Why do so many people make classic car dealers the hobby's whipping boys?

| 24 Apr 2012

I can honestly say that I have never met a classic car dealer who isn't a genuine enthusiast. Sure, varying levels of enthusiasm and some of them have been pretty hard-nosed businessmen, but it's such a niche and knowledge-based field that it simply doesn't attract people with zero interest in the subject. If it did, they wouldn't last very long.

So, I often wonder why so many of these dealers have such a bad reputation, are viewed by so many as some sort of parasites on our hobby akin to estate agents, politicians, or even, er, journalists.

Ever since I have been in this game C&SC has regularly received disgruntled letters about dealers' "unseemly profiteering" based simply on readers marrying up the info in our auctions results and classifieds in the same (or following) issue showing the same car for sale at a higher price. Or sometimes more directly from people who have sold a car to a dealer and been "horrified" at its new asking price in an advert.

Of late, the age of the internet has brought the way our trading pyramid works sharply into focus and made that sort of information far more available to everyone, which then makes the way dealers operate all the more glaring and in turn ramps up the opprobrium from the rank and file. 

Two recent examples I have been following, illustrate the point rather well.

First up there was a sweet looking MGA advertised on C&SC.com with what looked like a super-bargain £9k price-tag for a road-legal roadster. We were so excited that we publicised it on Facebook with the line "race you to Derby". Within hours it was gone. Whether that was because somebody had raced to Derby or the seller had taken it down because they had accidentally put the wrong price on it only became clear when it appeared a few days later on a well-known dealer's site for £10k more. That would have been enough to raise the hackles of most of the censorious dealer-haters in our hobby, but within a week it was with another dealer for knocking on £25,000. So the same car, a couple of weeks on had changed hands at least twice and was now apparently worth more than two and a half times what it was worth at the start of the process. Phew!

Likewise, there was an Elan +2 I was following on ebay recently that went unsold at a fraction under £7500 (reserve not met). Within a few days it re-emerged with a dealer, again for sale on ebay (that must have rubbed salt into the wounds) with some better pictures and a far more ebullient description for £12,000. Of course, we have no idea what the seller did let it go for.

Case closed then, cars bought cheap and sold on rapidly (far too rapidly for anything meaningful to have been done to them) for a huge mark-up. All dealers must be self-serving scum.

Er, not quite.

The thing is, every one of us had the same opportunity to buy those cars as the dealers did and, if we had the same contacts and outlets, the same opportunity to sell them for the same fat profit. Without their often huge overheads, what's more.

And every seller could have sold it differently, or to someone else, or could have held out for a different price. As far as we know not one of them was compelled to sell it to that dealer for the price they did.

Sure it hurts when you sell something and then see it marked up for a lot more than you sold it for, but never make the mistake of assuming that means that people like you or I could have got the same money for it. In fact, don't even assume that the dealer is going to get that money for it!

The simple truth is that, though every man jack of us seems to be very good at buying classics, none of us is very good at or comfortable with selling them. That's when we turn to the dealers, so why should we begrudge them making a living doing what we didn't want to do or weren't capable of doing?

It is a weird and uncomfortable realisation for most enthusiasts to come to terms with the fact that every one of us is a very small part of a very big industry, whether we are buying parts or buying and selling cars. And the trade represents a big part of that industry.

Furthermore, whatever people argue, I reckon it is incumbent upon us to see past their patter, not for them to be so honest that they talk themselves out of an income, just as it is in any walk of life when someone is trying to sell you something or buy something from you.

It is utterly bizarre that while not expecting the trade to quite be philanthropic to a point of self-flagellation, most enthusiasts get extraordinarily huffy about their margins. A small, respectable profit is perfectly acceptable and they are all good chaps, a larger profit is jolly bad form and the blasted coves should be locked in the stocks and pelted with fruit.

I think that we would all get a lot less worked up if we acknowledged and accepted that classic car dealers are not charities and, believe it or not, they are not going to buy a car high and consciously sell low just so both buyer and seller can be happy. Just as we are unlikely to start giving C&SC away free on street corners out of the goodness of our hearts any time soon.

Before I come across as a total apologist for the trade, however, I must admit that I think that some dealers might do their standing within that huge global business a lot of good if they did their buying and selling with a tad more discretion.

Discretion? In the internet age? Impossible! They can't win really, can they?

Especially because the vast majority of people would far rather know exactly what everything was bought and sold for – and to scorn the dealer's role in that – than to be in the dark (and then to criticise the trade for being devious and surreptitious). It's part of the fun of classic-watching. It's human nature.

Anyway, as we have said countless times before, if being a dealer was easy we'd all be doing it and the C&SC team has already proven often enough quite how inept we would be.

PS Obviously this blog is an invitation for people to share their best and worst dealer mark-up stories, which naturally we will relish. Be warned, however, that anything unsubstantiated and even potentially libellous will not be published, so keep it clean and fair and don't name names unless you have the facts to back them up. Thanks!