Bring a Trailer: Today’s Auction Company for Today’s Auction Shopper

Story by Steven Cole Simth • Photography Courtesy Bring a Trailer

In his youth, Randy Nonnenberg was a typical California ne’er-do-well, riding his no-doubt customized bicycle to the local 7-Eleven, sipping his Slurpee as he hung out near the checkout counter, flipping through page after page of little rectangular black-and-white photos with paragraph-long captions printed on cheap newsprint that many of us, unfortunately, have discovered did not hold up well when stashed in cardboard boxes in our parents’ attic.

Tuesday was an especially important day to forgo more constructive activities, Nonnenberg recalls, because that’s when 7-Eleven received new copies of Auto Trader. Flip, slurp, flip, flip, flip, flip, then point to a photo and make a proclamation to fellow members of his street gang (long before they were actually allowed on the streets): “Check out this Camaro, page 47, top right: I think it’s a V8. 283? 327?”

Maybe a 396?” some rookie would venture, before veteran members of the gang would shoot him down: “At that price? You’re dreamin’. It’s probably a 250.” At which the rest of the group would moan and sneer in unison. Nobody wanted a 250, except maybe a nerd.

We didn’t know it then, but not too many years later, Auto Trader, the magazine, begun by a Florida-based company that at one time printed some 31 editions in markets across the U.S. and Canada, would die.

Autotrader the website would survive, and while it is certainly a useful tool, it’s a task finding bitchin’ old Camaros on autotrader.com. What’s a car lover to do?

There was a solution, one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that ideas, that Randy Nonnenberg actually thought of. It would be years before he did so, though. So in the meantime he, like us, had to slog through thousands and thousands of classified ads from multiple sources, to make regular Sunday patrols of closed used car lots, to track down a rumored shiny-but-unidentified bumper peeking out from the corner of a tarp in some octogenarian’s garage, to find those elusive gems.

Like many of us, Nonnenberg and his friends would often share the cream of the crop: Maybe you didn’t necessarily need a cherry 1960 Volvo PV544, but somebody ought to buy this car!

Casual sleuthing didn’t pay very well, so Nonnenberg was forced to attend college, first at Stanford University for a B.S. in mechanical engineering, then at University of California, Berkeley for an MBA. That was followed by work in San Francisco as a field engineer, then the area manager for BMW. But always, he and his circle of friends swapped stories of available vehicles.

Eventually Nonnenberg and one of those friends, Gentry Underwood, started Bring a Trailer. At first, in 2007, the website mostly just listed cool stuff they’d found that was for sale. In 2010 they monetized it, basically selling classified ads. Then, in 2014, BaT became what it is now: an auction site so popular that Nonnenberg, the CEO, and his staff of 25 or so turn down more than half of the submissions.

(And as for Gentry Underwood? He’s a tech specialist. The fellow Stanford grad developed this little mobile email app in 2013 called Mailbox. Just 37 days later, he sold the app to Dropbox for a reported $100 million. He’s still developing stuff, but he’s been a little too busy to spend much hands-on time with Bring a Trailer.)

So credit Nonnenberg for what has to be millions of lost manhours in the labor force, as auto enthusiasts burrow down rabbit holes on BaT when they should be working, actually making money on their company-supplied computers, instead of following this nice BMW M3 to that even nicer Porsche 911SC to “Hey! How did I miss this no-reserve Rokon Trail-Breaker?” 

Here’s how, as if you don’t know, BaT works: You submit a vehicle for one of three service levels for the online auction: Classic, Plus and White Glove. Classic costs you, the seller, $99. You fill out a form, attach photos–the more the better, and if you aren’t much of a photographer, BaT will send a professional photographer to you for an extra $250–and submit it all online. 

About 40 percent of submissions are accepted. Hint: If you have a beige Honda Accord LX, odds are not in your favor. BaT has nothing against Hondas–the same applies to a Toyota Camry or a Nissan Altima.

The Plus level, for $349, is basically “Classic” plus that optional, roving photographer. And White Glove, at a please-inquire price, is for “significant cars and collections.” Special cars, special treatment.

For Classic and Plus, if your vehicle is accepted, you and your car are assigned a professional writer, who–based on your information, and some independent research–will write the copy for your listing. 

Is this necessary? Oh my, yes. It’s why every listing on Bring a Trailer reads like the same person wrote them all–a person who has absolutely no passion for cars in general, or your car in particular. This is probably the hardest thing for the average enthusiast to understand about BaT’s listings: There are no superlatives, no profound criticisms.

No BaT listing talks about the “gorgeous” paint job or the “horrendous” rust. It’s Jack Webb, Sgt. Friday in “Dragnet.” Just the facts, ma’am.

A Corvette is “said to have received a complete refurbishment sometime in the early 2000s.” A near-hopelessly rusty Mitsubishi’s “pale yellow finish is worn, with corrosion visible through the paintwork.”

A 1967 Morris Minor panel van has a “2.0-liter Alfa Romeo twin-cam engine equipped with Weber carburetors and a European camshaft and is said to have been rebuilt by Dan Marvin of Berkeley, California.”

It’s what we say it is,” Nonnenberg told Classic Motorsports. “No more, no less.” Which is what gives BaT much of its credibility: Unlike almost all other online sources, listings are neither oversold nor undersold. “So often, you can’t believe what you are reading,” he says. “And you end up with something that you don’t want.”

Another unique feature on BaT is built-in “sniping protection,” which will be appreciated by anyone who has viciously fought for a listing literally right up to the last second. The protection “extends the auction clock by two minutes each time a bid is placed, giving everyone a chance to place their maximum bid in the final moments.”

As for the transaction itself: “Sellers pay a $99 listing fee, with the option to add our Plus photo service for an additional $250. There are no other seller fees on BaT. Buyers pay a 5% fee on top of the final sale price to BaT, with a minimum of $250, and capped at $5000.” White Glove is, of course, different. But it accounts for a very small percentage of overall sales.

At the very moment of this writing, there were 267 auctions “live.” Five were “premium listings”–a 1937 Aston Martin, a 1969 Ferrari, a 1956 Porsche, a 1952 Jaguar, and a 2011 Porsche 911 GT2 RS with 7000 miles. Those auctions typically last longer than seven days.

And 64 of the auctions were “no reserve,” meaning that they’d go for the highest bid, period. Those ranged from a 1934 Bentley to a 1991 Ford Crown Victoria, and quite a few engines or tire and wheel packages.

All bidders must register, verified by a credit card. When you make a bid, BaT puts a 5% hold on your credit card until the auction is over. If you didn’t win, the credit card hold is cancelled. This makes sure bidders are serious. There is no “Buy It Now!” price. Either win the auction, or don’t.

Sellers must steel themselves for the “comment” page, which can be extensive, remarkably positive, downright brutal. Many listings have more than 100 photos and multiple videos, and each one will be scrutinized by somebody out there, the all-grown-up equivalent of Nonnenberg and his boyhood friends in the 7-Eleven. 

About a Range Rover: “I noticed two little rubber bumpers inside the gas cap door are missing.” About a 1974 Ford Bronco: “Gorgeous! Just some non-blingy mags and some good sized all-seasons and a-cruising we would go.”

Sellers are expected to respond. Don’t, and you’ll pay the price.

Bring a Trailer works just as well as a supremely informative, and absolutely free, time-waster as it does as a solid, simple and cheap way to sell or buy a vehicle. And truth be told, it beats the hell out of little black-and-white rectangular photos and a single paragraph.

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