Billions of pounds' worth of classic cars change hands at auctions every year. It's a tradition that goes back almost as far as the history of the automobile, and while the majority of classics are sold privately, auction houses remain integral to the classic car market – and hugely important to people looking to buy one.
They can be daunting places, though, especially to a newcomer. Valuable transactions fly around the room and nearly everyone in attendance has been there before. If you've found a car advertised and it's due to be sold at auction, here are 20 questions to ask the people there – and five to avoid.
Motoring picture of the day – January 17, 2017
Questions to ask the front desk
The staff at the front desk are the keepers of the gate. They know who is doing what, where they are, and who you need to talk to. You'll need to register with them to bid, and they'll give you your bidding number.
What time will my lot come up?
There is rarely a hard and fast answer to this, but they should have a good idea of how quickly that day's auctioneer tends to go, how many lots there are and thus when yours will cross the rostrum. It's better to be early than to be late, of course, but at large auctions there could be a wait of several hours between the beginning and the car you're interested in.
When do I have to have the car out?
If you offer the winning bid, it is unlikely that you will be driving your new car home that day. Insurance can be slow to organise and driving a new and unfamiliar car away from a packed, muddy car park is far from fun. Very few people drive a classic car away from the auction they bought it at. Establish when the car needs to leave the auction room or marquee and organise transport for it to avoid a hefty fee.
How exactly do the fees work?
That price you hear when the auctioneer brings the hammer down isn't what you pay. Include the buyer's premium, which itself might be a fifth of the hammer price, in your budget, along with VAT and transportation costs. The front desk should have rate cards that clearly explain the terms and conditions of buying anything at auction. When the gavel comes down, a contract is formed.
May I have a catalogue?
Usually you will need to buy one before you enter the sale, but if you’ve come during a preview day and registered to bid, you might be able to get a free one. Read it. Read every single line pertaining to your lot – these descriptions are sometimes weeks in the making, and have input from marque specialists, owners and historians who know the car inside out.
Sprechen Sie/parlez-vous/habla/Вы говорите…
Chances are the front desk staff will be multi-lingual, so if you feel more comfortable speaking in your native language then give it a whirl. Mixing up ‘mille’ and ‘milione’ could have serious implications within the context of a car auction.
Questions to ask the specialists
At any large auction there will be several specialists in the room, each with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cars on offer. They are experts in their fields, and a member of auction house staff will always be on hand to direct you to the best person for your car.
What is its ownership history?
The best cars will have ownership history from new – and the documents to prove it. Ask for these, and ask questions if things don't add up. Remember that multiple owners isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided they cared for the car, and that a sole owner from new is no guarantee of good maintenance either.
Can I see the documents?
Most cars come with an extensive history file, ranging from original purchase documents to clippings of the car old newspapers. I’ve known history files so comprehensive they’ve required two people to lift them – take the time to really look through, as this is where you’ll get a real sense for what the car is. Missing documents could be a sign that the car is not all it seems.
Can I hear it run?
Some auction houses will let you turn the car over to listen to the engine, provided there's adequate ventilation to do so. It is always worth asking, as it will give you an approximate idea whether any obvious engine work needs to be done.
Can I have a look underneath?
Bring a torch. Bring a friendly mechanic. Bring a handbook. Bring anything that will give you more information on how your chosen car should/shouldn’t look. The specialists will help you open up the car and explore – curiosity often actually saves the cat in this situation.
Anything else that comes to mind
Don’t be afraid of asking a 'silly' question. The chances are, you're not the first to ask, and it's far better to be thorough than to go into the bidding hall with gaps in your knowledge. 'Ignorance is bliss' doesn't apply at classic car auctions; caveat emptor certainly does.
Questions to ask the seller
Occasionally the owner is on hand at the auction, and is usually the most willing person to discuss the car. After all, they are the keenest to see their pride and joy go to a good new home.
Why are you selling?
