We went to check out a collector car mega auction (and ended up winning a car)

The thing you need to understand about the modern collector car mega-auction—and it’s something you might have to remind yourself of as you begin to tut-tut the list of premiums and fees that seem to accrue whether you’re buying, selling or simply watching a sale unfold—is that it is, first and foremost, a moneymaking enterprise.

An auction is not a show-and-shine with a sales desk. It’s not an adoption service for unloved cars. Though the vast majority of collector cars that change hands each year do so privately (i.e., through any channel that is not an auction), the market hawks at Hagerty say that nearly $1.3 billion worth of vehicles was sold at auctions in 2017 in North America alone. This is a business—a lucrative one.

And as anyone who’s watched even a minute of an auction knows, we aren’t talking about your local impound lot liquidation blowout here. Auctions have evolved into prime-time entertainment; they’re high-intensity rituals that unfold in high-definition television in front of The Block, that imposing dais before which vast quantities of money are pulled out of the air and thrown toward Klieg-lit collector cars. They’re theatrical—the bigger, the better. And nobody understands this better than Mecum Auctions.

Though the company, which has been moving cars since founder Dana Mecum’s first sale in 1988, is based in Wisconsin, it lives on the road, thriving on a packed calendar of high-volume events. Size is one of Mecum’s selling points (Chicago! 1,000 vehicles! Las Vegas! 1,000 vehicles! Kansas City! 700 vehicles!), and the biggest, for Mecum, is the massive Kissimmee, Florida, sale each January.

At this year’s auction, the company consigned 3,023 vehicles for the 10-day auction. “If we had the time (in the auction schedule), we could’ve consigned another 1,000 cars,” Dana Mecum tells me. We’re standing behind the block, which feels a lot less temple-like when you see it from the back; it’s a temporary structure, built for the nomadic life. The TV cameras don’t show you the folding tables loaded with those big clear plastic barrels of pretzels and snack foods. This is, again, a business, and people gotta eat.

Meanwhile, the first cars have rolled across the block’s showbiz side, kicking off the sale. It’s a surprisingly chilly Friday morning, but Mecum (the man) and Mecum (the car-hawking business as a whole) are raring to go. They’re shooting for a milestone: $100 million in sales from Kissimmee alone.

For some perspective, RM Sotheby’s pulled almost $158 million from its recent two-day 2018 Monterey, California, auction with a catalog a fraction of the size. But though high-end boutique auction houses routinely move six-, seven- and even eight-figure cars (witness RM Sotheby’s record-setting $48,405,000 for a single 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO), and while Mecum does like to shine the spotlight on high-dollar featured lots, big auctions like Kissimmee are most about finding new homes for cars that are relatively affordable—the American muscle, vintage sports cars and attainable classics that form the backbone of our hobby.

But why Kissimmee, exactly, and why this cyclopean scale? “When I was growing up, if you lived west of the Mississippi you’d vacation in Arizona, and if you lived east of it you went to Florida,” Mecum says of its Sunshine State location.

 What he doesn’t mention—what he doesn’t need to mention, because everyone in the collector car world knows it—is that Kissimmee takes place just ahead of the aggregation of January auctions that are held in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, including Barrett-Jackson’s well-known sale.

Big, then, guarantees Mecum headlines. Big looks good on TV (portions of Mecum’s sales air on NBC Sports Network; other auction houses have similar arrangements with other networks). Big lets Mecum stand alone against all the other guys selling cars on the other side of the country. Big fuels the spectacle, bringing in paid spectators who claim they have no intention of bidding.

At this point, I’ll come clean: I go to Kissimmee to get a feel for the mega-auction experience, but I have my eye on a few cars. There is a Model T, a nice Super Beetle and a couple of weird Fiats, but I am really interested in a well-preserved 1948 Packard Deluxe Eight with a three-speed and no rust. Just to keep my options open, I register to bid.

To set that personal budgetary doomsday clock a few minutes closer to midnight, I go ahead and apply for unsecured financing through a Florida-based operation called Lightstream (“Loans for Practically Anything” is their delightfully pre-Great Recession motto and, apparently, ethos). You know, just to have that in my pocket, in case a good deal comes up.

This completely changes the dynamic. I am not only a spectator, or someone there to write about the event: I am a potential buyer. I live, like someone with a Powerball ticket in hand before the drawing, in a place of infinite potential. Will I find my new dream car? Will I wave to someone in the arena and inadvertently bid on some heinous restomod in the process? Anything is possible.

Between kicking tires, popping hoods (unlike a car show, you’re generally allowed to inspect what’s on display at an auction) and plotting, I meet up with Autoweek correspondent and all-around font of wisdom Steven Cole Smith. He’s in Kissimmee to take a look at the Nick Smith collection of factory lightweight drag cars—and provide me with the right lens through which to view the mega-auction madness. “It’s like a casino,” he says, “but you go home with something.”

