What a place for a deal up to 1,000 vehicles can move through auction

January 24, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Early Thursday mornings, hundreds of them from as far away as Canada and Puerto Rico descend on 41 acres in Bel Air in search of the deal.

They'll look under hoods, scour interiors, check bodies and paint for rust and previous patch-jobs, and rev engines, listening for the telltale knocks and pings that the best of them can hear a block away.

Like horse-racing handicappers, the used car dealers stand prepared when the 800 to 1,000 automobiles approach starting gates A, B and C at the Bel Air Auto Auction.

When the bidding begins at 10 a.m., time waits for no dealer -- especially not an indecisive one.

When the auctioneers deliver their pitch, in a machine-gun staccato only the hard-core buyers and sellers understand, the dealers huddled before the gates have an average of 45 seconds to bid on a car before it's gone.

Here, the art of the deal is big business, to the tune of $60 million to $70 million in annual sales, with dealers paying sellers directly and the auction owners receiving service fees.

Raymond Nichols, who is president of BSC Financial Group in Baltimore, and his partner, Burton Greenwood, owner of Greenwood Towing, bought the Bel Air Auto Auction in 1980. Mr. Nichols has the title of secretary/treasurer, Mr. Greenwood is chairman. Their wives help run the auction -- Elaine Nichols is president, Dottie Greenwood vice president.

As co-owners of the 46-year-old auction south of Bel Air on the Baltimore Pike, they do their best to

keep the dealers satisfied.

These dealers are not to be confused with the used car dealer of myth and persistent stereotype -- with a warranty that lasts only until all four wheels clear the lot.

Today's used car salesmen are very particular about the cars they sell, Mr. Nichols says.

The demand for quality used cars has risen, he says, because many families need two or three automobiles. He says that the average American keeps a car eight years while 20 percent keep them 10 years.

* Dealers are meeting the de

mands for second and third cars by purchasing as many late-model cars as possible at auctions.

"I'll say that most used cars on the lots of the dealerships in the Bel Air area were purchased here," Mr. Nichols said.

Bill Krebs, owner of Krebs Automotive in Minneapolis, Minn., shows up at the auction regularly, flying east every other week and visiting various auctions to buy cars to take back to his dealership.

4( "It is time well-spent," he said. "I

know I'll find quality cars on these trips. I especially like this auction because of the friendly atmosphere and the efficiency of the workers."

Those sentiments are echoed by both Terry Karakatsanis of TK Auto Sales in Quebec, Canada, and Joseph Morielli of Superior Auction of Kirk, Quebec, Canada.

Mike Martino of Village Volvo-Saab was on hand to move a few vehicles. "This auction is held in high regard by the dealers in both Harford County and the region," he

said.

Edward Colliver, the auction's general manager, heads the day-to-day operation. He says cars begin arriving early Monday morning and the volume builds till Thursday.

Nearly 150 employees assure the operation runs smoothly -- office workers, cashiers, drivers, guards, cafeteria workers and auctioneers.

Everyone taking part in the auction must fill out a detailed application, provide a copy of a dealer's license and a photograph of himself

and various bank forms needed to check credit.

Once approved, those selling autos must pay $30 in registration fees for every vehicle they want to sell. A fee of $15 to $100 -- determined by the cost of the vehicle -- also is charged to a buyer for each vehicle purchased.

"We rely on volume because it is a low-margin business," Mr. Nichols said.

That volume will grow in 1993. Another 10 acres is being cleared to handle additional vehicles, and a fourth auction lane will be added before the summer.

When the auctioning begins, cars line up bumper to bumper in their proper lanes. Lane A is for the 1987 model year and after, while Lane B handles older cars. Trucks, commercial vehicles and fleet and leased vehicles are sold in Lane C.

Each lane also has different categories. Colored lights reflect quality. A green light, for example, indicates a vehicle is free of defects and can be driven for inspection.

If a dealer buys a vehicle under a green light and discovers a mechanical problem during the test drive, he and the seller will take the vehicle to Bob Day, the arbitrator at the Bel Air Auction.

Elmer Murry is the chief auctioneer with 35 years of service at Bel Air.

"This is the only auto auction I work," said Mr. Murry, a resident of FTC Lititz, Pa. "I used to work others during the week but none can compare with this operation.

"Oh, other auctions may be larger, but the people who run this one make it a pleasurable day. You don't hear buyers and sellers grumbling about the way they've been treated."

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