Opinion : What’s happened to car auctions and dealers?

BCA Auction

What’s happened to the traditional ways of buying and selling cheap cars? Times, they are a-changing… a fact rammed home last week when I heard that the my local BCA Auction site in Peterborough had closed its doors for the very last time. It’s true for so many people these days – you won’t be hitting the auctions or car lots if you want to replace your used car.

Instead, selling’s all about how good you are at photography and how verbose you are in written ads, while buying comes down to being able read between the lines in an online ad. For someone like me, who gets paid to string a few words together about cars, that’s very good news.

I appreciate that this doesn’t come naturally to everyone and nor does the ability to take a reasonable set of photos – front, rear, sides, interior and engine bay. It should be easy-peasy lemon squeezy. But, again, I appreciate that not everyone sees cars through a lens and may struggle to get a simple and clear set of images to sell their car.

Sifting the wheat from the chaff

However, in this world of brilliant smartphones capable of taking great photos without too much effort, advertising your car online really should be the easiest thing in the world. And yet, how many rubbish adverts online have put your off making the call? More than I care to admit.

I shouldn’t moan – that’s good for me, and I’ve done well online over the years. I describe fully what’s on offer, and take as many clear, well-lit, photos as I can. And a sale usually follows, especially as I usually end up offering to deliver. It’s not rocket science.

As a buyer, though, it can be frustrating picking your way through a bad advert, and I do fear I’ve missed out on some good cars over the years because of bad photography or apostrophe abuse…

Going online – good, yes?

So, online buying and selling has been a force for good, especially when done well. It’s opened the market and is brilliant at putting cars together with buyers, which is a big positive – all the more so during the pandemic, when actually going and looking at a car was often impossible.

Where’s the excitement, though? Deep down, I do miss wearing out shoe leather nosing around the forecourts and auctions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I’ve found some amazing cars over the years by just getting out and having a poke around the bombsite dealer lots – how about a £700 Rover SD1 Vitesse stumbled upon in Essex? Or hanging around ‘til the end of an auction to snaffle up something interesting as the last dregs are booted through the block. The adrenaline kick from putting in a successful bid for something else no one would look twice at is potent – I still look back on my £60 Vauxhall Carlton CDi bought at the end of an evening auction as a highlight in my trading career.

The joys of a fresh copy of Exchange & Mart

Then there was also the almost incomparable joy of getting a fresh copy of Exchange & Mart or AutoTrader first thing on publication day and settling down in my local café with a cup of coffee and bacon sarnie to look through the fresh new ads.

The biggest joy was always the ’Cars under £1000’ section – there was always something desirable buried within that you’d call a diamond in the dirt.

But, boy, did you have to be on it – call after about midday on Thursday and you’d be more than likely met with a ‘sorry, it’s been sold’, or even more frustratingly, and endless engaged signal. It was a banger gold rush as you competed with so many other buyers in the same boat.

Triumph Acclaim

But there would be that lovely moment when you’d get through and the car was still up for sale – even better if the seller was a genuinely nice person looking to sell a much-loved car they’d owned for ages to a ‘good home’. I bagged myself a brilliant Triumph Acclaim that way. As I say, a diamond in the dirt. They did happen back then…

It does feel like those traditional ways of buying and selling are on the way out – but it’s a shame that’s the case, because although online is good, there’s no thrill of the chase anymore. I still remember the feeling of satisfaction when I found a genuinely good cheap car that was right for me. Contrast that was my search and purchase of a Suzuki Swift (below) for a family friend recently – it was so easy, done in a day, and almost a case of, ‘of course, I found one.’

Where’s the fun in that?

Suzuki Swift

Keith Adams
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16 Comments

  1. I think we had the thrill of the chase when we bought our Polo by searching online in 2016. We first looked at Fiestas, but the diesels were rubbish to drive. So we tore up all the Fiesta ads we had printed out; and set out on a Sunday to track down a decent Polo. Two had been sold by then, the next was under-prepared and over-sold by a trader who made Arthur Daley look like the Pope. We had one last chance – we drove about 45 miles to Stoke, and found the car we wanted. It was rusty under the back end, but two coats of Waxoyl arrested the chemical reversion in its tracks. It was a bit slow, but rather better after we changed the cam belt – the previous change had been done by a Land Rover dealer, who had mistimed it. Selling online was interesting – I had 14 calls in 2 days, even after marking the ad’ “now sold”. I sold the car to an unpleasant person from Crewe, but I got the price I wanted, basically by saying No repeatedly when he asked for any further discount!

