In-house car auctions with the man who sold 2 million cars
The best UK car salespeople will sell a few hundred cars each year. Jim Ronan can move three times that amount a week.
Jim has been an auctioneer who has been offering cars for sale for over 35 years, and by our calculations has sold over two million lots in his career – that’s more than the number of new car registrations in the UK each year.
The cars he has sold range in price from £1 to £525,000, and he travels the country to use his hammer in sales every week. This has given him a fascinating insight into every aspect of cars and the changing way in which we all buy and sell cars.
Jim’s career in auctions began in 1988, when he was a sales manager at a Peugeot dealership. “The owner decided to open a car auction,” he says. “I always wanted to be the guy holding the hammer because I get a real buzz from selling cars. As a seller you might only get it once or twice a day. At an auction I could get it hundreds of times a night.”
An auctioneer was already set, so Jim had to use a little creativity to make his first appearance on the podium. “About three weeks later, I got a text from my usual guy saying he wouldn’t be able to come anymore. I started to pick up the phone to tell my boss, but then the gears started whirring and I thought, if I’m late telling him, it’ll be too late to get anyone else And I’m going to have to sell.” And that’s exactly what happened, as Jim auctioned off his first car – a Citroen BX – that night. He was quickly selling more than 1,000 cars a week.
He says the job has changed a lot since then, with the Internet being the biggest driver. “At Letchworth Motor Auctions we didn’t do online sales until Covid came along. I wasn’t at all sure about it at first, but it’s a huge tool and we now typically sell more cars on the web than we do to people in the hall. Buyers may come in and view the car “On their own time, but then they go home and push buttons from their chair.”
Although this can be beneficial to the trade, Jim prefers to interact with the buyers in the room. “I miss the banter and you can’t see the body language if someone is online. I couldn’t tell if people were going to bid.
“I was selling a ‘barn find’ Sierra Cosworth a few years ago. It was covered in dust, but the mileage was very low. The reserve was about £32,000. I had two bidders, one on the phone and one in front of me. The guy in the room kept shaking his head, but I I would look at him and point out the condition and the mileage, so he would always agree to another £1,000. It ended up being £82,000 and he bought it. The atmosphere in the room was electric, and I was so excited that I broke the base of my hammer when I finally dropped the hammer! I did my best For the seller, but the buyer was very happy too. I bet he’s even happier now, with the values the way they are!
This isn’t the most expensive car Jim has ever sold – that award goes to an early Aston Martin DB4, which sold for £525,000. And the cheapest? “In the early 2000s, the scrap price was almost zero, so some cars literally had no value. I would have to go up and down the starting price. Eventually I would just ask if anyone had a pound, the hand would go up, down Hammer, and everyone in the auction hall cheers.
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The price of scrap is now much higher, and there is a scrapper who has a fixed bid of £300 on each car, so the days of a £1 car are long gone.
“There were some real characters around that you don’t see these days. Some dealers would buy the car at one auction, clean the car and put it up for sale again hundreds of miles away and make a good living. Online auctions have opened up the business to everyone, and it’s easier now too Delivery of a car to the other end of the country.
Given some of the stocks going through sales, you might think Jim could sell anything on wheels. On the day of our visit there is a Toyota Prius that raises all the red flags for used car buyers. It has been written off by the insurance company twice, it is a former taxi, it has no documents and it was repossessed by the enforcement officer, so it does not even have the keys. However, Jim brought the hammer down on her for £700.
“Believe me, there is a buyer for everything. It’s all about the price. Some, like that Prius, will be broken down for parts. Others will be put back on the road after a little work. These dealers know what they’re doing. One guy paid £22,000 “They bought a BMW 7 Series two weeks ago, and it had no keys or documents. This is a big risk, sometimes they will get burned and sometimes they will make a lot of money. I admire their courage.”
