Should Beginners Buy Their First Car At An Auction?

If a friend was a classic car newbie and asked my opinion about whether or not they should think about buying a car at their first auction, I would tell them “sure”, they should absolutely “think” about it, but not actually do it before learning a few things ahead of time.  One sure way to ruin a newbies experience at their first classic car auction would be for them to leave with buyer’s remorse.

Before buying a car at their first classic car auction, newbies should learn about the auction environment, how to resist the pressure they may experience, how to recognize a potential problem car and how to avoid paying too much for their “dream” car.

I know firsthand how easy it is to make impulsive buying decisions at a classic car auction.  I want  to share what I’ve learned, so you can have fun at your first classic car auction and avoid making some beginner  mistakes.

Obviously, classic car auctions provide a great opportunity to see a wide variety of classic cars under one roof.  This can be very helpful for people who are in the early stages of looking for a classic car. At a large auction, there will literally be hundreds of cars for a beginner to check out, which will help them to get a better idea of what kind of car appeals to them.  Without going to an auction, it would take an exorbitant amount of time to find such a wide variety of cars to look at in person.  At a large auction,you could easily see model T’s, early model Corvettes, ’55-’56-’57 Chevy’s, muscle cars of  the 60’s and a huge variety of other vintage cars from many different eras.   For a real classic car buff, it’s like being in a big car candy store !

There are many cars to see at an  auction.

But do the benefits of being able to see lots of cars in one place out-weigh the risks of going to an auction?

Not to sound too melodramatic, but there are definitely some perils for beginners attending their first classic car auction.  In fact, I’m sure many seasoned classic car folks would warn the beginner to stay away from classic car auctions all together.  But that’s the point of this article –  I believe with a little restraint and some common sense, you might very well buy a great car at a great price at a classic car auction.  Even if you don’t find the right car…you can still have tons of fun looking at all the cars.


Before discussing specific steps you can take to protect your pocket book and avoid bringing home the wrong car, I want to share with you some of things I think could get in the way of you having a great experience at your first classic car auction.


Classic cars stir memories.  There’s just no denying this fact, and it’s so easy to fall in love with a car you see at an auction when it stirs an old memory.  When I first started going to auctions, If I had seen a car that looked like the red ’49 Ford sedan my dad used to let me drive while sitting on his lap, I would probably have bought it, even if it wasn’t a sound car or being sold at a fair price.

Emotions Can Get In The Way


Realize before you go to the auction that you may very well see a car that reminds you of a period in your life that you might want to re-live by bringing that car home.  There’s nothing wrong with this, provided you’ve done some research ahead of time, and actually know the market price of that particular kind of car, and if you are able to look it over before it goes up for auction.  More about that later in this post.

You Will Feel Rushed:

It’s hard to make a wise decision about spending lots of money on a car when you have so little time.  Once the car gets up on the auction block (the platform the car is parked on during the actual bidding), you will only have a minute or two to decide whether you want to bid or not.

You Will Feel Pressured:

If you do make a bid on a car, the large auctions have bid spotters whose job is to get you to make just “one more bid”.  They will stand close to you and keep encouraging you to bid again…..and they are very good at their job.

You May Feel Pressured To BId

You May Be Drinking:

The big auctions will serve alcohol.  Some auctions I have been to included complimentary alcoholic beverages as part of their bidder package.  I know when I’ve had a Bloody Mary or two,  I’m a lot more apt to bid on a car.  Alcohol tends to lower your inhibitions, makes you feel relaxed,  and can definitely lead to some poor decision making….like bidding too much on a car, or bidding on a car you wouldn’t have thought about bidding on if you hadn’t been drinking.

You May Not Be Aware Of The Additional Costs Involved:

​In addition to the price of the bidder’s pass and the price you bid on a car, there are other fees involved.  All of the big auctions are going to have a bidder’s premium price you will have to pay.  This is usually around 10% of the price of the car.  There may also be fee’s for any DMV work the auction performs on your behalf.  Auction fee’s can increase the price of the car substantially, so know ahead of time what fees you will be expected to pay  Don’t forget that if you are not able to leave with the car the day of the auction, or pick it up within a few days, there will also be storage fees assessed.

Are Those My Knees Knocking Or Just Engine Noise?

I personally love going to classic car auctions because I really do feel like a kid in a candy store.  I have bought some incredibly good cars at auctions, and I have also bought cars that were big money pits.  I went to my first classic car auction in Fremont, California many, many years ago.  It was not on the scale of the well known auctions you hear about today, but was rather a small local auction with less than 50 cars.

