Bring A Trailer: The Apex Interviews Randy Nonnenberg
If you've ever found yourself browsing online for that next project car or looking for the dream machine you've always wanted, you will probably be familiar with the work of this week’s guest. Randy Nonnenberg is the co-founder and CEO of Bring a Trailer, one of the most popular auction sites for collectible cars on the internet and one of the main reasons for car enthusiasts staying up way past their bedtime. He joined us this week to give an insight into his life in cars, the online auction market, and wayward Volkswagens...
Hector Kociak interviews Randy Nonnenberg for The Apex by Custodian. Recorded and Produced by Jeremy Hindle and Guillaume Campos. Transcribed by David Marcus. Edited by Hector Kociak & Charles Clegg.
Could you tell us a bit about how you originally got into cars and what part they played in your life before Bring a Trailer came about?
I grew up in California in the Bay Area, and I lived in a town that was basically halfway between Laguna Seca Raceway (which most of your audience has probably heard of) and another raceway called Sears Point International. They were both about an hour in either direction, and growing up in the early ‘80s and into the ‘90s, vintage racing was just starting to become popular. My dad was really into it, and my relationship with my dad is what has always fostered my automotive enthusiasm.
He was into cars before I came along, but the way we could do it together really made for a shared passion and a fun pastime. Being close to those race tracks, we would go to SCCA races and then vintage races where the paddocks would have this amazing variety of all types of cars. That is what formed the DNA of Bring a Trailer (‘BaT’) and the variety on it; you can get an American car, a British car, something newer, something older, something racing inspired or a truck, right? In those paddocks I just remember seeing everything from the privateer with the single axle trailer, who drove their race car to the event, raced it and then drove it home, to the guy with the mega transporter with staff and all that sort of stuff. It was just that variety of automotive enthusiasm and the sensory overload which really excited me, and inspired my first cars that I wanted to turn wrenches on when I was young. All that led to BaT in its present form.
Speaking of BaT, how did that start and how did you go on to grow it in the early days?
It's been around for a while now, right - it's not really a start-up enterprise any more! It started in 2007, so we're already 14 years into it. In the early days it was inspired by a relationship I had with a friend from university. I helped him find a car, and he pointed out what I was doing over a beer one night - he was like ‘Randy, you are all over the internet all the time, looking for all these cars, none of which you're going to buy… you spend all this emotional energy finding them and then it just goes to waste’. It was true, at the end of the night you’d just close out your browser and all that research that you did would go away. He's told me that I should share some of this stuff and that we should create a website where I could post about what I was finding.
I didn't have any spare money back then and hunting cars was a pastime for me, but I filled so many hours with going on websites looking for cars all over the place, just because I found it interesting and invigorating. I also lived in San Francisco where housing is very expensive, with a one car garage for my wife and my one shared car, so there wasn't a lot of room to be dragging home projects!
So in the early days of BaT back in 2007, I tried to post about one car that I found on every single day. I'd find 50 cars, but for the best one, whether it was a good deal or an opportunity or really rare, eye candy or something neat, I would write a little blurb about it and post the photos and some links. BaT then was very different to the big auction enterprise we have now!
That ‘curation’ approach seems to be something you have carried through to this day in relation to submissions on BaT. Seeing as it is now one of the biggest auction marketplaces on the internet, can you tell us about that, and what influences your choice of what to host?
Absolutely. Given BaT is an auction and bidding platform, scarcity and specialness are obviously what works. If an auction ends and the exact same item is going to show up tomorrow, there's no real urgency (this isn’t our invention, this is auctions since the beginning of time). But if you have a ‘one of one’ item or one of not very many, that special Sunbeam Tiger or that Datsun 240Z in the right colour and the right condition - is another one of those going to show up tomorrow? Maybe not, so now is the time to bid, and it creates that sense of urgency which is the magic that makes auctions work.
