Axon's Automotive Anorak: The thrill of buying at auction

28th March 2018
Gary Axon

Be it a £10 old Beatles vinyl album, a £100 antique hat stand, or a £10million Ferrari 250 GT California, buying anything at auction can be both an exciting and nerve-wracking experience at one and the same time.


I first experienced the thrills and spills of buying at auction some years ago when I went to a local sales room to bid for a few items of furniture suitable for the 250-year old house I had just bought. 

Bidding on a tatty gilded antique mirror that needed plenty of TLC got the heart rate going to a surprising degree, so you can imagine my excitement, adrenaline surge and cold-sweat fear when I successfully bid on a car at a classic car auction for the first time. 

The car was a 1951 Bristol 401 that I still own, some 15 years after my faltering debut bidding on a proper lot, rather larger and more expensive than an antique gilded mirror. The Bristol was being offered as part of a classic sports car auction, and although I’d admired it in the sale catalogue before the event, I had no intention of buying it as I thought its sales price would comfortably exceed my meagre budget. 

I went along to the auction with a friend, Steve, who had his eye on an early-1970s Porsche 911 Targa in the sale, with enough cash in my wallet to buy a couple of coffees at the sale, and possibly a pint or two on the return journey home. 

When we got to the sale, the 911 Targa, along with most of the other mainstream sporting classics in the auction (MG Bs, Triumph TR6s, Sunbeam Alpines, etc.), were generally of a disappointing standard. I’d spotted the Bristol in a corner of the sale, room but didn’t look very closely at it as it appeared too well prepared and presentable for my limited means.


Disappointed in the condition of the Porsche after close inspection, Steve sidled up to me and exclaimed that although the Bristol was not to his personal taste, it was by far the best presented and cared for classic in the auction, and that I should have a ‘punt’ on it, as few of the other fellow would-be sportscar buyers were paying it much attention. It was a case of the right car, but definitely in the wrong auction. 

When the auction got underway, many of the lots struggled to reach their (low) reserve price, so by the time the Bristol 401 came under the gavel, my

friend Steve was nudging my elbow constantly, trying to get me to bid. The auctioneer optimistically started the Bristol’s bidding price much too high, with no response from the room. He gradually reduced the price, still to no avail, and pulled it down again, until another buyer finally reacted by half-heartedly raising his hand. With Steve goading me ‘’go on, go on’ in my ear, and my heart pounding, I nervously waved my sale catalogue, and suddenly I was in a slow-motion bidding war with the other chap for this stunning old Bristol.

Eventually, the hammer fell, and suddenly, before it had a chance to really sink in, I was the new owner of an immaculate 1951 Bristol 401, sold for a comparatively bargain price, considering its superb condition. Still reeling, with Steve thrusting a beer into my hand to celebrate, the mystery seller of the Bristol came up to me, shook my hand and congratulated me on the purchase of his ‘dream car!

The 401’s previous owner was a delightful older gentleman who had first seen this desirable Bristol model at the 1949 Earls Court Motor Show and set his heart on owning one someday. When he retired as an aircraft engineer (wholly appropriate given Bristol’s aviation roots), he treated himself to this Bristol as a restoration project. Rebuilding the 401 for himself, he restored the car to an exceptionally high standard, intending to use the Bristol for jolly weekend jaunts for him and his wife. 


Very sadly, shortly after he’d complete the long, painstaking restoration of the car, his wife fell ill, forcing him to sell the Bristol. When he introduced himself, I felt quite guilty for almost ‘stealing’ the 401 from him, as the hammer sale price must have been somewhat lower than this charming gentleman had hoped for. 

Just three days later, Steve, his wife and I headed off to a large classic car event at Montlhery, south of Paris, in the totally untried and untested Bristol. Unsurprisingly, the car didn’t miss a beat, even in the Friday evening rush hour mayhem of the periphique and turned heads with approving smiles wherever it went. The Bristol even made it on to the cover of Le Vie de l’Auto magazine’s subsequent event report as a star of the show!

Fast forward a year or so later, and Steve and I were back at the same auction house, successfully bidding for another Bristol, this time a later – and less well sorted – 411 S3 from 1972, one of just c.64 made. Driving this sizeable V8 back home to the Chilterns from the West Country in appealing weather, the 411 became tired and emotional more than once, but it made the journey all the more memorable and we had a laugh. In subsequent years, I used the V8 411 more often than the straight-six 2-litre 401, although, with an excessive fuel thirst of 8 mpg, my choice of journeys and destinations became limited by distance, and the size of my bank balance, which always took a major hit at the petrol pumps.

Although I have since attended far too many auctions to remember, I have only seriously bid twice again on a classic car; a 1972 Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato 1300 and 1954 Citroen 2CV, both of which shot past my personal maximum reserve price at an alarming pace, so I came away empty-handed.


One of the lots at Bonhams’ recent Goodwood 76th Members' Meeting auction strangely appealed to me, so I registered to bid on this reserve-free lot, a rare but forgotten low-mileage Lancia Y10. I battled the blizzard conditions on the Members Meeting Saturday to go and take a quick look at the Lancia, only to discover to my dismay that the Y10 was equipped with the optional electronic CVT variable automotive transmission, something that really didn’t float my boat. Crestfallen, I didn’t bother returning to the Bonhams marquee for the actual auction on the Sunday, only to then learn post-sale that the Lancia had sold for a paltry £1,030, which despite the CVT transmission, I probably would have stretched to. Ho hum… 

Just hours later, I was registering again, this time to bid online for the late-March Affordable Classics auction being held at Bicester Heritage by Brightwells, on behalf of Jaguar Land Rover. I had my eye on a tidy Citroen CX Familiale, and duly logged in to follow the auction live, with my mouse finger poised over the bid button for the ‘big moment.’ Ahead of the Citroen though was a brown (what other colour could it be) 1977 Princess 2200 HL, British Leyland’s distinctive wedged executive saloon, for which I have a certain admiration, but absolutely no desire to own one.

Well, this didn’t quite go to plan, as briefly I ended-up owning this very car, bought on behalf of a friend and occasional GRR colleague who couldn’t register online in time to bid. It turns out that the wedge-shaped Princess has long been his ‘guilty pleasure’ car, and he has now fulfilled a long-held dream of actually owning one of these BL ‘beauties’, 1970s brown velour, corrosion and all.

As for the Citroen CX, it went beyond my modest budget, and as for the friend would ultimately paid for the Princess, he experienced all of those same emotions when buying at auction; the dry throat, sweaty palms, nervousness and utter elation. It’s quite a feeling, and one that I recommend you try for yourself sometime soon…

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