I had no clue what I was doing. My husband and I went to the auction on an impulse, got a bidders paddle, and when I saw a ’48 Ford 4-door sedan come up on the auction block, I thought she was a nice looking old car…not pristine by any means…just a big old comfortable looking car.  I was sitting there admiring her, and then everything seemed to happen so fast.  I have a vague memory of the auctioneer talking about what a nice car it was, and then some how my paddle was up in the air, waving around and my husband was staring at me, looking rather surprised.  The last thing I remember was the auctioneer yelling “sold…sold…sold!” while pointing in my direction.  “Good grief”, I thought, “I just bought a car that I know nothing about”.  We never even looked at the car before it rolled up on the block.  Sure, she looked and sounded nice from my vantage point in the audience, but for all I knew, the side of the car I couldn’t see might have been completely caved in (don’t laugh, this happened to me once at another auction), and I had no idea how sound she was mechanically……gulp !

It turned out that I was extremely lucky for a beginner, because that first classic car I bought was in good shape, inside and out, and she ran beautifully !  I named her “Jezebel” and drove her home from the auction that same day.  Jezebel became my daily driver for the next three years.  Below is a picture of my mom standing next to Jezebel.

My mom standing next to my first auction car

Maybe you would have beginners luck too, but the reality is you could easily get caught up in the excitement and emotion of the moment, and up end with a car that might not be a good fit, could have been over-priced, may need a lot of work and leaves you ultimately with buyer’s remorse.

For instance, my second classic car purchase didn’t work out as well as my first.  You see, I was so pumped up by that first experience, that I ran right out and went to another car auction a month later.  The first one was so  much fun and worked out so well…..I knew I had this auction thing down!

This time,  I did at least look at the cars before they came up on the auction block.  By looking at them, I mean just that….I walked by and looked at them.  I didn’t do any kind of real inspection. After walking around and looking at the cars, I was sitting in the audience when a big black ’41 Buick 4-door sedan rolled up and…oh no….there went my bidder’s pass up in the air again!  I ended up having the highest bid at several thousand dollars, but it wasn’t long before I realized that the car was in need of major engine work and was full of rust under the floorboard.  If I had done any kind of inspection, I would have seen the rust and probably would have heard the engine knocking too….instead my knees were knocking from making a high bid on a bad car.

Don’t Use Rose Colored Glasses At The Auction

I was just in too big of a hurry to start buying cars at an auction, and I bid on that Buick from the naive stand-point that because it looked so nice, it was a good car.  This is not a smart way to buy a car, as a shiny paint job can hide a lot of flaws.  At an auction, you are limited on doing any in-depth inspections, and many times, you will not even be able to hear the car running until it is in line to go up on the auction block.  Unless you’re a real gambler and have deep pockets, you will want to make the most informed decision you can on a car you are bidding on.

Should You Get A Bidder’s Pass At Your First Auction?

Maybe you’re one of those people who know they can handle the frenzy of the auction environment and still keep a cool head and not make a purchase based on emotion, pressure or just because a car looks good.  If so, I envy you !   When I first started going to auctions, I tended to fall in love with a car and then had to bring it home.​  For the person who has never bought a classic car before, it can be a bit intimidating going to a classic car auction for the first time.  For this reason, I would recommend that a beginner think about going to their first auction without getting a bidder’s pass.

I think it would be great for a beginner to just enjoy the whole auction environment without the pressure of feeling the need to bid on a car just because they bought a bidder’s pass.  These passes can be quite expensive and some people feel almost obligated to bid on a car once they go to the trouble and expense of getting a pass.  I would strongly encourage a beginner to just go and enjoy the noise of the crowd,  the tempo of the bidding, and of course the great opportunity of seeing a lot of cars in one place and not to worry about trying to buy a car the first time.

Now, while you might agree that the beginner can obviously avoid making a bad buy by simply not getting a pass, you might also think that the beginner could miss out on a “real deal” by not having a bidder’s pass.  If I’ve learned nothing, I have learned this……there will always be another “real deal” at the next auction.  I sincerely believe that not getting a bidder’s pass will help the beginner more than hurt them when it comes to going to their first classic car auction.

Ready, Set, Go !

Cost Of Admission:

The auctions charge to attend their events,and this is true even if you are only going to watch and not bid.  You can usually buy a ticket for just the day you’re attending, and for those auctions that run for several days, (such as Barrett-Jackson), you can buy a pass for the entire week.  Below are the current prices.

