“A roller coaster”: Those three words, direct from my friend Larry, summed up his experience as a first-time seller of a vehicle at a public auction. But this was no ordinary car, and certainly was an extraordinary auction. The car was his 1963 Mercury Marauder, a one-family car previously owned by his late aunt. (Regular readers of this blog have likely seen the coverage of this gem of an automobile. For those who may have missed it, you can find the story here.) It was Larry’s decision to liquidate it via his chosen venue, the Mecum auction in Harrisburg PA.
We’ve known for months that the vehicle would cross the block on Thursday July 30, the first of three selling days. We’ve also known that the lot number, T75, ostensibly meant that his would be the “75th car” to sell that day. Initial concerns about the car going up too early in the day evaporated when The Selling Day arrived. More about that in a few moments.
Larry had previously arranged for the car to be transported to the auction site via truck. Our plan was to arrive on Wednesday, do a final prep of the car, and check out the other cars for sale. We would be back early Thursday to stay with the car during its final roll under Larry’s ownership, and Friday would be our day to return to the auction in a more relaxed mode. Most of that went according to schedule.
After the requisite stop for a road-trip breakfast of Dunkin’ Donuts bagels and coffee, we were at the Farm Show Complex by 11 a.m. Wednesday morning. Credentials were quickly issued (registering ahead of time has its perks), and our lanyard-mounted badges allowed us access to the entire building. Your author attended this auction last year, but never left the main auction room. Much to my surprise, we found that there are many additional rooms throughout the complex. This is where all the cars and trucks (and tractors) sit waiting their turn. Finding the Mercury meant wandering among these rooms, although we were helped by the “Thursday”, “Friday”, and “Saturday” signs providing direction. As the Complex is used primary for animals, these back rooms are not air-conditioned (the main hall is), and have a musty, dingy feel to them. It’s not the most appealing arrangement for classic cars and trucks.
The Merc was in the Thursday room, and looked pretty good after its journey. In fact, we decided based on the conditions in the holding pen that any final detailing would best wait until early Thursday morning. This was our excuse to spend the rest of Wednesday checking out the merchandise! By late afternoon we learned that drivers would be restaging Thursday’s cars from the pen to the tent immediately outside the main hall’s entrance. At around 5 p.m., “our” driver arrived, and suggested that we hop in for the ride, which of course we did. This was my first time in the Marauder with it moving under its own power, and it was Larry’s last time. As we coasted into our parking spot, I saw that we had a good location: the fourth row, near the front of the tent, very close to the main room’s entrance ramp.
The Big Day arrived soon enough. We were on site by 8 a.m. in order to secure a close parking spot for the daily driver, detail the ‘63, and chat up any potential prospects. Fears that we would not have an audience due to our rather early time slot were allayed when we saw A) the mob lined up at this hour to get into the building, and B) all the attention the Mercury was getting under the tent. Of course, there were about 150 other cars sharing the tent with us, many of them real beauties. But surreptitious listening to observers’ comments reinforced what we already knew: this was a nice car. Most onlookers told each other (or us) that it was great to see such a rare car; that the car’s condition was “fantastic” for an unrestored vehicle; and that it was one of the more striking cars in the tent that morning. We were feeling good! One gentleman in particular lingered long enough that he asked for the car to be started, and he was the only one to peer into the trunk. He told Larry that he would be bidding.
Mecum’s schedule said that automobilia would be sold starting at 9:30, with the first automobile crossing the block at 10 a.m. We do not know why cars did not start rolling out of the tent until about 10:45. However, once they started to roll, they moved quickly. Official drivers, distinguished by their neon green Mecum caps, were staged at the top of each row, and dispatched to the cars in plenty of time to start them, warm them up a bit, and begin the parade.
A few digressions: perhaps it’s me, but wouldn’t you think that if YOU had a classic car that you planned to sell at auction, YOU would make sure that the car would start at its appointed time? When I say “start”, I’m referring to “crank”, as in “have a charged battery in the car”! To my utter amazement, I saw not one, not two, but THREE cars ahead of us in the tent require the services of the jump-start cart in order to become motorvated (Chuck Berry’s word). In at least one of those cases, the jump attempt failed, and the good ol’ golf-cart-with-a-tow-rope was deployed. Once inside and on the smooth level ground, the white-gloved pushers move the car along with the engine off, and most of the bidding audience is never the wiser.
One of the volunteer drivers, a middle-aged woman assigned to move the ’67 Dodge next to us, chatted me up about the Merc, saying that while she liked it, she and her husband collected Pontiacs. I used the opportunity to inquire how she landed this prestigious job, and she told me that their club, the Susquehanna Valley GTO Club, volunteered their services to the auction company. So these drivers knew each other, and were on site primarily for the fun of it. She then confided to me that she did not drive a manual transmission, and she was quite nervous hopping into these “strangers’ cars and figuring out the controls”! Having worked for years at car dealerships, I told her that driving many different new and used cars every day becomes second nature.
