More Fun Than the Circus

May 25, 2017

Written by Art Petrosemolo

In mid-January, I was in the midst of a search for a vehicle to replace my VW Jetta with something a little “sportier.” I was in Manheim on a cold, rainy day, test-driving an Audi TT (that I eventually purchased) with an XL rep from a small, family dealership. As we drove the back roads, we passed a huge, paved lot with what I thought were hundreds of cars.

I asked my passenger what it was and he said casually, “Oh, that’s the Manheim Auto Auction.” I replied, “there must be 500 cars there.” He twisted his head and gave me funny look….”Five hundred cars,” he said, “are you kidding? There’s probably 20,000 cars there.”

My jaw dropped. I was further amazed when my research showed there weren’t 20,000 vehicles there at all…there were 40,000!

I immediately pitched an idea to my editors to do a story on the place. I got the usual response, “Oh, we’ve covered them before but if you want to look for a new angle, you can….”

Undaunted, I continued my research and then reached out to Cox Enterprises in Atlanta – who I learned owns Manheim Auto Auction as well as Kelly Blue Book and Autotrader. I heard from Lois Rossi, their PR rep. She invited me to the World Auto Auctioneer Championship scheduled for May 12. You know my answer.

I was more than excited to visit their 500-acre site, the largest in the world and in operation for more than 70 years. With 40,000 cars on site, there are sales two or three times a week where more than 8,000 vehicles are sold in 36 lanes with each car taking less than a minute to be purchased by on-site buyers or via the internet.

More than one million cars pass through the auction each year…. If the average sales price for a vehicle is $18,000 (and I’m guessing, do the math and you see what big is).

So a few weeks back, I parked in the customer lot at 7am (half-mile away from the action) and took the shuttle to the main building. I’d estimate the modern building to be at least 300-400-feet long but relatively narrow as you go into the auction area.

The building has 36 sales lanes where cars come in from storage, usually driven by part-time employees, many retirees, and pass in front of the raised auction desk (also with many part-time retirees assisting). They are then sold by a fast-talking auctioneer assisted by a ringperson who helps solicit and elicit bids.

I found that lanes are usually dedicated to one make of car. For instance, when I visited the lanes that showcased the competitors for world’s best auto auctioneer, they ran vehicles of Nissan, BMW and General Motors. Other lanes had Subarus, sports cars, Jeeps and other brands. The building is not restricted and visitors – buyers, sellers, hangers-on – can walk anywhere. I am surprised more aren’t clipped by vehicles crossing the building perpendicularly from the parking lot to the auction desk.

The building is huge and prior to entering the auction hall, there are restaurants, banks, title offices, and more. And the site has a 250,000 square-foot facility to recondition and detail vehicles before they are sold.

Buyers say there is no better place to purchase a low mileage, quality used vehicle for re-sale. Most vehicles are just two to three years old and have low, low mileage. Manheim Auto Auction is the reason, I think, there are so many successful family-owned used car dealerships in Lancaster County selling and servicing quality used cars. It’s where my Audi came from.

I was fascinated with the “patter” of the auctioneers. No one understands any of it….. the professional buyer, at your shoulder, is buying car after car after car with a wink or a nod and you never see it. Even taking photos I was conscious my arms didn’t get too high and be mistaken for a bid on a BMW!!!

But if the auction competition was interesting, I was enthralled by what are called “ringmen” and now, naturally, are “ringpeople”…men and women who work with the auctioneer to solicit and elicit bids to get the highest selling price possible for any vehicle…. and usually all in 45 seconds. They are show-people of the first order with hand gesture and facial expressions that set them apart. They jump around and are in your face pleading for that last bid as the vehicle rolls out the door.

Although I photographed the auctioneers to support the news story, I photographed the “ringpeople” for me and it’s those photos I am sharing with you.

If you have been to Manheim Auto Auction, you are probably smiling at your memories…. And oh, did I say, they even give out free popcorn now…it’s better than the circus.

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