Barrett-Jackson Auction:

Gate Tickets:  $25.00 to $80.00 daily for adults.  If you go on Monday, for example, you would pay $25, but if you go on Saturday, you will pay $80.

All Week Passes are $195.00 for adults.

Mecum Auction:

Daily adult tickets are $20 on-line or $30 at the gate.

Children under 12 are admitted free.

Silver Auction:

Daily adult tickes are $20.00 per day, children under 12 get in free.

For a list of other auction companies and their admittance prices, check out this list here.

Barrett Jackson and Mecum usually televise their auctions.  It would be a good idea to watch an auction on TV before giong to one in person.  .

For a list of up-coming auctions that might be televised, check out Barrett Jackson’s Auction Schedule or  Mecum’s Auction Schedule.

How To Get A Bidder’s Pass:

You must do certain things and meet certain criteria before you can get a bidder’s pass.  Below are the basics, but bear in mind that each auction sets their own policie and costs.

  • Fill out a registration form
  • Pay the required amount (this varies greatly and can be as low as $100 to over $500) per registration.
  • Provide a deposit
  • Provide proof that you can pay for your purchase through a bank letter of guaranty, a lender’s approval letter or a wire transfer.  Some auction companies accept personal checks and/or credit cards, while others do not.

To help explain the process, check out the below video from Mecum.


Get A Preliminary Car List

The larger auction companies will put out a preliminary list (check out the auction’s website) of the cars they already have signed up to sell at a specific auction.  Here is such a preliminary car list showing some of the cars Mecum Auction will have for sale at an up-coming auction in Los Angeles.  These lists can be fun to look at,  even if you’re not looking for a specific type of car quit yet.  Looking at them might just you an idea or two!

If you find a particular car you might be interested in, save all of the information on that listing (including photos, options, condition, VIN#, etc) in a file on your computer, or print the listing out and save it somewhere. I have heard of some sad stories of people buying cars at auctions that were not accurately represented by the owner of the car.  If you do end up having a problem, it might be helpful if you kept the original listing information.

Narrow Down Your Favorites:

If you went to your first auction and got an idea of what type of car appeals to you, you will have taken a big step towards buying your first classic car.   It’s a good idea to have a short list that contains a few makes and models of cars that you might be interested  in buying.  This way, when you go to a car auction with a bidder’s pass in hand, you won’t feel so overwhelmed and can focus primarily on looking for the cars on your list.  If you find a match, now you will have more time to really look at the car, do some market research, (explained in the next section) and you will have a good idea if you want to bid on the car when it rolls up on the auction block.

Do Market Research On Current Car Prices:

Once you decide what type of car (or cars)  you might be interested in, it is important to do some market research before attending your first auction.   It is way too easy to get caught up in the excitement of a live auction and overpay for a car.  If you know beforehand the market price of the type of cars you are interested in, it will help you from spending too much and can also help you recognize a good buy when you see one!

Here are some sites you can use to get an idea of the market price of a specific type of classic car:

Nada Guides

Hemmings Classic Car Price Guide

Haggerty Valuation Tools

To use these valuation tools, simply type in the specific information on the vehicle, such as year, make, model and any options, such as engine size.

Below are the results of such a search through Haggerty and NADA on a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda with a 318 engine.


  • #1 Condition (Excellent)             $22,000
  • #2 Condition (Good)                   $14,700
  • #3 Condition (Fair)                      $10,500


  • #1 Condition (Excellent)             $19,800
  • #2 Condition (Good)                   $12,100
  • #3 Condition (Fair)                     $   4,750
 As you can see, there is a fairly significant difference of opinion on the value of a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda.  In this case, I would aim for somewhere between the  two price points to get an idea of how high I would be comfortable bidding on a car, keeping in mind there will also be auction fees due.
If I saw a ’68 Plymouth Barracuda at an auction that was in “good” condition and it sold for $10,000, that would be a good price.  If the same car in good condition ended up selling for $18,000, that would be over the market price.

Handy Things To Bring With You To An Auction:

A Friend:

It’s always a good idea to bring someone with you, even if they aren’t that “handy”.  Having someone with you can help you have a more objective view about the cars you’re interested in.  A friend might notice something about a car you’re looking at that you don’t notice.

Everything’s Better With A Friend

NADA Classic Car Book

This is a handy guide to bring with you.   This guide provides an estimate of the value of classic, collectible and exotic cars listed by year, make and model and is up-dated frequently.  At the time this article was written, the cost of the guide is $45 for one edition.