It was time. Even with the late start, we had predicted that Larry’s car would cross the block between 12 and 12:30, and here it was just a few minutes before noon. The driver assigned to the Marauder asked Larry if there was anything special to the starting procedure. “Hop in and she should start right up” was the reply. He did and she did.
The Mercury cruised effortlessly up the ramp and into the queue. Once in the main building, the excitement level for both of us jumped up several notches. First, the car looked even more incredible under the neon lights. Second, the inside crowd mobbed this car (in truth, they mobbed every car in line). We got the sense that these folks were the more serious potential bidders, rather than the tire-kickers outside. The car got a more thorough going-over during these brief moments than it had at any point prior. Third, this line was moving fast! It felt like less than a minute before the Marauder was about to make the 90° right turn toward the block.
Then…everything stopped. A charity appeal began, in order to raise money for childhood cancer. This was a truly noble cause; and while $10,000 was raised, it gave us a chance to catch our breaths.
Like a light switch on at full brightness, then turned off, it was switched on again. I couldn’t tell you a thing about any of the cars that crossed the block ahead of us, whether they sold or not, and if they did, for what amount. My eyes were glued to that Merc, headed to a new destiny. The auctioneer’s voice was suddenly clear enough for me to understand every word: “Lot T75, 1963 Mercury Marauder, 45,000 original miles, unrestored barn find, one family since new, do I have 20,000, 20, 20, who will bid 20? Can I have 15, 15,000, anyone? 10,000, 10,000 for this Mercury? Do I have 5?” Finally, a bite. While I knew he would start high, there was a slight sinking feeling when I heard the opening bid drop all the way to 5,000. The auctioneer continued: “6,000, I have 6, 7,000, who will bid 7? 7, now 8,000?” And so on, as it quickly jumped to $10,000. “Eleven thousand dollars, who will bid 11? 11? 11?” Nothing. It stalled at 10,000. Larry, in the “batter’s box” as they call it, directly below the auctioneer’s podium, was getting pressure from the Mecum man to lower his reserve from $12,000. Larry would not. It was over. The car did not sell. It was 12:15 p.m.
Shock. Disappointment. Dismay. We could only repeat “I can’t believe it!” to each other over and over. The car missed Larry’s reserve by $2,000. It got a “The Bid Goes On” sticker stuck to its windshield, and was relegated to one of the back rooms normally used by horses and cows. Our cell phones went into overdrive, but instead of broadcasting success, our emails and texts informed our friends that Larry still owned the Mercury. Which brought up this realization: it would be Larry’s responsibility to move the car back home, on his dime. Time to stop thinking about it so much. Time to take a break and not worry about it for a while. We decided to have lunch.
After eating, we convinced ourselves that watching and enjoying the auction proceedings was a good thing to do, so we did. A calmness settled in, combined with an acceptance of the outcome. Larry would do what needed to be done, and I would do my best to support him through this.
Close to 5pm, almost 4 hours after the car failed to sell, Larry’s cell phone rang. It was a brief conversation. The Mecum rep who called told Larry that they had just gotten a bid from an absentee bidder (phone or internet) for the reserve price of $12,000. The car was sold. There was nothing he needed to do. Relief, not joy, was the emotion of the moment. We could talk all day and all night about how the car was worth more; about the lack of real interest among the in-person bidders; and about the sale going to someone who presumably didn’t even see the car in the metal. Finally, the goal was achieved, and a real sense of “done” settled over us. The beers with dinner that night tasted especially good.
We returned bright and early on Friday morning to watch more of the auction without the pressure of the Mercury hanging over us, but we were tired. We hung around until right after lunch, when it seemed our best course of action would be to get on the road and ahead of the upcoming weekend’s traffic. The trip home gave us a chance to review everything that went down over the preceding several days.
There were some lessons learned about the entire auction process. Much of what occurs on the block is not predictable. While some nice cars sold for strong money and a few poor cars sold for cheap prices, good cars were not always bid up to a fair value, and some junk sold for what seemed like crazy high dollars. With all the effort we put into representing the car on Wednesday and Thursday, it ended up selling to someone offsite. Mecum’s cars and trucks tend to be all about the sizzle, whether they are bondo-filled quickie repaints, 100-point restorations, or dolled-up restomods. The Mercury was none of these. Did that affect its outcome? Who knows, because we don’t. Would the car have found a more receptive audience on Friday or Saturday? Again, perhaps, but perhaps not. Finally, would it have done better somewhere else? If so, where? One attraction about Harrisburg is its closeness. Taking it to another locale would have raised the costs of doing business for shipping and accommodations.
The collector car hobby is immensely fulfilling in so many ways. Auctions are only one part of it. At times, they’re a necessary element to help us continue with our passion. In this case, after the ups and downs of the roller coaster, the ride ended, and the players got what they needed to get out of it.
All photographs copyright © 2015 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.