Blog : ‘Good buy’, old friend

Andrew Elphick


Like any good mate, this one cost me money, lost me money and got me a bollocking from the missus.

A victim of a changing society, Auto Trader hasn’t done a full ‘Woolworth’s’ on us – in fact, Auto Trader claims to be fitter than ever despite eBay/Gumtree muscling in on the action.

Old-school rival Exchange & Mart threw its red top towel in four years ago in 2009 and now Trader Media Group is culling the company’s entire print division – not only the ‘Trader’ but also Top Marques, Truck and Plant, Farm Trader and Van Trader disappear as the last copies leave the newsagents shelves this week.

So, why the axe? Simply, we’re not buying it anymore – bar the odd distress purchase, we venture online (just like this blog) to the website instead. In the good old days, the ‘Trader’ lottery was the work of cunning – figuring out landline codes to guess where the car might be, making a snap decision off a 1-inch square low resolution photo and the maximum word count.

I forget how many words your £10 small ad got you, but surely (and unwittingly) Auto Trader had actually invented Twitter first. Except Tim Berners-Lee hadn’t popularised the World Wide Web at that point. Nothing really is new under the sun.

From the circulation peak of 368,000 copies at the turn of the millennium to 13% of that, 13 years later, the website traffic is actually up 13% year on year – maybe 13 is lucky for some in this binary world?  Personally, I’m as guilty as anyone else – the last car I sold by booking an appointment with the ‘snapper’ was in 1997 (and, of course, I got the traditional last thing Wednesday night and daybreak Thursday morning calls).

Rumours always persisted that the printers and paper dispatch guys were on a ‘drip’ from local dealers for bargains – I don’t doubt it for a second either. Actually, my last ‘print’ Auto Trader purchase occurred that way…

Like all good banger buys, this was a Thursday morning (Auto Trader‘s traditional print date) 12 years ago. Our Scania driver and I had a drop-off and wire-up of a huge mobile generator, just off the A1 in Barnet (just behind the Bonusprint labs I recall). Anyway, sat outside at 7.00am waiting for someone to open up, we popped into the garage for two Maxpax cups of tea and a hot-off-the-press copy of the ‘Trader’.  Right at the back sandwiched between £199 any-colour resprays and ‘unrecorded’ salvaged wrecks, was the car of my dreams:

A few column inches sealed the deal:
Mercedes 250 Limo, VGC, just out of TnT £250, Barnet

So, we went back to the truck (the company mobile was plumbed into the Scania) and called. Yes, we could view now – follow signs to the council tip and call again. So, we did. Now alarm bells should have rung when it transpired the Mercedes-Benz was actually for sale at the council tip. However, a not-as-crusty-as-expected Mercedes-Benz in metallic blue, missing all documents (obviously), awaited us. I found the seller (in Barnet Council overalls) and went for a test drive – a slalom on roll-on-roll-off skips and dustcarts in rather rapid automatic 18-foot -long barge.

Well, of course, the inevitable happened – we left a deposit, did our job and went back for collection. The Mercedes-Benz didn’t look as VGC as I remembered, and it seemed a little louder. Whatever… I thought about ringing my insurers, but they were closed ’til 9.00am and, in the halcyon days of no ANPR and youthful stupidity, I just chanced it back to the yard, which was ten minutes up the A1 and six junctions round the M25…

Using Dennis and his flatbed Scania, we re-enacted Smokey & the Bandit in reverse, with him as the ‘Bandit’ vehicle and me tailing behind – which was kind of useful when the entire centre section of exhaust parted company at Junction 26 of the M25.

At that exact same moment, I discovered the headlamps didn’t actually work either – on/off/dip or flash – I waved frantically – Dennis also waved back too. Like he was milking an invisible cow…

Andrew Elphick
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  1. Ahh the Autotrader.

    I remember looking my first car – you had to buy it on a Thursday morning to get a chance at the decent ones! The amount I’d rang by Thursday evening just to get ‘sorry, just sold today!’.

    Conversely, that heartsinking feeling when you advertise a car, only to get no calls by Friday. ‘hmm, did I price it too high?’.

    The online site gives you high res photos, detailed description, location etc. – also national coverage. Useful for those hard to find models, or grab a bargain with a bit of travel. Wouldn’t be the first time – I bought my Xantia off AutoTrader website from a dealer in Surrey and drove it back to Belfast (via a weekend in Edinburgh…).

    The print mag is only usually found in barber or takeaway waiting areas. Usually dated 2 months ago and playing the ‘imaginary budget game’ – usually full of absolute dream bargains that are now long sold, compared to the lack of anything interesting if you are *actually looking* to buy a car.

    With web everywhere – the other week I was sat on a motorway bridge browsing gumtree cars on my mobile, hoping not to waste a journey after walking away from an Accord diesel with an engine light (usual story – ‘It’s only starting doing it…’), makes sense to do away with the print copy.

    Another thing they could do away with in print is the Yellow pages. Anytime I need a product or service, I search the internet!

  2. Blimey, what a loss…!!!

    My old man used to buy and sell old motors and our dining table was never free of the Exchange & Mart, Autotrader and a copy of Glass’ Guide! The journeys we made on the strength of those ad’s were nothing short of epic but the journeys home were not always so exciting if you’d been sold a dud (“it was sold as seen mate…!”) or the vendor suddenly decided they weren’t at home when they said they would be…!!!

    Another thing that was always good was when the Autotrader photographer came out to snap your motor… they came along with all the enthusiasm and vigour of David Bailey only to have their magical shot squeezed and condensed into a tiny little thumbnail that was reproduced in the kind of ink that just fell off the page (black finger and thumb = Autotrader scanning!!!).

    I shall miss the printed version of Autotrader even though I haven’t thumbed through a copy in decades…!!!

