Tips for Attending a Classic Car Auction


The thrill of purchasing a classic car at auction is unmatched, but it can be a bit intimidating for beginners. Sure, the hustle and bustle of an auction hall, with its mix of expert dealers and enthusiasts, might seem overwhelming, but it’s actually a golden opportunity to snag a fantastic deal – often better than what you’d find in the regular market.

This guide is here to help first-timers navigate classic car auctions confidently, ensuring you feel like you’ve invested wisely.

Choose a top pick

It’s basic car-buying advice, but it’s so easy to be swayed into getting something different from what you really want. If you know what you want, then you’d be less likely to settle for something you don’t actually like.

But as you choose a top pick, be open to other options as well. List a second or a third favorite. Being open to multiple options doesn’t mean you’re greedy; it means you’re practical. At classic car auctions, there’s always a chance that someone might outbid you for the car you’ve got your eye on in the catalog. If you have a second or even third choice in mind, you’re more likely to leave the auction feeling satisfied, even if your top pick goes to someone else.

Sit it out at first

If you’re new to car auctions, it’s a smart idea to visit a few first without the intention of buying. There’s nothing like being there to really understand how things work. Stepping into unfamiliar situations can be intimidating, especially if it involves participating in front of an audience.

This way, you can get a feel for the environment, understand the process, figure out where and how to register, and so on. But remember, these visits are just for observation – resist the temptation to make a bid.

Remember, auctioneers love a crowd filled with eager bidders. Your goal is to avoid getting caught up in the excitement and bidding impulsively. It’s all about preparation. Before stepping into the ring or a public speaker practices their speech like a boxer trains, you must familiarize yourself with the auction environment.

Visit a variety of classic car auctions. Mingle with the experts, observe the proceedings, talk to the auctioneers, watch how the bidding works, take notes and stick around till the end. This experience will prepare you well for when you’re ready to bid.

Do your research

Exploring your preferred classic car can be one of the most enjoyable parts of the process, often less daunting than dealing with people directly. Once you’ve scoped out what’s on offer at the auction, it’s time to do your homework. The auction catalog, typically available beforehand, is your treasure trove of details like the car’s history, photos, and key info.

Dive deep into researching each car you’re eyeing. Look up classic car values, investment potential, recent selling prices, and production figures online. If you’ve got questions, classic car forums and clubs are fantastic resources for insights and advice.

Since you’ll be making a significant purchase, be thorough in your research. Make lists, jot down notes, create spreadsheets, infographics, Pinterest boards, photo albums – whatever works for you. Get to know your chosen model completely. Unless you’re after a rare Eastern European prototype, there’s no reason to be in the dark about model differences, values, reputable dealers, and common issues.

Remember, while one person’s opinion can be insightful, it’s best to consult several experts before making a decision. Classic car owner clubs often provide useful buying guides and have experts on hand, and classic car forums are valuable too – just make sure you get a broad range of opinions.

Set a budget

When it comes to classic car auctions, the key to a successful experience is setting and sticking to a budget. Sure, classic cars are exciting, but it’s important not to spend all your savings on one. Before you dive into the auction, having a clear budget in mind is crucial. It helps you stay focused during the bidding process and guides your search towards cars that are within your financial reach. Remember, the goal is to enjoy your classic car without the regret of overspending – or the need to sell a kidney!

Keep in mind that the seller’s initial price isn’t the final amount you’ll pay. On top of the auction price, there are additional costs like the buyer’s fee, set by the auction company, and other expenses such as vehicle shipping and paperwork. These extras can quickly add up, so factor them into your overall budget to get a realistic idea of the total cost.

Additionally, if the vehicle needs to be shipped to your location, that’s another expense to factor into your total cost.

Sort out your finances and paperwork

Before stepping into a classic car auction, it’s smart to have all your ducks in a row. This means sorting out necessary registration and financial paperwork well in advance. Don’t forget to buy your bidder’s pass from the auction company. This pass is your ticket to receiving the detailed auction catalog and gaining access to the auction stage.

Be prepared for some immediate financial obligations if you win a bid. Some auction companies might require a cash deposit right after the auction. Later, you’ll need to return with a cashier’s check or a letter of credit from your bank to complete your purchase.

