When Salvaged C5s Go Slumming

Call me an auction junkie, but on one of the few Saturdays that I wasn’t covering a collector car sale, I went to Princeton, Minnesota, for a truck and heavy equipment auction. Along with trucks, tractors, front-end loaders, construction equipment, and other hardcore guy stuff, Wayne Pike Auction Company also sells consigned cars and light trucks. Once in awhile something more interesting than a rusty ’89 Taurus with 204,000 miles turns up. Just when it looked like a ’68 Mustang fastback or a ’52 Kaiser sedan were going to take the honors, I ran across a pair of C5 Corvettes. Certainly, it wasn’t the sort of thing you expected to find between a thrashed bank repo 1998 Ford Explorer and a formerly fleet-owned 1999 Ford Ranger. But since a C5 is on my shortlist as a possible “company car,” I paid closer attention. Lot 580 was a 1999 Corvette convertible in white with an automatic, white soft top and tan leather interior. It was declared to have 107,474 miles on the clock. Bear in mind that this was not on a dealer warranty disclaimer form, but written on the windshield in grease pencil. Lot 581 looked to be a little more promising, a 2001 Corvette 6-speed coupe in Gunmetal with tan leather interior. This one was claimed to have 46,000 original miles, but with no exact figure scribbled on the windshield. Both C5s were offered by the same consignor, who also happened to have done the repair work. This same person also had at least two Chevy pickups consigned at this sale, which were also fixed-up collision jobs.

The Corvettes would not be unlocked for inspection

The first sign that should make any serious bidder turn tail and run was that both cars were locked—with the keys in the front office—and there was no one around to represent them. To make matters worse, the auction company made it clear that the Corvettes would not be unlocked to allow more careful inspection. They relayed the consignor’s claim that the interiors could be soiled and items might be pilfered. And just what might be snatched? The steering wheel or dashboard? Seats? Yes, while the consignor might have a somewhat valid point based upon the clientele at this event, it’s unreasonable to expect a serious bidder to bid without being able to inspect. In any case, his pickups were wide open. The big strike against the C5s was that both cars were to be sold on salvage titles, with an assertion that they had been “inspected” by some vague entity who wasn’t named. Thanks to a wireless modem card and a laptop in the trunk of my car, I was able to run the VINs while waiting for the C5s to cross the block. A quick visit to www .carfax.com revealed that the convertible was involved in an accident involving a utility pole in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, on June 1, 2007. It must have been quite a phone pole, as the car had damage to “front of vehicle, left side of vehicle, right side of vehicle, rear of vehicle, top of vehicle, underbody of vehicle…” So what wasn’t damaged? If that report didn’t deter me, a link to www.BuyCrash.comwould let me buy a copy of the official state of Indiana crash report for $12. By the 29th of the same month, a salvage title was issued for it in Indianapolis. As for the coupe, the state of Illinois wasn’t as forthright, but on May 7, it issued a salvage title to the insurance company, and the next day a title transfer was conducted with a lien reported against it. This was the last track they had on the car. Armed with this information, I headed back to the sale. This auction is frequented by a lot of dealers, some quite technically savvy, others Luddites, and some even further down than that. It was quite likely that no one had researched the cars to the level I had, as using the cell phone to consult their business partners or bosses was the highest observed use of technology outside of a ballpoint pen and the run list.

At $10,000, the dealers were almost all done

In each case, the bidding started quite low, but when they crossed the $10,000 plateau, the dealers were almost all done. The convertible seemed like it went to a happy retail customer at $13,000, or at least someone who would use it for a while and then sell it. The coupe buyer seemed more to be the “I can still squeeze a couple more grand out of this sitting on the front row of my lot” type of dealer, and it sold for $14,750. By the end of October, neither car had recorded a title transfer since the sale. Since the first examples left the pilot plant in Flint, Michigan, Corvettes have been cars that almost always get rebuilt—rather than parted out or scrapped—after an accident. This helps explain a survival rate in the area of 90%, despite a propensity to drive them to the fullest, and beyond. In days of yore, proper body repair of the fiberglass was more of an issue than yanking the frame straight. Over the years, this situation has reversed itself. On C5s and newer, it’s easier to swap out modular body panels than it is to realign the hydro-formed frame and square up the driveline and suspension. Granted, automotive collision repair in general has become more of a science than either an art, skill, or downright hard physical labor. But will the same shop that can yank the frame square on a Silverado be skilled enough to set right the more intricate C5 substructure, without C5-specific tools and gauges? Maybe and maybe not. Finally, what isn’t easily discernible at first can come back and haunt you financially. The stresses inflicted in a collision aren’t always easy to see. Perhaps the transmission case was stressed, and will later crack? Perhaps the steering rack mounting bolts were damaged?

Remember, you paid less for a good reason

While our 46-000-mile mystery coupe will eventually start to lose parts more from general old age and advancing miles, the 107,000-mile convertible is even worse off. More than twice the mileage plus the severity of its accident are a double whammy. Will the front main seal start leaking at 110,000 miles? What if the power windows start to bind at 115,000? How about a driveshaft that finally throws off a cracked counterweight in 10,000 miles? Even if your alignment shop can set up the car as well as Bowling Green did, there is still the baggage of a salvage title. You paid less for the car for a good reason; work may be needed to make it right, or even legal to take on a public highway. Almost no buyers will pay retail for a salvage-title car. My experience with them is that once a buyer finds out about it, the deal goes bust. If you’re lucky, you will get a counteroffer in a downward spiral worse than an F-4 Phantom out of fuel. Also, forget the idea that you don’t really care about such trivialities as titles or that maybe you’ll own it forever. Even if your estate has to deal with the car, that salvage title will come to haunt your descendants. States that once had a reputation for “title washing” have all tightened things up in the wake of hurricane Katrina and its flood of water-damaged cars. Besides, if some smart aleck can pull up CARFAX while a car is being sold, there’s nowhere to hide a post-1980, 17-digit VIN car. To make things worse, there are still loopholes that do not help you, the buyer. CARFAX and the other web-based searches are not a 100% tell-all. Any computer application is only as good as the data it gets. Cars can—and do—slip though. I owned a post-1981 vehicle that had over 50% of the value of collision work done on it by a reputable shop, paid for by the insurance company. But since it was a single-vehicle incident without a police report (slid off the road during an ice storm, hitting a Jersey barrier), it’s not in a public database. The insurance company neither asked for nor required a report to process the claim. It was actually a collision repair car, but without an electronic trail. When CARFAXed, it is as pure as the wind-swept snow that claimed it. All of this funnels into the choice of venue that sellers use. There were no problems with this reputable local auction company—they fully disclosed the salvage titles. Yet an auction that is primarily selling construction equipment is hardly one’s first choice for a Corvette. It more likely represents the seller’s desire—or need—to get rid of the cars at no reserve. On the other hand, these C5s were two game fish in a pond full of carp. At Mecum’s Bloomington Gold auction, they would’ve been a very hard sell, but surrounded by a bevy of Bobcats, a flurry of Freightliners, tired Toyota Tercels, and dying Dodge Dakotas, they looked handsome. It’s not a bad marketing maneuver to suck in an unwary casual bidder, but a smart buyer should look closer. By all means, buy a salvage-title Corvette if you can attest to the quality of the repair and intend to drive it until the wheels fall off. Just don’t ever expect to make any money. And memorize your story—you’ll be telling it many times.