There are infinite reasons to sell a classic car. Some owners no longer have room, some no longer have money, some no longer have time. Some people are professional car dealers who have sold hundreds of vehicles at auctions, while others are 'cashing in' an investment they made decades ago. It can be helpful to know what the story is.
What have you most enjoyed using it for?
While the history file will tell a lot about a car’s activity, there will always be gaps to be filled in, which the current owner will usually be able to do. It is important to know if the car has toured, raced or simply left in a garage for years.
What has been the biggest issue with the car?
It is better to phrase it this way than ‘has anything ever gone wrong?’ to which is too easy to simply answer ‘no.’ Every car has issues, big or small, so it is good to try and establish if it is a matter of a floppy wing mirror or a knackered gearbox before putting your hand in the air.
Has it been a family car?
Is it just the careful owner who has taken it round the country roads, or has an inexpert teenager ‘borrowed’ it for gear-crunching pub trips twice a week? (This happens.)
Will you be sad to see it go?
Okay, so they might not be entirely honest about this one, but if they're visibly relieved that you've shown an interest then it could be time to make more penetrating enquiries.
Questions to ask yourself
An auction is, almost by design, an exciting place to be. The adrenaline of competition, the roar of the engines, the vast sums of money at stake and, of course, the generously administered champagne make it a dangerous place to get carried away, especially for a newcomer. The following questions combined should bring the situation back in hand.
Can I really afford it?
Your favourite car is here. Its curves beckon you over, it's in the perfect colour the estimate is just about within reach. Just don’t forget that most auction houses charge at least 20 per cent on top of the hammer price, and that's before you consider the cost of transport, storage, insurance and the wider mechanics of getting the thing home.
Am I buying this for the right reason?
Do you expect this to be a daily driver, a weekend run around or a cosseted 'trailer queen'? Are you a committed circuit racer, happiest when wrestling your wailing steed around a drizzly Madgwick? Or are you a gentle cruiser, on an endless trundle between the pub and the cricket pitch? Be honest about who you are and what you need the machine for – don't buy the wrong example of your desired model simply because it’s there. Patience is a virtue.
Have I had too much champagne?
Those glamorous serving staff with the free Veuve Cliquot during the sale are hard to ignore, but there’s only one thing worse than having a hangover: having a hangover and a bill for a 356A that you neither want nor need.
To what extent am I having a mid-life crisis?
Hairline recession and the desire to own a Z4 directly correlate. It's important to live your best life, but it's also important to choose the right car for that job. If in doubt, consider a new watch instead.
Am I knowledgeable enough to make this decision?
Impulse purchases are never a good idea. Unless you’re an experienced collector and/or multi-millionaire, buying a car on a whim at auction is rarely a good idea. Read the catalogue, speak to the specialists, and research around the subject before sticking your hand in the air.
Questions to not ask anybody
There are some frequently asked questions that are not worth vocalising, either because they're annoying or because they're impossible to answer constructively.
Will it make me money?
Buy a car because you want it, not because you think it might go up in value. If it does, then that’s a bonus – if it doesn’t, you don’t want to be walking past your garage every day, cursing a hunk of metal beneath its car cover.
Would you buy it?
Classic cars are deeply personal, and everyone has a reason to love (or hate) various marques and models, so it is a question that shouldn’t sway your choice. I for one would rather the world’s tattiest Abarth to a pristine Morgan, while others would choose an early 4-4 over a mint 750.
Does it guarantee entry to the Mille Miglia/Le Mans Classic/Pebble Beach
Not only are these events notoriously picky when it comes to who they invite, making any answer purely speculative, this sort of thing shouldn’t affect your choice too much.
What if I buy a car by accident?
Unless you consider filling out a form, showing two forms of photographic ID, proof of address, sometimes undergoing a bank reference, and being issued with a paddle number ‘an accident', you're probably fine. Contrary to popular belief, just coughing at the wrong time won’t mean you end up leaving with a Gullwing.
Can I have a go with the gavel?
Auctioneers are a superstitious bunch – they won’t want anybody touching that hammer…