Sheriff’s cars often have a sad story, but selling these cars at auction is part of the legal process, so Jim tries not to get emotional. “We came across a Toyota Aygo about a year ago and it wasn’t very old. After we sold it, we heard it was an elderly lady who went to visit friends in London and parked her car in a space no more than two hours away. Then she had a heart attack and was taken to hospital. She spent four months there “She is recovering. The council was sending letters to her home in Scotland about it, but no one saw her. So she lost the car. There was nothing we could do.”
At the other end of the scale are the classic auctions that make people’s sentimental dreams come true. Jim started working as an auctioneer at Anglia Car Auctions in 2005, initially doing five sales a year. But renewed interest in vintage cars at both ends of the price spectrum means there is huge demand, and Jim alone conducts around 15 auctions a year for WB & Sons in Newcastle upon Tyne and Hansons in Staffordshire, as well as his own home. Long term ‘home’ sold at Letchworth Motor Auctions in Hertfordshire.
“In modern sales, I would say 90 percent of buyers are dealers looking to buy cheap so they can make a profit,” he says. “At a classic auction, I would say half of them are private, and they’re more used to buying at auction these days. If they really want a car, they keep bidding and that leads to some amazing prices. You’re selling nostalgia and memories and it becomes really exciting.”
But there were also some incidents: “The worst thing that happened to me was when I was selling an old Jaguar. It looked nice, so I was building it on the platform. The hammer fell and the car immediately caught fire.”
Jim is a classic car fan, and sometimes he has to stop himself from buying cars that he thinks are a bargain. “You can’t have them all. I see too many and don’t know where to stop.” His daily driver is a 2003 Jaguar XJ V8, but he also owns an MGB GT, and recently bought a Triumph TR7 convertible for restoration.
He also has enough to do in selling without having to worry about outbidding himself. Being an auctioneer could be just a case of presenting the car and monitoring the bidding, he says, but now there are often four different ways to bid, which means you need to keep your wits about you.
“In some sales, I’ll be monitoring people in the room, looking at online buyers, and I’ll also have commissions, where I’ll be asked to bid on someone’s behalf. Some sales will also have phone buyers. You just keep track of everything and give Everyone a fair warning before the hammer falls.
After 35 years, Jim believes that “real” auctioneers like him could be a dying breed. “If you actually look at online bidding, it won’t be long before there are purely automated auctioneers. That would be a shame. If you think about that Cosworth buyer, I would say he really wants it and just needs another push. When you Online, it’s just flashing lights and numbers – no real interaction.
“You stand up at the beginning of the sale, bang your gavel on the stage, and everyone looks and goes silent. You know you have control of the room; it’s a great feeling. I love the characters and I love the cars, and I still feel that buzz.”
Jim’s top tips for auctioning
“A lot of people selling a car just want convenience and will take whatever price they can get from a buying site or dealer. They don’t realize how easy it is to sell at auction. You don’t have to wait for people to come and kick the tires and you won’t get scammed. Some cars are now going for hundreds or Even thousands over reserve. Nowadays it’s the old and small automatic machines that are going crazy. I have no idea why!
“My advice to sellers is to present the car well, get all the documents and spare keys in order, and invest in a valet service so it looks its best. If there are any defects, advertise them. And set a realistic reserve price.
“If you’re buying at auction, the first thing is to look at the provenance. If it’s direct from the main dealer and it’s not their usual stock, it’s a true parts exchange and you know why it’s in the sale.”
“If a private seller has it, you might wonder why, so look for cars that are sold on a test or inspection basis as they will give you peace of mind.”
Become an auctioneer
If you’ve been dreaming about the idea of selling cars all day, there’s no set path to becoming an auctioneer. “It’s very difficult,” Jim says. “There’s no school for auctioneers, no matter what you’re selling. They tend to hire people involved in the trade who won’t be afraid to stand in front of a crowd. If you’re good at public speaking and know the subject, you can do it.”
Have you ever bought or sold a car at auction? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below…