  2. Still plenty of used dealers here in the US. If selling is going increasingly private in the UK, how do cash-strapped sellers tee-up financing? I’m guessing they have to do more legwork and go to banks themselves. I think perhaps the whole used car financing thing is more prevalent over here.

    • @Peter J:

      Quote: “If selling is going increasingly private in the UK, how do cash-strapped sellers tee-up financing? I’m guessing they have to do more legwork and go to banks themselves.”

      Unfortunately, many of our high streets have already lost their local branch of the bank, forcing customers to either travel to a branch in a city or large town, or do the dealing over the internet or telephone. Yet another hurdle to negotiate. It is definitely an issue in more rural regions such as the South West where I live, with a growing number of the remaining branches in large towns and cities also having increasingly shorter opening hours since the pandemic.

      • Remember how crappy it was when you had to schlep to town to do any banking? It’s so much better to be able to do it over the phone or on the internet.

  3. I think the market has changed. We Buy Any Car has channelled cars through Mannheim auctions, the rubbish in Auto Trader is now on Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree. More traders buying direct from franchised dealers. Local papers and newsagent windows seem to have suffered during the pandemic. Still bargains to be found on salvage websites.

    • We buy any car send all the decent stuff through Cinch. I found the online dealers a nightmare to deal with when I was looking for my last car back in very early 2020 – they either could not be bothered to answer any questions you asked, or they would badger you for weeks to come trying to sell you other cars they had just got in! Best one was an online dealer selling a BMW 5 series with 10,000 miles on the clock but when I asked it had history to back the mileage, they said we will get back to you = still waiting lol! The car disappeared from their site not long after I asked the question, but reappeared in the summer when COVID restrictions had been lifted with no claim of mileage!

  4. Dealers sell excess trade-ins to British Car Auctions (BCA), BCA have acquired We-Buy-Any Car (WBA). WBA are aggressively courting the owner with a car to trade-in to sell directly to BCA, therefore short-circuiting the dealer out from the triangle of the trade-in sequence.

  5. I miss the motoring pages of the Sunday Sun( Newcastle Sunday paper, not the Murdoch rag with a similar name). Go back 40 years and you had people selling their 1971 Cortinas for spares or repair for £ 50( useful as donor cars or if you wanted to spend a hundred more keeping the car alive for another year), £ 500 would buy you a so so early Mark 2 Escort or a middle aged Morris Marina, often with 6 months MOT and tax, and a grand could see you behind the wheel of a five year old V6 Granada( high mileage but well maintained). Quite often these cars could be dicey, as rust was an issue on most seventies cars and clocking was a popular trick, but thousands of people must have found an ideal cheap car in the Sunday Sun.

  6. What I miss most is ‘swaps’ – almost unheard of today. In the 70’s I bought an Anglia Estate for less than a tenner and ‘swapped’ my way up to a three year old Vauxhall Cresta deluxe without spending another dime – and no one was ripped off – everyone got what they wanted, whether a minibus or a kit car. Great days. As for adverts, the ones indicating ‘price on application’ or ‘investment opportunity’ or ‘very rare car’ get no calls from myself or any of my car mates. Mind you the most bizarre add I ever saw was in the 60’s. It said “Chrome plated fuel cap for sale (with Austin Seven attached) – passes anything except pubs – £5
    Great days!

  7. The other thing that has happened is that property prices have had a big impact on the back street dealer. In London in particular can you imagine what Arthur Daley’s lot in Fulham would be worth these days as a development site?

    I am sure that the auctions will come back when over supply returns to the market

  8. Oh yes. The London Road from Hadleigh to Southend in Essex use to be a used car hotspot, and I remember as a child and then as an adult driving up and down looking for the next car. Most of them have gone replaced by flats, some with empty retail space below that will never get filled (some have already been converted to more flats)

  9. Remember what used to be called runners, used cars coming to the end of their life, but with a 12 month MOT for peace of mind and often with several months road tax. One of my neighbours used to buy a runner every year from a self employed trader and then ditch it shortly before MOT time.

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