The Auto Enthusiast Edition

On auctions, the Internet, and cult favorites

Ryan McManus (RMM) is a longstanding friend of WITI, an exceptional presenter, and currently works as Design Strategy Director at D-Ford, Ford’s Human-Centered Design group, working on the future of mobility. - Colin (CJN)

Ryan here. I recently sold my lightly used 2019 Ford Fiesta ST to a person a few towns over. Historically, this process wouldn’t have been remotely remarkable, except in this case I sold the car on a website called Cars & Bids, one of several auto auction sites catering to enthusiast buyers that have emerged as of late. Cars & Bids is a venture founded by Doug DeMuro, an automotive reviewer/YouTube star who has built a loyal following of like-minded enthusiasts, and his auction site features, in their words, “anything cool and exciting from the 1980s to the 2020s.” (Acceptance of the vehicles to auction is solely at the discretion of the curators of the site, but they have featured everything from a 2005 Mercedes-Benz G55 AMG 6x6 to a 1993 Camry Wagon). Doug personally adds his opinion to each auction, lending his credibility to the process.

Cars & Bids is hardly novel. Bring a Trailer, a site that began as a humble blog of interesting Craigslist ads, has set the trend through its success, with over 400,000 daily users and daily auctions that sometimes reach into the millions. (The site was recently acquired by Hearst). And this week sees the launch of Rad For Sale, a new auto auction site focusing on cars “and other radness” from the ’80s and ’90s. That site is particularly notable because its founders created Radwood, an automotive cultural movement that arguably renewed interest and enthusiasm for owning and driving cars from the 1980s-2000s (the so-called “Radwood bump”). Radwood even curated their own collection for storied auction house RM Sotheby’s before deciding to throw their own snapback hat into the ring...

Why is this interesting?

Auto auctions are not a new idea, but the image of an airplane hanger in Scottsdale filled with Hawai’ian-shirt-wearing guys holding up number placards has dominated the experience for decades. The difference between that experience and this emergent online variant boils down to both access and community, transforming it from transactional to enthusiast congregation.

Because these sites are free to access and the costs to list a car are low to zero, they tend to generate a buzz of participation from engaged community members. Each site has a slightly different character to its user base, but they are uniformly populated with well-informed enthusiasts with a near encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of particular models and a seemingly endless amount of time to spend commenting. (If you are considering purchasing a particular vintage automobile, a great place to start your research would be to read the comment threads on a previous auction for an identical model.) While the communities are well-informed, there’s also a refreshing lack of elitism found—if unhelpful or derogatory comments are made, they are quickly flagged down. It is, dare I say, civil. A throwback to the internet of yore.

It’s also a ton of fun, at least in my experience as a seller (I’ve yet to buy a car through one, though I’ve come close). Owners are expected and encouraged to be present and participative throughout the week while your car is on the block, and it lets you geek out with fellow car nerds about those critical details you obsessed over when you bought the car in the first place. And, of course, the final moments are a thrill.

There seems to be a bit of a cultural confluence at play here as well. One part of it is surely tied up in the roots of social media and influencer culture—Instagram, YouTube and TikTok creators have highly curatorial tastes, and in many ways the automobile is the ultimate mobile expression of one’s persona. While this might manifest at the highest levels with people like Shmee buying a McLaren Elva, there are places to play up and down the spectrum, and these enthusiast auction sites allow people to select their own manifestation at whatever price point they can afford. This can get really interesting at the lower price points once you get below the endless Porsche 911 collectors and into the auctions that seem to be trying to out weirdeach other.

The other bit of cultural zeitgeist at play here has to do with Covid-19. The pandemic has created a bizarre, likely temporary, effect on the automotive market where demand was outstripping supply and the used car market was booming. (For reference, my previously mentioned Fiesta ST sold for almost what I paid for it new a year prior—unheard of in the highly depreciative new vehicle market.) Sites like Carvana (which plays to a more utilitarian used car buyer) have thrived. While not the easiest or the most profitable asset, cars are no longer the investment black hole they were long considered. Or, put another way:

In some ways, this demand defies logic. You would expect that with a huge swath of the workforce going remote or being shut down, the demand for cars would similarly crater. But the perception of a car as a safe mobility option for millions of urbanites who formerly trusted in subways and buses has resulted in a bloom of city-dwelling car ownership. I’ve had several friends in Brooklyn reach out to ask advice on buying their first ever car (and most wanted to talk 90s cars). It makes sense: a class of people who suddenly feel they need a car, but also want to find one that is most specifically them. Couple this with the addictive, communal aspect of these auction sites and plenty of idle browsing time, and you have a syzygy of forces creating demand that auction sites like Rad For Sale can cater to. And the ease of selling a car on auction sites (with relatively stable, sometimes appreciating value) means that the same customers might be buying and selling on the site far more often than the average 10 year ownership of a traditional new car.

To wit: After selling my 1 year old Fiesta, I went 2 whole months before buying a replacement for it: a 1986 Mustang SVO. To date, I’ve taken more photos of it than miles driven, but hey—still more interesting than some boring compact utility vehicle, right?

Quick links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan McManus (RMM)