My Weird, Wild Job as a Car Auctioneer

A regular auto auction
Steve Lang/Thrillist
Steve Lang/Thrillist

One million cars sold. Three hundred auctions a year. One hundred fifty cars an hour for three to five hours. Every. Single. Day.

All of these numbers add up to my career as an auto auctioneer. I started out as a 26-year-old, with nothing more than piss and vinegar, as we say in the auction bid'ness. Now? I'm 43, hopelessly mellowed out, and they call me "The Professor."

If your car is ever leased, traded in, totaled, or repossessed, chances are high it will be sent to a dealer-only auction at least once. I work in a free market where every single car is bought and sold in less than 20 seconds. The public is not invited for three simple reasons: money, time, and profit.

Car auctions are a weird and fantastic world, and in my two decades in that scene, I've seen some pretty astonishing things. The old adage that "your decisions in life dictate your future" really rings true at an auction. This business is all about split-second decisions; that can mean buying anything from a two-year-old Ferrari to a 20-year-old Buick. Whether you've just sprung for junk or pure gold, you're stuck with it. When I tell folks, "You just bought that car and whatever just fell off it," they laugh -- unless they're hearing me say it for the 200th time. 

So how'd I get into this racket? I owe my entire livelihood to the wisdom of one man. You might have heard of him.

Henry Winkler as The Fonz
Wikimedia/ABC Television

I owe it all to the Fonz. Really.

I met Henry Winkler, aka TV's Arthur Fonzarelli, in 1997 at the Atlanta Jewish Federation. Back then, I spent most of my waking hours underneath florescent lights, making numbers dance on a computer as a financial analyst for 60-plus hours each week.

Winkler met with hundreds of young and unhappy 20-somethings back then. When I told him, with a tone of sad defeat, that I was a financial analyst, he said, "You know, Steve, I never can imagine myself doing that for a living!"

"You know what? Neither can I."

"So what do you really want to do?" Winkler asked. I told him I wanted to be an auctioneer. Then he gave me the preamble to a speech that he also gave to tons of other people in my shoes: "If you will it, it is not a dream." That's what got me to pick up the phone and begin haunting several nearby auto auctions for months on end. And it truly sucked at first. But thanks to the Fonz, I was already living my dream.

An auto auction in Atlanta, GA
Steve Lang/Thrillist

My first sell? A huge red fire truck.

My first mentors were two auctioneers named Bobby and Ricky Munter. We called them "The Mumbling Brothers," in honor of their "HA-MA-NA! HA-MA-NA!" auction chant. Ricky gave me the opportunity to auction off a few reruns -- cars that didn't sell the first time they went through the block. Theoretically there would be less pressure for a new guy like me. Except for one thing…

My first "car" was a fire truck. As I saw the red monstrosity slowly roll down to the auction block with the fire siren blaring and a few dozen dealers following it, my heart stopped. I pretty much freaked out. In fact, I didn't do a chant at all the first time I was an auctioneer. I sang it.

"Two thousand-dollar bid now too! Ooh-ooh!!! Would you please? PLEASE!!! Give me two-ooh!" Everybody laughed their asses off.

Then, I worked as the ringmaster

After the fire truck, it took a full year before I had the courage to go back on the block and try again. In the meantime, I worked as a ringman -- the guy who hoots, hollers, and helps the auctioneer create the urgency to buy.

My job was to point at various dealers who were trying to get their bid acknowledged by the auctioneer and shout, "YEEEAAAHHHH!!!!" That, and begging men in their 40s and 50s to bid on a 12-year-old Lincoln, were pretty much my life skills at this point. Hey, we all have to start somewhere.

click to play video
Steve Lang/Thrillist

I once sold a car to myself... for $25

Later, I worked at the kind of place where cars that were worth more dead than alive were sold by the lowest of used-car dealers. Many of these cars would literally spill their precious remaining fluids as they rolled through the block, and at least one or two a night would die from an overheating engine and become a rolling paperweight -- right there on the block. Automotive garbage was collected by the ton at this place. Which brings me to my $25 car.

I sold a nine-year-old Subaru to myself because no one else at the auction would bid on it. It had no battery and no paint, either. Hell, it wouldn't even shift out of park. I got lucky, though. I bought a $40 battery to get it started and a $40 shift-lock override mechanism so I could get it into gear. Amazingly, that Subaru was a fine car. Ugly as sin, but fine. I put it straight on eBay, where it sold for $1,576.00 to a rally coordinator for Subaru who flew to Atlanta, drove it back, and kept it for another 50,000 miles. 

That was my one of my great victories.

Not all cars at auctions are driveable
Steve Lang/Thrillist

"Wholesale Heaven" is where unloved cars go to die

Wholesale Heaven is what we call the magical place where millions of cars go to die, at least temporarily. They had bad transmissions, suspension systems that cost more to fix than the car was worth, rust, abuse, and neglect. I saw countless examples of what not to buy because of mechanical issues -- including over three hundred Chryslers with defective six-cylinder engines that would promptly go kaput right after the warranty expired.

You also get a lot of crap in the form of cheesy modifications at Wholesale Heaven. I have seen everything from a Chrysler PT Cruiser adorned with thousands of unique dollar bills to a Harley-Davidson enshrouded completely in leopard skin fur.

These days, I have become the car dealer instead of the auctioneer. This is still a tough business and every single month I lose money on something. But you know what? The willingness to "pay my tuition" and learn a few new things along the way has been far more valuable to my work than my MBA from Duke. Remember -- "If you live it, it is not a dream."

Wanna buy a car at auction?

The auctions I worked were for car dealers only and closed to the public, but if you want to get in on the action, government auctions are the one place you can potentially get a great car for your money. I have bought dozens over the years. Here are three tips to keep in mind:

  • Everything is AS IS. Once you buy, it's yours. Even if what you just bought turns out to be a rolling turd.
  • The key advantage to many government vehicles is they've been fleet maintained (regularly serviced). In the case of a common government vehicle, like a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, the mechanics knew what they were doing.
  • You almost always have to put money into what you just bought. Always add a thousand to your budget, and don't buy with your eyes. Besides, most of these cars are just plain ugly.

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Steven Lang is an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and former part-owner of an auto auction near Atlanta, Georgia. Feel free to reach him directly at his Facebook page