Understand history and provenance

When shopping for a classic car, especially one you plan to drive, focus less on the mileage and more on the car’s service history and provenance. The car’s history tells you about its mechanical past, while its provenance can significantly influence its value. For instance, a car previously owned by a celebrity like Steve McQueen will usually be more valuable than one owned by a less notable individual, even if it’s something as charming as a Mini previously owned by a politician’s spouse.

Pay close attention to the car’s maintenance records, service receipts, MOT certificates, and previous ownership details. The more comprehensive this information, the better you’ll understand the car’s background and the maintenance it has received. This knowledge is crucial when you’re negotiating a price that reflects the car’s true value to you.

Plan your day and get there early

Heading to a classic car auction is about more than just grabbing a front-row seat and participating in the bidding. It doesn’t matter if the auction is just around the corner or in another state; it’s all about the details.

Whether the auction is a short drive away or requires a longer journey, it’s essential to have everything sorted out. Plan to get there early, giving yourself time to check out the cars on display and find a strategic spot to sit or stand during the auction. If you’re intent on buying, it’s a good idea to touch base with a shipping company in advance to get an idea of costs and confirm their availability.

If you plan on driving the car away, make sure it’s road-ready. This means ensuring it’s taxed, has a valid MOT, and is insured for you to drive.

Inspect the car on auction day

Being early also gives you ample time to find and closely inspect the car or cars you’re interested in. While test drives are usually not an option, you’ll have the chance to conduct your own pre-sale inspection. Most auctions also provide their own inspections, but it’s crucial to examine your potential purchase thoroughly, both inside and out.

Each car at the auction will have a description – read this carefully for any warnings, extra terms and conditions, or concerns, such as the vehicle being previously written off. This step is crucial to ensure you’re fully informed about what you’re potentially buying.

Bring along your checklist and don’t hesitate to ask for clarifications about the car’s description. If you’re not confident in your own expertise, consider bringing an expert with you, or have one inspect the car during the preview on your behalf.

Use your list of common issues to thoroughly examine the car. Look for typical rust spots, test the electrics, start the car, and check for any blue smoke or leaks. Whichever method you choose for inspection, it’s crucial not to buy a car without a clear understanding of its condition. Make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into before making a purchase.

Don’t forget to start the car and listen for any unusual sounds. Just like with any car purchase, watch out for white or blue smoke from the exhaust – this is a red flag. Also, do a detailed check of the bodywork for signs of rust, dents, poor welding, and other issues.

Be financially ready to bid

When it’s time to start bidding, each car will be brought into the auction room following the order in the catalog or list. This is your last chance to hear the engine of the car you’re interested in, especially if you missed it earlier.

Once the bidding kicks off, you need to be fully alert and ready. Bidding often starts low but can escalate quickly. To place a bid, a clear hand raise is all it takes, and making eye contact with the auctioneer is also a good idea.

As with all auctions, the auctioneer’s gavel signals the final bid. Things can move fast, especially if there’s a long list of cars, so stay sharp. If you’re the winning bidder, be prepared to pay a deposit immediately – this is usually about 20% of the bid. Ensure you have enough cash or funds available in your bank.

Finally, to drive away with your classic treasure, you’ll need to complete the full payment, including the auctioneer’s fee. Make sure you have all your financial arrangements ready for this final step.

Secure insurance for your classic car

Having insurance in place means your new classic car is covered during its journey to your home. Remember, insurance for a classic car differs from regular vehicle coverage. It’s important to understand what classic car insurance entails and to compare quotes to ensure you get the best deal and comprehensive coverage. By sorting this out before you start bidding, you can bid confidently, knowing your soon-to-be classic car is already protected.

Keep calm and know when to step back

One of the best pieces of advice for auction-goers is to stay calm and be ready to walk away if needed. Easy to say, but often hard to follow in the excitement of the moment. Buying a classic car is often more about the heart than the head, especially for enthusiasts.

The emotional connection to the car can sometimes cloud judgment. Picture this: you’re in a bidding war over a car that reminds you of your childhood, the price is soaring past your budget, and you’ve nearly forgotten about the buyer’s premium. In moments like these, it’s crucial to keep a level head and be willing to back down.

With the right preparation, you’ll approach the bidding process with confidence, increasing your chances of landing a deal that leaves you thrilled. The atmosphere at classic car auctions, surrounded by fellow enthusiasts and engaging in friendly competition, adds to the experience.

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