At Auction

If Southern California is car heaven, then the Anaheim car lot that is home to the Cade Automobile Dealers’ Auction might be its purgatory. Each week, the fate of 2,500 or more bank repos, dealer overstocks, fleet selloffs, trade-ins and salvages is decided by the used-car men and women who come to examine the vehicles at the lot, a sea of steel and chrome. A car might be auctioned off to another dealer, sent back to the yard for another week, sold for parts, or put on display the next day for the open-to-the-public Thursday-night auction.

“We’re looking for hidden treasures here,” says Charlie Jaber, who’s allowed me to tag along as his driver today (the public is not allowed in). He’s been coming to the auction for more than a year, since he expanded his repair shop, A&G Auto on Santa Monica Boulevard, into a small used-car lot.

Given his location and client base (he is considered the mechanic of choice by many Silver Lake bohos), plus the size of his lot (six to eight cars at most), Jaber has to be very prudent and specific on these trips. His métier is the odd-duck, generally 100,000-mile-plus Beemers, Mercs, Vettes and older classics from the late ’80s to early ’90s — something in which an up-and-comer on a budget can cruise L.A. with pride.

“I’ve seen all of the tricks that dealers use to drive down the prices of something they want,” he says. “Disconnected spark wires to make the engine misfire when the car gets to the auction line and the like. There’s the other side of that, too — some of these cars are loaded with anti-trannie- leak and stop-leak. It’s hard to tell. All you have is a day after you buy for a personal diagnostic — a ‘guarantee’ from the auction only lasts 24 hours, and not all the cars are guaranteed.”

But that’s what happens on the outside. Inside the lot, a stockyard of four-wheeled steer, you find the automotive equivalent of a Texas cattle auction. The cars are slowly routed through 13 lanes: three for fleet leases, three for new cars, six for older ones, and Lane No. 1, the “Hollywood Lane,” for the high-ticket beauties and oddities, the best of which today is a 2002 purple dune buggy. The decibel level is outrageous — revving engines, chattering dealers, the babble of the barkers. Huge vents suck out the exhaust, so the ears take more of a pounding than the lungs. Slowly, the lot drivers, looking glum, wheel in the cars while the dealers and their hired drivers descend on the product like hyenas, prodding and poking. No sign of tire kicking, though. Instead, lots of mullets, concert T-shirts, chain-smoking, and fretting dealers glued to cell phones. This beats the shit out of the NYSE or mercantile any day!

Jaber has his sights set on three cars today, a green 1990 Merc 300, a frame-damaged Volvo four-door and, most important, a 1993 red Miata convertible automatic. “The Miata is convertible and automatic, which is perfect,” says Jaber. “Women love Miatas and hate standards. If I can get it reasonable (under $4,000), I can turn it around fast.”

The Mercedes and Volvo pass unsold, even after Jaber and others bid them up. Why? “If they don’t get to where the dealer wants them, the barker will simply wave it through the line,” Jaber says. “And some of these guys will bid up their own cars.” Indeed, a sweet 1996 silver BMW is waved through after a heated two-man war that tops out at 12 grand — the two men already own the car. “Never get sucked into that,” Jaber says. “Just watch and wait, and you can tell that’s what they’re doing.”

Finally, the Miata snakes into the line. A pair of dealers who’ve been eyeing the car since it passed the outside bleachers make their way over, as does a young lady with a “driver” sticker on her jeans and her two dealer “employers.” Giddy and agog over the little red Mazda, she is no more a used-car-lot driver than I am Shaquille O’Neal. (Friends of dealers often make their way into the pen, and the savings can be enormous, Jaber estimates 20 to 30 percent.)

The bid is set up at six grand, typically ridiculously high, and falls to $2,000 in less than 10 seconds. Gradually, the value creeps back up, and a bidding war between Jaber, the girl, the two dealers and a tattooed man breaks out — sold at $4,500, and not to Jaber or the girl, but to the first pair of dealers.

Jaber shakes his head in amazement. “That tattooed guy was the owner; I’ve done business with him before. I told him if he ever had something like that again, just call me and skip the auction. Ahh, another time, perhaps.”

The auction winds down about 2:30 p.m. The barkers step off their podiums, the dealers race to the payment line to settle their purchases, and we leave empty-handed. No big deal to Jaber. “I love this auction,” he says as my ears ring, shot from the day’s carnage. “It’s very peaceful in its way. This is my meditation, my day off.”

Maybe he’s found his hidden treasure after all.


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