A Day at the Auction

Lisa and I are tight wads – especially when it comes to purchasing automobiles.  Because of our unwillingness to walk onto any car lot and drop thousands and thousands on a shiny, new vehicle – I have been sent home for a few weeks with the singular mission of finding us a car. Lisa is very specific about what she wants and I am very specific about what we spend.  Our current vehicles are very specific about breaking down every few weeks so the search is on.

Some very good friends of ours are used car dealers and they have been gracious enough to help us in our quest.  Mark and Charlie Armstrong own a father and son used car lot and have been friends through our church for years.  Mark was a middle schooler when I arrived at Bellevue Baptist in 1979 and he joined his father’s business not too long after his graduation from high school. Charlie has been in the business for decades and anyone who has lived anytime in Owensboro would know Charlie.  Spend any time with Charlie and you will be rolling with laughter at the stories he can tell.  Mark is following his dad’s footsteps as both a used car salesman and story teller. The two are dedicated to selling you a car.  But, they are equally dedicated to their families, their friends and their church.  Together they are quite a team and to call them “characters” doesn’t even come close to describe their personalities. When God needed someone to sell cars – He made these two.

This past week I, along with my father-in-law (Vernon), accompanied Mark and Charlie to an auto auction in Nashville, Tenn. I offered to drive our “blue beast” truck and pay for breakfast if they would let me tag along.  They were more than willing.  With a couple of vehicles picked out from a list on the auction website, we left early Wednesday morning with sleep in our eyes and hope in our heart that a vehicle could be found.  After all, they were auctioning 2,800 cars that day and if Lisa and I can’t find a vehicle with those numbers – well, we may never.

After a pleasant two and half hour drive south, Mark directed me off the interstate and down a couple of two lane roads until we arrived at our destination. There was little doubt in my mind where the auction was being held.  In what looked like a scene from a parking lot at Disney World, row after row of vehicles stretched across a huge  area to our left and Mark directed me into the entrance.  Under high security, the four of us walked into the enormous foyer and made our way to the cafeteria for breakfast (yes, this place had a cafeteria). The auction would begin about an hour after we arrived, allowing us time to eat and check out the vehicles.

After breakfast, I followed Mark out to the vast parking lot of cars and, after a few minutes, located the vehicle Lisa and I were most interested in. Mark looked it over and found things about the car only a dealer would notice. The rear bumper had been repainted, scratches here and there, things about the engine, things about the tires – Mark spotted them all. I discovered that the radio worked.

He then said, “Let’s take it for a spin.”  I asked, “Can we do that?” He said it would be fine since the auction had not started yet.  With all the security around, I was not sure we wouldn’t get shot – but realized this was not Mark’s first auction and it must be allowed.  Mark drove the vehicle up and down the aisles, checking it’s acceleration, the brakes, other things that only a dealer would look for.  I worked the radio.

After the test drive and a look under the hood, we both decided this was the one.  If the price stayed low enough, this car would be perfect. Let’s buy a car!

The actual auction took place inside a long building where twenty lanes of cars passed through. Each lane had an auctioneer booth with monitors everywhere to see the bids as the vehicles slowly moved past.  I estimate it took one hundred drivers or more to move the vehicles through the auction line. In a matter of three hours, all 2,800 vehicles would either be sold or returned to their car lots.  I have stood on the floor of the Chicago board of trade and found this experience similar to the chaos there.  I could not make out a single thing being said as the twenty auctioneer voices seemed to blend one with the other.

My car would be up for sale in about forty-five minutes and Mark told me to chill out while he perused other vehicles.  My fear was he would lose track of time and bidding would be left up to me.  I could see me trying that in the midst of all this chaos and not only bidding a hundred grand but doing so on the wrong car.  I paced around keeping one eye on our car and the other looking for Mark.

Finally, the time arrived.  Mark returned in plenty of time (whew!) and positioned himself across from the auctioneer.  Here we go!

We had thought the bidding would begin at around the 16k mark.  Opening bid was 20k.  In just seconds, the bidding climbed to near 21k and Mark looked at me and shook his head.  Not today.  I was disappointed and so was Lisa who I had sent pictures to.  Mark could not believe the price the car brought and determined a new car dealer had made the purchase, probably for a customer willing to pay too much.  I suppose you win some – you lose some.

Vernon and I waited for a couple of hours as Mark and Charlie looked at other cars.  Mark made a purchase for their lot and he and Charlie drove their car back to Owensboro.  Vernon and I loaded back into the “beast” and headed home.

So – I’m still in Owensboro trying to find a car and Lisa is still in Ohio.  Mark and Charlie extended me another invitation to this week’s auction and, I suppose, we will try again.  They are really good people and they eat a lot of breakfast.  If I can find us a car- it will be worth it.

New places and new experiences are daunting things.  The familiar is safe, the unfamiliar – scary.  The same feeling I had walking into my first PE class at Southern Junior High School as a twelve year old, seventh grader, happens to me still. Perhaps not the same intensity – but a similar fear.  It was good to have friends in the seventh grade and good to have friends now.  The car business is tough.  I admire the Armstrongs for going toe to toe with bigger dealers and, trust me, they can hold their own.

Now that I know what to expect, my next trip to the auction will seem old hat.  I’m walking in there this week like a boss – like someone who has been there before.

Just watch me handle those radios.

“What”ll you bid?”

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