Cars cannot lie like their owners, so Ed Eldridge listens for what they have to say.
He walked from car to car Saturday morning at the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction at WestWorld of Scottsdale in the staging area, where the expensive automobiles are held before going on stage. Eldridge stuck his head under the hood to look at every visible part. He touched the seats to ensure they were covered in the same material as when the car rolled off the assembly line decades ago.
As Eldridge scouted, an Oldsmobile drove by and an auction announcer told the crowd it was a "survivor" — meaning that all its parts were put on by the manufacturer. However, Eldridge saw that it had Buick taillights.
"I know what (the owner) says, I know what the catalog says, but the car tells me differently," said Eldridge, who was bidding on cars for a North Carolina car dealer.
Myriad parts and when they were built are cataloged in Eldridge’s mind. A tall man with reddish-brown hair and casual dress, Eldridge attracts little attention except from bidders who know he likely has the answer to their questions.
He knows where to look for manufacturing tags that tell what color the car was originally. If they are not there, the car has likely been in a crash and had body work. On some cars, a little piece of foam carries the date when the engine was manufactured.
However, each car company uses a different code to transfer this information, Eldridge said. "It’s almost like you’re speaking English, German and Italian all at the same time."
After listening to a black 1955 Thunderbird tell him it was the best of its kind, Eldridge flipped open his cell phone and called Michael Leith, whom he is representing at Barrett-Jackson. Leith owns numerous car dealerships in North Carolina and, with more than 300 cars in his personal collection, is a big player at car auctions.
Leith called this carbuying trip a "pilgrimage."
The Thunderbird is not "an over-restored, rotisserie, piece of jewelry," Eldridge told Leith. By early Saturday, Leith had purchased more than 20 cars during the week at Barrett-Jackson, other auctions and even through newspaper ads.
"Oh yeah, he’s hard-core," Eldridge said, describing Leith.
With the cell phone constantly pressed to his ear, Eldridge went into the Barrett-Jackson big tent to buy the Thunderbird. He was using Leith’s money, so each time the price went up, he asked for permission to keep raising their bid.
Eldridge got the car for $21,500, beating Mark Hyman, a dealer from St. Louis and a friend. The Thunderbird went for nearly $4,000 less than Eldridge expected, which the car scout takes as more a slight to the automobile than a successful acquisition.
At noon, Speed, a cable TV network dedicated to cars, took the Barrett-Jackson auction live to the nation.
Everything changed, from the crowd volume to the prices bidders were willing to pay.
Some bidders get caught in the drama of competition as the auctioneers and their assistants push them to continue to stay in, increasing the car’s price. Barrett-Jackson tacks an 8 percent fee to every car it sells.
"We’re wasting our time out here today," Eldridge complained. "They’ve got the crowd going, the cameras are rolling and these cars are going for well over $100,000."
Many professional car dealers also complained that no one would have money left over to buy cars today.
Once Leith arrived, he and Eldridge got back to work. The previous day they spent 16 hours bidding on cars. Quickly, he placed the winning bid — $63,500 — on a six-cylinder, 1938 MG SA Roadster.
While many bidders call attention to themselves by standing in the middle of the stage, allowing auction assistants to shout their bids, Leith can rarely be found before a car is his.
Leith, with a slight build and graying hair and beard, also does not dress up for the auction, wearing a blue striped shirt and navy blue pants on Saturday.
"Sometimes he’ll tell an auctioneer, ‘When I look away from you, I’m done bidding,’ " said Dave Leith, Michael’s brother. Not a word or gesture follows.
Over the auctioneers Eldridge tried to answer Michael Leith’s questions about certain cars and encourage him to buy others. Their expressions are all business. However, both said they were having fun, even comparing their obsession to drug addiction.
"Everyone has a vice. . . . If you gamble you just throw money away. If you play golf, you end up with the clubs you had and maybe lost a few balls," Eldridge said. "At the end of the day (buying cars), you’ve got something you can drive."
Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction
Where: WestWorld of Scottsdale, 16601 N. Pima Road
When: 8 a.m. to about 3 p.m. today