Bring a Trailer sold US$829 million in cars in 2021

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The online-only enthusiast-car sales site has taken off as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, outpacing its legacy rivals

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A record-breaking US$1.9-million Porsche sale isn’t the only big news from Bring a Trailer (BaT) these days. In 2021 the online car auction site sold US$828.7 million worth of cars, a 108-per-cent gain over the US$398 million it sold in 2020—and a full quarter-billion dollars ahead of its closest live-auction-house competitor.

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The news soundly beats the US$578 million in total sales Mecum Auctions reported December 28. It’s more than double the US$407 million in total auction sales that Canada-based RM Sotheby’s reported for 2021. Further down the list, Barrett-Jackson confirmed annual sales of US$191 million for 2021, while Gooding & Co. raked in US$150 million. A representative for Bonhams did not respond to a request for comment.

“Big auctions will always have a business. They put on a big show,” says BaT President and Co-founder Randy Nonnenberg. “But people are finding that we are a highly effective way to [buy and sell cars] if you want to do it in a more personalized, streamlined way.”

Online auctions eclipsed live auctions for the first time ever in 2021, with 20,000 cars sold online versus 16,000 cars sold live across North America, according to data from the classic car insurer and data firm Hagerty. Online car sales across the board were up 107 per cent year over year, moving from US$492.5 million sold in 2020; to US$1.02 billion sold in 2021, said Hagerty’s Kevin Fisher.

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“Online and live auctions were on fire last year,” Fisher says. The recent Porsche Carrera sale represents another threshold crossed in the popularity of such online sales, he added via email about the trend.

BaT’s jump indicates a major shift for the collectable and vintage car market, the pinnacle of which has traditionally been the champagne-fueled auctions in white tents overseen by men in suits with lofty accents: Pebble Beach, Amelia Island, Scottsdale, Paris, and Lake Como. Last year the five major live auction houses sold a total of US$343 million worth of cars at Pebble alone. Moving online removes the middle-men in an inherently opaque industry cloaked by back-door deals, insider favors, and clubby agreements between power brokers.

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Buying on BaT is simple, like eBay: Those who want to place a bid must register with the site and provide a credit card number. Whoever has the highest bid when the seven-day countdown timer hits zero wins the vehicle and pays a 5-per-cent buyer’s fee, capped at US$5,000—significantly lower than the double-digit percentages required from sellers and buyers at traditional auction houses. Sellers pay a US$99 flat rate to list their cars.

A 1971 Datsun 240Z sold on auction site Bring a Trailer in January 2020
A 1971 Datsun 240Z sold on auction site Bring a Trailer in January 2020 Photo by Bring a Trailer

In 2014, its first year of offering vehicles to the public, BaT listed 450 of them for an average sale price of US$21,000 and a sell-through rate of 72 per cent. By 2019 it was counting more than 200,000 registered users; right now that number is 709,000, Nonnenberg says. Wait times for simply listing a car on the site can extend into months. Hearst Autos acquired the brand in 2020 for an undisclosed price.

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“In 2021, listings went up 57 per cent but dollars through the platform went up over 100 per cent because prices are up, and there are more dollars in the marketplace, and the quality of things being submitted online is higher now,” Nonnenberg says. In 2021, BAT sold 17,846 vehicles on its site—an 83.5-per-cent gain in volume over 2020.

It’s worth noting that the bulk of BaT sales are still sub-six-figure vehicles. It’s a high-volume, lower-priced pool akin to that sold by Mecum Auctions, and it’s the key to the online auction house’s success. The average sale price of a vehicle on BaT in 2021 was US$46,435, up from US$34,996 the previous year. Having so many of those sales builds community, enthusiasm, and is the real lift for the bottom line.

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