A Weak Magnet:

Body filler (bondo) is made of fiberglass, so a magnet won’t stick to it.  Many classic car folks who want to know if a classic car they are interested in has bondo or not, will use a small weak magnet to test the car for bondo.  Be very careful doing this so as not to scratch the paint.  A good method to use is to use a small refrigerator magnet and a piece of paper.  Put the paper on the part of the body you want to check, then put the magnet on the paper. You should check the fenders, rocker panels and doors.  If the magnet sticks to the area, you will know that there is metal there and not filler.

Give Yourself Plenty Of Time To Look Around:  

It’s a good idea to give yourself plenty of time to look at the cars at the auction.  it’s fun to mingle with other people, and if you’re lucky, the owner of a car you’re interested in might be with the car.  Take this opportunity to ask questions about the car’s history, because this will play a part in whether you decide to bid on a car or not.  For example,  one of the most interesting cars I bought at auction was a ’36 Plymouth 4-door sedan.  It was a nice looking car…it had a pretty straight body and the paint was decent, just a bit faded.  I probably wouldn’t have been too interested in the car, but as it happened, the seller was with the car when I was walking by.

I stopped to tell her that I liked her car and she said that she really hated to sell it, because it had belonged to her grandfather who was the original owner of the car.  She said she had to sell the car because she couldn’t afford the repairs that kept popping up.  She had just had some electrical work done and she wanted to sell it before she had to put more money into her.

The seller showed me extensive documentation for the car, including the original bill of sale when her grandfather, Frank.  Frank had bought the car at a dealership in Nevada.  I ended up bidding on the car, largely in part because I knew it’s history and knew what work had already been done.  We named the car “Frankie” after the seller’s grandfather, and we sure had a lot of fun with her. On  one Halloween, we dressed up as Bonnie and Clyde and drove “Frankie” all around the neighborhood, handing out gold candy coins, and we even put fake bullet hole decorations on the car for effect.  Below is picture of “Frankie” taken the day after we bought her.



Inspection Tip:  Always Check For Rust.

Rust is known as “cancer” on a car, because it is a sign of corrosion which can weaken the metal on a car.  Buying a car you can’t inspect thoroughly is risky, so take your time to check for any possible rust on any car you are interested in bidding on.  A common place to find rust is underneath a car, and of course you are not going to be able to put the car on a lift at the auction to inspect it.  I do the best I can to look under the car by using a small flashlight to check the frame rails, the wheel wells and other areas I can see.  I then look in the trunk (I lift up the carpet if possible to check under it), and I look at the areas around the glass, the rear window and the windshield.  I also check the around the headlights and floorboards.  The below video will give you some great tips on how to inspect a car for rust and other potential problems.   If you want to skip right to the part of the video that deals with rust detection, it starts at 15:20 minutes.

Buying A Car You Can’t Test Drive Is A Gamble:

As much as I enjoy going to the auction and sometimes even bringing home a car,  I must admit that it’s scary for me to bid on a car that I can’t drive first!  If there’s a car I’m interested in bidding on, I always like to walk along side of it as it waits in the line leading up to the auction block.  Usually, the cars that are waiting to be bid have an auction employee driving the car and they keep the engine running while they’re waiting in line to drive the car up on the block.  This provides you an excellent opportunity to listen to the engine while it’s running and to also check for leaks underneath the car.  If you hear a tapping/clicking  type  noise, this might mean a lifter isn’t working properly or a rocker arm out of adjustment, neither of these problems are terribly serious, but if you hear a deep hammering type sound, this could mean a rod bearing going out, which is a much more expensive repair.

For a detailed article on how to inspect a classic car, check out a great article written by the Auto Body Association Organization.  It is a very comprehensive and includes some helpful photos that will give  you some excellent tips on how to do an inspection.  Click here to read article.

Final Thoughts:

While I may not believe that an auction is the best place for newbies to buy their first car, I do believe there are great cars to be found at some auctions.  To be honest, I wouldn’t encourage a beginner to try to buy their first car at a large televised auction like Barrett-Jackson, because I think the atmosphere lends itself to higher prices.  I do love watching the Barrett-Jackson Auctions on TV, and sometimes I go to one in person just to see all the beautiful cars and talking to other car folks.

Auctions can provide a great way to look at many classic cars in one place.  It’s fun seeing the cars roll up on the block and hearing the auctioneer and watching the bidding process.  I think a beginner classic car enthusiast should make the effort  to go to a car auction at least once for the fun of it, but then do their homework before deciding to buy a car at an auction.