The Feature Car and the Side Deal

As a veteran of the collector-car and business worlds, I have learned that no two interactions are ever the same. I also have grown to accept that people generally act in their own self-interest and have a multitude of motivations for their actions. I’ve decided to keep it real with this blog, not just show pretty pictures, so here goes my story about the Challenger T/A Clone, human nature, and how even seemingly good and productive relationships can be undermined.

This is not a hard-luck, sour grapes story. Far from it. I’m used to hard work, whether while researching and witing auction catalogs over long hours, days, and weeks, to “hunting and gathering” to line up some good cars to bring to auction on behalf of their owners as a service. Sometimes I have been asked to perform this service by estate lawyers or the families of deceased classic-car owners. While there is much more to this work than most people would know, I enjoy it and feel that I have performed to the very best of my ability and in my clients’ best interests. However, after a pretty good run of auction success, I faced one of the stranger situations that caused me to take a hard look at how I approach the business.

To keep things relatively brief, I learned of two brothers who co-owned a 1970 Dodge Challenger nearby. They ran a garage that they were folding and had placed a “For Sale” ad offering the car in Old Autos. I’ve always liked Challengers, and know they are great cars to offer at auctions and enjoy high demand. I spoke to one of the brothers, and we had a nice conversation about the car and their expectations for its sale. The car was a very carefully restored and built “T/A” clone or replica, and had been equipped with a tunnel-ram intake and twin carburetors. While not a factory-built “T/A,” there was still significant value attached to the car. There seemed to be no real urgency to sell it, though, and we agreed to speak again a few months later.

I believe that the money is in the follow-up, so I carefully took notes and called back a few months later, as promised. This time, I was informed that the brothers made some sort of arrangement and my contact was the sole owner, with either ownership documents in hand, or soon to be obtained. I asked if I could come and see the car, and my request was granted for the following Saturday morning. After arriving at the seller’s place, I looked the car over and was

The car was even better than I could have imagined. Better than showroom fresh, impeccably detailed, and likely driven just a few miles, it at all, after it was restored, finished, sorted, and detailed. The owner was willing to sign the auction company’s consignment contract, pay the entry fee, and provide photographs since it was winter and the car was in a barn-like shop. As promised, the remaining items were received shortly after my visit, and the auction company’s owner accepted the deal for his auction.

When the big day came, I was excited about how the Challenger was given premium placement on stands directly in front of the auction stage. Mirrors underneath showed the car’s pristine undercarriage, and the car stood proudly alongside a “real” Challenger T/A, one that had been updated with a modern but incorrect 5-speed transmission. Imagine that – the clone was even better and more authentic than the real thing! One of the auction staffers told me the owner had been polishing the car almost endlessly after its arrival, and it certainly looked great. As the bigger-ticket, “prime time” afternoon cars began queuing up near the auction block, the Challenger finally came up for auction.

I jogged over to the auction stage, expecting to be the representative for the seller, since he had a firm amount of money the car needed to bring, and a clear low amount or “reserve” he would accept. Anything over the reserve, and the car would be an absolute sale. Anything under, yet still near the reserve, and then he would have the option of selling the car at a lower amount, or letting the car pass unsold and taking the car back home again.

To my growing horror, the auction-company owner had his arm around the owner/seller of the car, and a strange look in his eyes as I approached the auction stage. The pair made a deal between the two of them then and there, leaving me out of the discussion, and arranged to sell the car just below the reserve, and waiving the seller’s commission. This meant that yes, the car would sell, but for half of the commission that was to have been paid to me if the deal had not been made. The car sold, and when my commission check arrived in the mail a few weeks later, it had a significant reduction from the amount that I had expected. After all, I did the legwork, got the consignment deal done, and helped bring a strong, feature-worthy car to the auction. Thanks a lot!

I realize the car was sold respectably, the seller’s interests were served, the auction house had a feature car for the catalog and the event itself, and I did earn some commission money. My point is, I feel the auction-company owner should have had a word with me. Something like, “Look, Dave, we have strong interest in this car, but they aren’t going to bid more than just under the reserve. Both you and I are going to take a hit this way, but I think it’s the best (or right) thing to do in this situation.” I can honestly say that I would have likely agreed.

The point is, the seller undermined the valuable work I had done to serve him, and the auction-company owner screwed me financially to cut a deal unilaterally without telling me. Given that I had consigned many cars to his auction, that would have just been professional courtesy. Then, there’s the matter of the possible orchestration of the car’s sale to a preferred client, at their preferred purchase price, before the car ever crossed the auction block. Likely so that he could resell the car and pocket the difference. Not as bad as a straight no-sale on the auction block, but the cheese still smelled a bit stinky in my humble opinion. The lesson here: quality business relationships are all important but all too easily compromised in the quest for self-interest. I also learned to modify my consignment deals with the seller granting me sole negotiating authority once the car is consigned to auction. Or I don’t play the game. Having said that, screw me once, shame on you. Screw me twice, shame on me!

Has this or something similar ever happened to you at a collector-car auction? What was the final outcome? When is a contract not a contract? When is a relationship not worth the B.S.? Let us know in the Comments field below.

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