctions and flea markets back in the day prior to eBay. Just like autos you had to do your homework and set your budget. Oh how I rue the mistakes I made! It was a learning experience and I made money, lost money, and generally broke even for all the trouble. Still, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for your experience at the aution.

    I think the mechanic is very important to help make sure one does not buy (or over pay) for a potentional heacache.

    This may not be for everyone, but it is another place to look for a possible good deal.

    Is it ok for people to show up just to watch? From your story I get the impression that it is.


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