At the auto auction, you can buy happiness, or misery

February 28, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

When the bidding stalled out at $17,500, Roger Emmart went hard sell.

He stepped into his custom black, 1939 Chevrolet Coupe and turned the ignition key.

Raaggaraggauwheeeeeeeeee!

The car roared to life, sounding like a 300-horsepower vacuum cleaner. The engine revved to a deafening pitch, blotting out all other sound in the cavernous building at the Howard County Fairgrounds.

"Well, you certainly can hear it coming," said auctioneer Larry Makowski.

"Seventeen-five-will-you-give-eighteen-thousand? Will-you-say-eighteen?-seventeen-five-will- * you-say-eighteen-thousand?"

Mr. Emmart, who works in the auto parts business in Landover, walked into the crowd of admirers. He stood next to John Russell, now engaged in a two-person bidding war

for the car.

"Don't lose it for $500," he said.

But, like any good gambler, Mr. Russell had set his limit -- and $18,000 was beyond it.

"You have to cut yourself off somewhere," Mr. Russell said.

So, the car, with bald eagles etched on the back, side windows, went instead to Dickie Johnson, who added it to his fleet of seven Chevys in Lisbon.

Hundreds of people from as far away as Virginia and West Virginia poured into the football field-size building to browse, bid and buy at the auction of collectors' cars yesterday in West Friendship.

The weather was cold and the attire mostly caps, boots and ski jackets.

Mr. Makowski's Express Auction Services Inc. of Baltimore ran the show, taking a 10 percent cut of each sale.

People gathered in a large oval in front of the 3-foot-high platform where Mr. Makowski stood in a blue

suit with a microphone headset. As owners drove their cars up, the oval would open to let them in, then close behind them, and the bidding would begin.

Mr. Makowski would inevitably start high, then drop down until he snagged a bidder. When bids plateaued, he would remind the crowd of the car's intrinsic value.

"You couldn't rebuild it for what were selling it for," he said of a 1975 Caprice convertible.

"Perfect car for you. Nice street ride. It's air-conditioned, detailed throughout," he said of the 1939 Chevrolet Coupe.

The cars on the block yesterday ranged from handsomely polished classics to near-junkers.

At one end of the building sat a spotless, red 1957 Ford Thunderbird with whitewall tires and a body so polished you could see your reflection in it.

At the other sat a lonely, blue 1974 Oldsmobile convertible with a cracked windshield, a torn vinyl seat

and a dented wheel well.

In between, Douglas DeBoard, a car broker from Crofton, leafed through the repair receipts in the back of a 1970 red Jaguar XKE. One of the many bills listed a labor fee of $2,500.

"These guys get suckered into these cars," he said. "This guy's probably put $15,000 to $20,000 into it." Mr. DeBoard, 50, came to the auction yesterday just to gauge the market. He makes his living buying and selling cars like a commodities broker. He carries a pager on his belt to keep track of potential deals.

"The trick is in the buy, not in the sell," said Mr. DeBoard, who wore a felt hat, gold necklace and a diamond ring. "You've got to buy it very low."

Recently, he bought a Jaguar convertible for $1,700. He called it a "Flintstones" car, because it doesn't have a floor. He said he sold it for $5,500 in one phone call.

"Cars don't have to make sense," he said.

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