How a cultish community of car nuts called Bring a Trailer is changing everything about the vintage-auto marketplace—and becoming our favorite new place to burn time online.
The clock is counting down and I'm smashing the refresh button, desperate to know who will win the prize at stake: a fire-truck red 1970 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, jacked up like Dwayne Johnson and impossible to miss. Over the past six days the seller has been pelted with questions from a multitude of commenters on bringatrailer.com, the online auction site whose constantly changing inventory of automobiles—ranging from legendary to cultish to endearingly WTF—has made it a car-geek buffet piled high with air-cooled Porsche 911s and mint '80s BMWs.
See, some of the people following the auction own this same model, they know everything about it, and while they aren't saying there's some bullshit afoot with the suspension, they're not not saying that, either. Also, FYI, one commenter knows a guy on eBay who makes carbon copies of the original gas pedal, if whoever wins the auction wants to get it back to stock. And here, during the final two minutes, the bidding is flying hot and heavy out in the open, in the comments section, as the seconds pass—$12,250, then $13,750, then $15,500.
We can all agree that the internet sucks, except when it doesn't, which is when it fulfills its highest purpose: uniting a splayed community of like-minded obsessives in a single safe and unselfconscious corner. One of those gleaming pockets of Good Internet, for me and hundreds of thousands of car nerds like me, is Bring a Trailer (shortened to BaT by the locals).
Sellers have to pitch their cars to be included on Bring a Trailer, which rejects more than half of the submissions it receives. Which is why all the cars that make it through are special, in the broadest, most exuberant sense: They are iconic (a 1977 Ferrari 308 GTB in Fly Yellow), or they are on trend (Toyota Land Cruisers). Or they are unloved but maybe worthy of love once more (any Porsche 911 996 with the fried-egg headlights). Or they're esoteric (a stunning 2008 C8 Spyder from Spyker), or nostalgic (you can find a Mercedes SL for all ages), or completely mundane and middle-aged, yet jaw-droppingly pristine. This version of special may be my favorite. I don't know what I want more: the 1992 Toyota pickup (no model name!) with only 104,000 miles and extremely '90s graphics on the sides, or a beer with the Washington State guy who owned and babied it for 28 years. Bring a Trailer turns every car auction into a full-blown pageant, and many of the entries are affordable, in the four and low-five figures.
Before there was ever a BaT, there was Randy Nonnenberg sending a more or less nightly email—first in college, then in the early aughts as a San Francisco-based engineer for BMW—featuring a single automotive diamond he'd discovered while digging in the mines of local Craigslists and used-car sites. He'd send his gold-flake finds to an expanding group of friends, who would forward them to other friends, and so on. They all appreciated that he was doing the hard work of unearthing cool cars for sale, shoveling through mountains of beige Camrys with dirty cup holders and sagging Chevy Tahoes and sellers posting cell phone pics inexplicably twisted 90 degrees, all so he could locate, say, a single-owner 1995 BMW 5-Series with a six-speed manual for sale in some Midwest suburb. Nonnenberg did it purely for sport.
Then, in 2007, BaT became a website, cofounded by Nonnenberg and his friend Gentry Underwood, with a real-deal daily newsletter and stories about the treasures Nonnenberg unearthed. A year or so later, the site began letting people sell their rides, Craigslist-style, but BaT didn't fully self-actualize until it launched auctions in 2014. This is its inflection point, like when the American Revolution happened—or the second season of The Office.
“A lot of what made it attractive to people was the weird mix,” Nonnenberg says. “BaT mirrored my broad and somewhat schizophrenic taste in cars, from cool pickup trucks to lowered racing Datsuns to new stuff. And the big change that drew a lot of audience in is that a car doesn't have to be super-expensive to be cool. I was talking about $10,000 cars as being the coolest thing ever.”
This, of course, sets it apart from the traditional car-buying sites dotting the internet. High-end-car auctions are usually live multiday affairs catering to boomers with automotive boners for American muscle and pedigreed Ferraris that hadn't been driven a mile in decades. Craigslist and eBay are filled with scams. Used-car apps overflow with junk. Nonnenberg has invented the perfect marketplace for the gearhead lost generation—a site with some simple economic incentives and institutional rules.
