Passion, reputation, and a little bit of luck: How classic car dealers are riding out the pandemic

by David Zenlea
23 January 2021 5 min read
Photo by Getty Images

As much as we believe in an objective, data-first approach to reporting on the collector car market, we also value the opinions of people who, like us, live and breathe it every day. That’s why the Hagerty valuation team typically hosts roundtables at major events like the Arizona auction week featuring dealers, auctioneers, and other classic car experts. Such gatherings have of course been impossible in the last year. More than ever, though, we want to know how various corners of our industry are feeling, so we’ve spent much of the year checking in with those we trust. No surprise, everyone has experienced this pandemic a bit differently—personal triumphs and private miseries squeezed between Zoom meetings. But for the collector car market, several clear themes emerged:

Selling cars right now is surprisingly easy.

“When COVID began, I thought ‘This is done. Might as well close up shop and see everyone in three to six months.'”–Max Girardo, founder, Girardo & Co., Oxford, U.K.

“It seemed unfathomable that this wouldn’t do irreparable harm to not only the market but also values. After all, if nobody can leave their house do they need a collection of cars? Would we all be trading our cars for Ramen noodles and Charmin?—Colin Comer, Hagerty marketplace expert, owner, Colin’s Classic Automobiles, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

“But it didn’t stop my clients from wanting to buy cars.”—Girardo

“It was gangbusters all the way to bell—June to December.”—Nathan Merz, owner, Columbia Valley Luxury Cars, Redmond, Washington

“Every dealer I know has said that either 2020 was their best year in business or it was damn close. Is it simply YOLO at play? Or boredom? Or deciding now is the time to buy or sell? My guess is all of the above.”

Colin Comer, Hagerty marketplace expert, owner, Colin’s Classic Automobiles

“They had more time to spend on the internet, to drift into automotive black holes.”—Girardo

“People still have money and hobbies. “Tom Papadopoulos, owner, Autosport Designs Inc., Huntington Station, New York

Finding cars to sell, on the other hand—well, that can be hard.

“That has been a challenge. We were in constant contact with consigners, have to talk them into it… There was reluctance on part of the sellers.”—John Kraman, director of company relations, Mecum Auctions.

“Finding cars is easy, finding great cars has been more difficult. People with great are cars saying, ‘I’ll wait. I’ll just wait to sell it.’ Which in a way, is good for the market, it’s not investors trying to sell cars—it’s collectors. Most of whom are financially capable of holding on.”

Max Girardo, founder, Girardo & Co

“We think it’s a big deal when someone has a collection of $15M in important cars, but for the person who has amassed that collection, it’s still their joy and their hobby. Sweepings off the floor. In other words, there’s seldom pressure to sell. Big-dollar cars get sold because of generation change, divorce, or a major life event.”Dave Kinney, publisher, Hagerty Price Guide, Great Falls, Virginia

“Having access to inventory is key. Selling cars is not hard right now if you have the car. It’ll evaporate at prices you’ll be embarrassed to have asked for.”—Merz

“I hate to say that we’re benefiting from bad shit…But we’re benefiting from bad shit. Historically north of 95 percent of cars we sell were sold sight unseen to people all over the world.”—Mark Hyman, owner, Hyman LTD, St. Louis, Missouri

Online has become more important…

“A lot of what’s happened is COVID has pushed along things that were gonna happen anyway. Zoom was an interesting technology and now it’s part of daily work. Bring a Trailer was gaining traction, doing well, and in a COVID environment, it’s become the prom queen. So it’s sped that up.”—Hyman

“We’ve been posting more online rather than placing external advertisements. We’re constantly feeding it, doing more things with Max.”—Alex Easthope, Girardo & Co.

“There’s always someone who can think of a new way to do things. There’s a person in the industry—I won’t say who because some of the stuff he posts makes me cringe—who has very effectively worked social media. He starts creating some dialogue, has earned some product that way.”—Merz

It’s hard to imagine live events, especially auctions, coming back as big as they once were.

“The landscape, quite frankly, will never be the same. A slow return to live events is a certainty, but will people ever again feel comfortable about being shoulder to shoulder in an auction tent or on the show field? Time will tell. As further proof, when I asked my friends what they missed about the lack of all of the major events, such as Monterey, in 2020 not one said ‘Buying a car at auction.” But every one of them said, to a person, “seeing our friends.'”Comer

“Adapting, for me is asking, ‘Do we have to go to Scottsdale. Do we want to go? I can do business sitting behind my desk.”

Tom Papadopoulos, owner, Autosport Designs Inc.

“I think live auctions’ importance in the business could be debated. Some of these other models have proven they can play with the big boys.”Merz

“I think you’re going to see some of the major companies do fewer secondary and tertiary auctions and put them online.” —Hyman

“The cost model has changed. Renting a hall can be expensive. That can be partially offset most of the time by advertisers and vendors. I wonder if that’s ever going go back to how it was.”—Kinney

(Which isn’t to say everyone won’t be happy to attend them.)

“It will continue to be a blend, and we will continue to refine the absentee bidding process, but live events are our identity. It’s who we are.”Kraman

“Whatever the first year is when auctions go back to full traditional style, they might fool themselves into thinking ‘We’re back,’ because so many people will want to go. I love going. I have them written into my life.” Merz

“There is an excitement and entertainment factor that a 15” computer monitor just can’t convey.”—Comer

“There is absolutely no substitute for in-person auctions. No substitute for the smell, touch, and auction lubrication (a.k.a alcohol). Auctions have survived pandemics—Bonhams was founded in 1793. They’ve survived the plague. There will be a return.”

Dave Kinney, publisher, Hagerty Price Guide

In the meantime, having a network and a reputation matters more than ever (and that’s a good thing).

“I haven’t ‘adapted.’ I’m doing the same thing I’ve always done. Relationship comes back more. A lot of the brokers are gone. Dealers who have skin in the game, pay for employees, are the ones doing well. People want to buy from someone they trust.” Papadopoulos

“I’d love to say we’re geniuses, but really, we’re just lucky.”

Mark Hyman, owner, Hyman LTD

“It’s gone well for us not because we’re better than everyone else, or because we’re geniuses, but because we have the right cars and right relationships.” Girardo


  • Jim Liberty says:

    Nice commentary, and I agree with most. I find in my segment, 356 Porsches, great cars sell, and still at good numbers, although lower than several years ago. Reputation is EVERYTHING. …..Jim.

  • Kurt Tanner Motorcars says:

    We’re finding there are more buyers in the market than ever for affordable fun cars. People are bored sitting at home, collecting money, unable to spend it on dining or travel. The sub-$25k market is a sweet spot for us right now. Lovely, shiny, turn-key convertibles or coupes are flying off the shelves. Export is slow. The domestic market is alive and well.


  • fasteddee says:

    hopefully the auctions will realize that internet buying is the future and not extort an extra 2% for using that medium (MECUM). i personally would want to go to inspect the cars that i am interested in & then bid online as i am one of the old people “staying home collecting money”. as long as the auction houses refuse to offer an inspection that they will stand behind & arbitrate i will refuse to play much less pay extra for nothing in return.

  • Don Wood says:

    I’ll be curiously watching the live auction houses economic model. How can total buyer/seller transaction costs of 20-25% at a live auction possibly compare with the best online models (aka BaT) of 5%. That spread is just too wide to be sustainable on a broad basis in my view. Gotta believe the sellers cost in particular with the auction house has and will continue to come down. We’ll see what impact that has on the live auction experience.

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