But of course! The lights, the frenetic pacing—as in Vegas, it creates an environment in which fighting for the high bid feels like the natural thing to do. Come to think of it, the auctioneer’s babble maps pretty neatly to the constant ringing and clanging of gambling machines …

Plenty of people go home with something. I overhear more than a few unassuming middle-age guys begin conversations with a cheery “So, what’d you buy today?” To some, it’s pure entertainment—I talk with a few guys who are there to sell, and then buy, cars to fill the empty spaces in their car-haulers. If they make a few bucks, great; if they lose a few in the end, it’s more fulfilling than blowing money on poker.

You don’t always go home with something, though. The auctioneers might goad (“You sure you don’t wanna go to $48 grand? Show your son you’re a winner?” was one of the punchier lines I heard lobbed at a reluctant bidder), but you don’t have to take the bait. And, unlike Vegas, the losing bidder doesn’t forfeit their bid.

That doesn’t mean the house doesn’t always win. To help you budget for your trip next January, let’s take a look at the various costs associated with Mecum’s 2019 Kissimmee sale. As a seller, you pay between $500 and $1,500 to list your car, with prime-time auction spots in the catalog coming more dearly. You can boost visibility with a $500 marketing upgrade. Mecum will also quote you for vehicle transportation to the auction site if you desire. If your car does sell, great, but know that you’ll pay a seller’s commission—5 percent of hammer price without reserve, 10 percent with a $1,000 minimum on eight of the auction’s 11 days.

If your vehicle doesn’t sell, tough: All the fees are nonrefundable, and you’ll still have to drag the jalopy back home. Wouldn’t you rather hash something out with the high bidder via Mecum’s after-the-block “The Bid Goes On” second-chance sales department, just to free up that spot in your garage?

As a buyer, you pay $100 for basic advance registration—a bargain if you plan on spending more than a day at the auction because it includes guest admission. If you leave empty-handed, that’s all you’re out, plus anything you blow on snacks. But if you bid and win, you’ll pay a 10 percent buyer’s premium on your purchase, with a $1,000 minimum. As a spectator, you’ll pay $20 for an advance ticket just to get in the gate for a day. See something you like once you’re there? On-site bidder registration is $200.

This is where I’ll remind you, once again, that Mecum is a business. The above fees are how it can keep the machine running even if it achieves a 60-65 percent sell-through rate; they’re part of the deal, the literal price of admission.

True, a mega-auction like Kissimmee is not for everybody. If you want to sell a niche-market vehicle, or you’re hunting for a specific model and want to avoid a bidding war, a private sale may be a better bet. But there is a unique thrill that comes from strolling the field with a bidder’s credential around your neck and some low-interest financing in your back pocket, ready to make a really stupid financial decision. It’s exciting. Especially if, after a few high-intensity, high-definition moments in front of the block, you go home with a car. Yep, that brown bathtub Packard you see in the photos on this page? That’s now sitting at home in my garage. 

It’s hard to describe the experience of bidding for a car—as I discovered for myself when I sold a car at one of the Arizona auctions a few years ago (“Caveat Venditor,” Feb. 18, 2013). The moments when the car you’re buying/selling is on the block tend to go by in a massive blur. Perhaps this changes with more experience. I can say, this time, the hammer falls and someone screams the customary “SOLD! SOLD! SOLD!” just before bidding exceeds my budget, and it takes me a few minutes to come out of the mental haze after the purchase—I think I surprise myself by going through with it.

But the process is simple, straight-forward and totally accessible to me, even as a rookie bidder. The heart-in-my-throat moment on the block is the only intimidating part of the whole thing, apart from telling my fiancée that I’d

purchased the car. This is, Mecum CEO Dave Magers explains, by design. Mecum Auto Transport, which was rolled out last year, was the “last piece of the puzzle”—from the time you register to bid until you take delivery of your new car, Mecum can offer a complete and airtight experience. I use the service and worry about nothing until the car makes its way to my house a few weeks later.

Likewise, if have a car you want sold, no matter its value, Mecum can take care of you. They don’t do it for free—this is not a car adoption service, remember—but the services of an experienced and established auction house can insulate you from many of the headaches, hang-ups and general unexpected weirdness that can come from buying or selling a car privately.

Throughout the entire buying process, the only part that feels like anything other than a vacation is the paperwork, handled quickly and professionally in the Mecum sales office—a sort of traveling

department of motor vehicles set up on-site. You can even get a temporary license plate and drive your car right out of the lot. I get the plate, and I briefly contemplate driving the Packard from Kissimmee all the way to Detroit. In a fleeting moment of rationality, I decide against it.

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