    This leads me to ask if any of you good people out there have any old copies of the ‘Trader…?!

  3. Neighbour of a friend in Wales used to work as an AT snapper. Picked up a variety of interesting cars, like a 4×4 Granada and a Porsche 924. At one stage he had a Metro (!), and came home complaining that the brakes were grabbing, and pulling to one side. So we whipped the wheel off, and found that the brake disc had separated into four parts, which were all trying to get through the caliper at once. Yes mate, see your problem there.

  4. Auto traders website is hopeless. Try searching for a cheap banger under £1000 and you will get a ton of add which say sorry typo, real pay not 299 but 2990.

    Seller lies in ad, I don’t buy. Auto trader doesn’t vet ad properly, I don’t trust their site.

  5. Remember how about half the responses to ads you’d placed were spam calls from phantom rivals to Autotrader? Usually a new car ad magazine supposedly setting up, and asking for an insertion fee for a mag that probably didn’t exist?

    And if you couldn’t meet the photographer in person, stuffing the ad wording and cheque far enough up the car’s exhaust to make it invisible to the local low-life? But not so far that the photographer couldn’t fish it out again. Great times, from the heyday of the factory fitted sunroof. Hey, that’s an idea for a future article – ‘The Life and Death of the Sunroof’

  6. A crying shame (especially for those 160 people who got made redundant), I still used AutoTrader up until very recently, in fact I sold my MG ZT-T diesel through it, interestingly I had no calls on the day I put the ad on-line and it was not until thursday the calls came flooding in from all over the S.E. (I am guessing because people looking for a cheap diesel estate had not considered an MG ZT-T until they were browsing through the diesel section in the mag). As a buyer the internet is no good for browsing unless you know exactly what you want (many years ago I purchased a MGF for my wife as a complete impulse buy from the mag – it was just before Christmas and it was a nice low mileage 1 owner example and the seller was keen to sell) and as a seller you miss out on these buyers.The other less well known publication of Top Marques was a cracking read a really good mix of news, reviews, roadtests and a fantastic Classics section which was really interesting reading with some great buying guides, news and features, plus you had the added bonus of a magazine packed full of tasty cars to tempt you. Personally I much prefer to pick up a magazine rather than fire up the computer/mobile/iPad – I sit in front of one of these all day long and I want time away from a screen. I will have to get my car mag fix elsewhere now…

  7. @Ash

    Scan dentist / takeaway / barber waiting areas – these always have a 2 month old copy of the magazine.

    Few scans of a 1983 edition here on SABRE –

    The photographer in Belfast I think you could go along to their offices by the docks and get a photo taken.

    There would always be at least 1 car where the photo didn’t match the text. eg. a Mercedes with a picture of an Escort.

    The website is littered with those ‘1990? I meant 5990’ and also if you search for < 1000, '199' bargain new cars. '199' a month it means!

  8. I think it was the first time I ever saw a digital camera being used when the bloke came to take the pic of my car, think he used something like this:, used a floppy disc to record the images.
    Many a fond memory of browsing the bargain section and the classics section. Still use autotrader, got a car on it now, price is shocking though, £45 for a worthwhile ad. However, it’s the one advertising medium for selling a car I’ve found consistently to work. Don’t think I’ve ever failed to sell.

  9. Cricky! I can’t think how many cars I have bought through the AT. A very nostalgic loss but clearly not a commodity that our world now values (and I include myself in that – haven’t bought it for years).
    With all the instant communications nowerdays I don’t think we quite experience that sense of excitement and suspense – waiting for the guy to get home from work – then him not answering the phone – wondering if we ought drive over to Northampton just in case – perhaps he’s sold it…….
    No such suspense today – if he wants you to buy it he’ll answer his mobile.
    Job done.

  10. I used to buy AT regularly but eventually gave up when I got fed up with reading dealer ads from varying part of Wales.
    God, I remember in the early 80s ploughing through endless pages of Exchange and Mart – just for the hell of it. I suppose the tidy 59 Caddy with tax and mot for 900 quid’s gone now..

  11. Farewell Auto Trader, the best holiday read ever. Lots of fun with imaginary budgets, plenty of what ifs and much ‘Blimey didn’t realise they were that cheap’.

    You’re right that browsing the website doesn’t let you find the random oddities that the print copy used to, plus you can’t take a rolled-up laptop to the small meeting room.

  12. Myself like many many many more out there the Thames Valley Trader made us what we are today, it lined our pockets some more than others brought us financial wealth [and loss], aggravation and happiness.
    I for one remember when it was only a few pages and dealers were invited to a lavish Christmas do no expense spared but that was a long time ago, you could even get an early copy if you knew the right people, the reps were once varied and some females quite glamerous sadly all now gone and new generations and technology have made it a necessary evil where if you don’t go along with them you fall by the wayside…..great shame they hold the monopoly.

  13. I advertised car in local rag. Most of the calls I got were from Auto trader. Switched on the answerphone in order to get some peace. They rang back and said “just ringing to tell you there’s a burglar in your garden” When I caved in and organised an advert, waited in all day and photographer was a no show.

  14. Never bought Auto Trader, but still sad to see it go the journey. I didnt know Exchange & Mart had packed in years ago. I used to read it regularly in the 70’s… bygone era now.

  15. In the days when the Trader website was little more than than a copy of the Paper version (one small pic and a few lines) Two friends and I built a rather better version, allowed the user to put the ads up, unlimited photos, thumbmails to full 1024×768 and so on. We tried to advertise it, this lot stopped every attempt, even in the local papers. Didn’t stop them taking the money for the ads though, they just never appeared!

  16. @14 , I still do the imaginary car purchase thing on the web , its a good way to while away the hours until you realise that you cant afford anything in reality!

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