THE GOODS : In the Bid Leagues : At public car auctions, a wad of cash and a little bit of luck could help you land the car of your dreams.


Vince Zapien speaks faster than he can think.

"Up next we have a 1988 Mazda 323 with automatic transmission. Can I get $100? How about $200? Here's $300, $400. There's $500 and $600, $700, $800. Can I get $1,000? Twelve hundred, $1,500 $1,700, $1,900, $2,000. Can I get a $2,000? Nineteen-hun . . . dre . . . d--sold to buyer No. 754 in the back for $1,900."

"Up next, we have Lot No. K-11, a Mercury Topaz. . . ."

You name the vehicle--BMWs with chrome hubcaps, Hondas that look like new, banged-up Buicks and Toyotas, not-so-new Nissans--and Zapien has sold it. About every two minutes, someone finishes the auctioneer's sentence with a winning bid.

More and more used-car buyers are heading to public auctions, according to Upland-based Auction Systems, which conducts sales in Westchester, near Los Angeles International Airport, and in Upland. About 2,000 people turned out each day on a recent weekend. Many bidders are repeat customers.

"People really like the auction because it gives them a chance to set the price at what they want to pay," said George Arguello, general manager of 5-year-old Auction Systems. "The bidder only pays what they think the car is worth."

Among the 500 cars sold each weekend are police-seized automobiles and former rental or leased cars. The only information available to a potential buyer is a car's make, model, year and type of transmission--standard or automatic. Because the vehicles are sold "as is," most bidders peruse the merchandise the day before or the morning of the auction. They, or their mechanic, may start up the engine and inspect the interior and under the hood, but they cannot take the car for a test drive.

Before the auction begins, bidders receive a buyer number and sign a contract detailing the rules. Spotters, who speak Spanish and English, answer last-minute questions during the bidding and escort winning bidders from the auction tent to the registration desk, where Department of Motor Vehicle papers are processed.

To get the keys to their cars, buyers must pay the sale price, plus a $199 auction fee, $35 documentation fee, $35 smog fee and sales tax. A 25% deposit may be made on the day of the sale; the total must be paid in full by Monday, at 4 p.m., with a credit card, cashier's check or cash.

The no-nonsense approach appealed to Harold Evans, who had been turned down by several dealerships because he had bad credit. Two years ago, the Inglewood property manager bought a 1987 Topaz at the auction for $2,200, and it's still running.

He's had to replace the water pump and the starter, but Evans believes he got a deal. He makes a point of coming back to the L.A. auction lot each weekend to survey the luxury cars.

"If you have $2,000 to spend and you're just looking for something to get around in, this is the place to come," he said.


Helen Lemich, a first-time auction attendee, brought the whole family from Van Nuys one recent weekend to look for a semi-new Toyota. Combing the lot, she took notes on four Camrys she wanted her husband, Dave, to bid on. A new Camry is in the $20,000 range; she hoped to spend $5,000 to $8,000 on a 1990s model.

Meanwhile, Lemich's son was looking, unsuccessfully, for a Ford Mustang.

"We have a 1947 Ford pickup truck that needs a new engine," Steve Lemich said. "I was hoping to find a late '80s Mustang so I could swap for the engine in the truck."

His mom was equally disappointed when the bidding on the Camrys topped out at almost $9,000, more than she wanted to spend. Even so, Lemich said she'll keep trying for a Camry.

On the same day, Renee Lesperance came in search of a car for her 18-year-old son, Ralph. While taking notes on the Fords and Chryslers, she decided to also bid on a luxury car for herself. As the high bidder, at $7,200, on what she thought was an '88 Jaguar sedan, Lesperance was distressed to discover upon registration that the model year was actually 1985.

She complained to Auction Systems, which produced a videotape proving that the auctioneer had indeed advertised the Jaguar as an '85. If Lesperance had been right, Arguello said, the company would have taken back the car.

Lesperance said she is paying for her mistake. The thermostat blew and the transmission had to be replaced--all in the first week. But the 1987 Chrysler LeBaron she bought for Ralph on the same day, paying $4,200, is in great condition.

"This is worse than gambling," the Encino resident said. "I don't think I'd have the nerve to lose this kind of money in Vegas."


If the auction is a gamble, Edward Munoz was confident that he'd emerge a winner. With $3,000 to spend, he arrived early on a Saturday morning to inspect the Acuras and Hondas, making notes.

But when the first Mercedes-Benz, a 1974 model, went up for sale, the 22-year-old Boyle Heights man started bidding on the car, sight unseen. Within seconds he had bought the car for $2,000, plus taxes and fees.

"I liked the car so I just decided to buy it," said Munoz, who admitted to getting caught up in the auction frenzy. "It was a very spontaneous decision, but I'm very happy," he said as he drove the cream-colored car off the lot.

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