The obvious reason why those sellers line up: financial motivation. Bring a Trailer takes $99 from the sellers as a posting fee, whereas most high-end auctions take much more: say, 10 percent of the final selling price. BaT is kind to buyers too. It charges an extra 5 percent of the gavel price or $5,000, whichever is less—whereas big-money auction houses demand around 10 percent from the buyer. Bring a Trailer is built as the most fiscally sane place to sell or buy, whether you're in the market for your first Miata or your 40th Porsche.
These days the 25 or so employees of Bring a Trailer work out of concrete-floored offices in San Francisco, where the staff sits near both a 1956 Chrysler 300B (owned by Nonnenberg, who serves as CEO) and a highlighter yellow 1973 Datsun 240Z. Howard Swig, head of auctions, and his hawkeyed team are the site's doormen: They allow maybe 40 percent of the 100 or so daily submissions past the velvet ropes. As with any good club, the mix is everything. The site needs some undersung exotica (think Ferrari 456 or the unloved Mondial), a bunch of affordable rides with mounting fanboy followings ('90s Japanese sports cars or anything BMW), and an oddity or two. A 1981 emerald green Chevy Suburban with a chrome bulldog hood ornament? Perfect.
What keeps Bring a Trailer from being merely a well-curated picture book are the extremes it demands from sellers. Click on any car and you're hit with 100 or more images showing a vehicle's every angle and minor flaw (for $349, BaT will send a photographer to your home if you're not handy with a camera). The accompanying copy, created by Swig's team, explains, with all the panache of a bank teller about to go on break, every conceivable detail that the pictures can't: ownership history, options, modifications, accidents, a slightly loose trim piece on the passenger-side dash. Every BaT seller is strongly encouraged to be available in the comments for the full week (up to two for ultra-high-end cars) that the auction's live. This is when the commenters—most of whom don't bid or have any intention of bidding—take center stage at the show.
Some are supportive, dropping “GLWTA” (“good luck with the auction”) while cheering on bidding wars as the countdown clock nears zero. Others, though, go into neighborhood-watch mode and help shape the success of the auction itself. They ask the seller, gently, if a common problem with the car's been tended to. They point out inconsistencies and pore over the photos like Zapruder-tape sleuths. They ask the seller, rudely, why there are no photos of the chassis from below (is he hiding…RUST?!). All this creates the virtuous cycle of trust and cool cars that makes Bring a Trailer so sui generis.
Dennis Chookaszian is a Chicago business owner who's bought 37 cars on Bring a Trailer, including some very weird stuff, like a trio of sleek RVs called Maucks. “It's a seven-day auction, and by the seventh day you know everything about that car,” he says. “I've bought things on eBay—you never know what you're getting there. On Bring a Trailer, you do.”
None of this, though, gets at Bring a Trailer's greatest accomplishment: how much of a blast it is to dick around on the site, particularly when you have no intention of selling, buying, bidding, or even commenting. I'll stumble over from a BaT tweet, the newsletter (not written by Randy anymore), or because I've just remembered, while lying in bed at 11:47 p.m., that I really want a mid-'90s BMW 7 Series with rims deep as Detroit pizza, and find myself hopscotching auctions for an hour. The site itself will smash your dopamine receptors with a bottomless pile of dream cars stacked in thumbnail form. I'll start reading about a 1989 Jaguar XJ-S coupe, only $6,258 with three hours left, and God, how lovely is that long, louche body with those Art Deco buttresses? Then I spy a '95 Lotus Esprit, a doorstop-shaped vision and childhood favorite, and I learn from the comments that it can theoretically seat a six-foot-five person (a tall potential bidder), but that the footwell is so tight that a shoe size larger than 12 will be too cramped.
I don't have the money to bid. But maybe one day I will. My size 11 feet will fit perfectly.
Article written by Jonathan Wilde.