18 August 1995

4WD BARGAINS BECKON

THE CALM AND CAREFUL

Farmers need no advice on buying at auction. But the UKs biggest 4×4 sale is no agricultural affair, as Andrew Pearces diary reveals after a visit to Herefordshire

TUESDAY morning, 10am. Sweep into the wide, gravelled car park of Russell Baldwin and Brights sale ground just outside Leominster, Here-fordshire.

Take care over selecting a parking spot, as it wouldnt do to see the car disappearing on a transporter after the sale. Bowl into the long, low buildings to find Mike Wolfe, boss of Alton, Hants-based Kingsley Cross Country and my mentor for the day. Meet Adrian Sparey of the proprietors, who explains how the business side of things works. No point in taking your cheque book unless youre a regular buyer, he says – a cash deposit is required at the fall of the hammer, then the balance as a draft or cash by the end of the day. A hard lot, these auctioneers.

10.15-10.45 Back to the car for a briefing on how to go about buying a good 4×4 with the minimum stress. Have to hurry as Mike Wolfe needs to view several vehicles before selling starts.

Cars will come through in three batches; first run-of-the-mill stuff, then the Premier section (J-M registered only), then the remainder. Todays entry is normal; 250 vehicles catalogued and more arriving. Quick work with the fingers shows 22% of the entry are Land Rovers, Defenders, Discoverys and Range Rovers. Just about everything else is Japanese, with a few pickups sprinkled amongst the old warhorses and plush green-welly cruisers. Seventy-odd cars fall in the Premier section.

11.00 En route with Mike to check out several ex-police Range Rovers (potentially good buys if you want a late car, cheap), Im staggered by the ranks of new-looking motors lined up in the Premier hall. Families are wandering up and down the rows, while more serious-looking men mutter into mobile phones. Who are they talking to? The bank manager? The Mafia? Mum?

11.15 In the covered linkway between buildings, cars are lining up to come under the hammer. Potential buyers open bonnets, ask the drivers to rev engines, listen for trouble. Vehicles are locked during viewing, so this is the first and only chance to see a car underway before bidding. Its a bit like a Grand Prix starting grid without Murray Walker.

11.20 Bedlam. Ive found the auction equivalent of Murray busy on the rostrum. A car comes in, people crowd round it for a last look, open doors, peer underneath. Bidding starts: "Five thousand, five-two, five-three, five-three, wholl give me four?" – until a head shakes. The gavel clacks, a clerk bustles over to the buyer, others turn away in disappointment.

After each peak of tension comes a brief trough of calm, then the next entry sweeps in. Each performance takes a minute or less. Smoke from a ratty old Land Rover billows round the auctioneer, jokes pass between him and the crowd, cars come and go.

12.05 Closeted with a small group of dealers alongside the rostrum. Receive only hurt looks on asking if they ever agree not to bid against each other for a given car, to keep the selling price down. Even if they did, others will always be bidding for a given vehicle, they explain. Find it disconcerting when one man breaks off in mid-sentence, bids and buys, then carries on where we left off. These people must have ears in the back of their heads.

Notice a sudden change in vehicles coming through; must be Premier time. Some of these arrive straight from a main agents forecourt with a high reserve, explains Mike Wolfe, thus making space for the August crop of part-exchanges. Or sometimes its a dealer with a cashflow problem, or maybe with cars proving difficult to shift. Others are private or ex-company sales.

Hard as I try, I can see no logic in the selling prices. Thats OK, says Mike: There is none. Two seemingly identical vehicles can sell for wildly different money, as it all depends whos after them. Dealers – who by far outnumber private buyers at Leominster – know within a little what a car will fetch, and must buy at a price which leaves room for profit. The private man just sees a possible bargain, so usually wins in a straight fight.

13.15 Back to more mundane motors after the last of the Premier lots. Hear plenty of tales from different dealers which dont bear repeating, but decide that this group at least are a decent bunch and not prone to selling their grannies.

A judgement only slightly rocked when a man sounding like Arthur Daley turns up and starts bending Mike Wolfes ear with words like "monkey" and "pony". Decide he must be a keen animal lover. Meanwhile, the show goes on – exhaust fumes, strong tea in plastic cups, and over it all the distorted crack and thunder of the speakers.

14.20 Much ribald laughter when one of the group buys a doggy-looking Land Rover for stock, only to see it pushed away after it refuses to start. People pretty thin on the ground now; most of the spectators in the banked seats opposite have left for the journey home, either entertained, bemused or deafened.

15.05 The last entries come through. A truly rotten mustard-coloured Daihatsu F20 fails to sell at £75, a smart-looking but accident-queried Discovery goes for just over £10,000. Amid the fag ends, I savour the last five hours and thank my lucky stars I didnt bring any money. Id only have done something silly.