There is curation on our side too, and there's long been a community discussion around what is a good BaT listing and what is a ‘BaT car’. In the early days it was me in my basement looking at classifieds, so naturally it tended towards the stuff I like. Thankfully I have a pretty diverse taste - I'm not just a Porsche 356 guy or just a Mustang guy - and that variety was good, but as we grew it needed to spread beyond that. Now we have a team of people curating, it’s evolved - as time went on the seller started to need to be part of the curation component. We need to have a good seller who is being truthful and transparent, and is willing to discuss their car in the comments. The curation really evolves with tastes and times too. There were some cars a while ago that were considered underdogs, and you never would have thought they would be on BaT. We're selling a lot of cars now from the ‘80s and ‘90s however, cars that people never thought would be collectible, but it turns out that the car your mom and dad had when you were a kid, in a good condition, can be sought after. So it's been an evolving process.
It seems the community plays a role in that evolution. I've read that Bring a Trailer has been referred to as the ‘chatty’ auction site; there's a buzz around the listings and everyone gets involved - sellers, buyers, random guys with a strong opinion. How important is building that good community for an online auction marketplace, and how do you think that's contributed to BaT’s success?
I think it's been a huge driver of the success, not least because of the way people share the listings. It’s like you and your friend group all over the world are sharing BaT listings with each other. We hear these stories all the time - in a workplace office setting, there's usually a chat group talking about BaT. While their legal team is doing whatever they do as their day job, the rest of the office is like a BaT discussion of what the Shelby Cobra is going to sell for that day!
We hear this kind of thing all the time: ‘oh, the way I connect with my brothers and my dad is that we have a BaT chat stream going every week’. Those sorts of sub-communities break out of the larger BaT community which you see on every listing. Honestly we didn't start the website thinking that we needed to build some big community, but we realized pretty early on that when you create the right environment, people will share their expertise freely. I would feature an Alfa Romeo and write up the three things I knew about that car; lifelong dedicated Alfa enthusiasts would then show up in the comments and share some of their huge personal experience or knowledge. It’s just so cool to see that knowledge as communal and offered up in a voluntary way. Sure, the internet is crazy and communities on the internet in general can be volatile and terrible (!) but the challenge for us is to craft the discussion around productive, interesting and hopefully thoughtful presentation of information.
It’s not perfect, I don't claim that it's perfect; we continually try to refine it and everybody is given an opportunity on their first try at least to be respectful and helpful and to contribute. We do have to police it. But I think it's something that makes us really different. Many auction sites have popped up all over the place, including in the UK, and the real difference is that there were seven or eight years before we launched auctions of just fostering and building our community. I think it's just a really different experience on BaT, when you have as many people as we do on every single listing from a $2,000 car to a $1 million car, equally crazily engaged in dissecting the car and talking about it.
There’s something very analogue about that relationship. What strikes me when I read through BaT too is that sometimes the expertise shared doesn’t have a specific question attached to it - it just comes out in the roiling, crazy conversation going on which goes off in tangents.
I don't think you can just turn on a website and have that automatically, or even buy it. There's a bunch of behind-the-scenes tricks on the internet these days, where you can build an audience very rapidly on Instagram or wherever else by just purchasing it. You can’t do that here; it's really the organic, trustworthy long game that we played early on. After the 2007 to 2014 period we launched the auctions because the community was there. They were hungry for an auction model and the bidding component, but they had also built that trust in their fellow players, and how we were handling them as a kind of oversight entity.
Honestly we couldn't have made it up. We didn't plan for it, it happened organically, and it's really fortunate. I really like the dynamic that it adds to auctions, particularly around accountability for the seller. You can't get on BaT and lie about what you have. You can't say it's better than it really is, and do what a lot of auction catalogues and used car salesmen are famous for - overstate things! I don't like when that sort of hype gets put around cars. Selling your Morgan on BaT when you know there's going to be 50 lifetime Morgan enthusiasts judging you by your words - well, you can't lie about what you’ve got, you have to tell the truth. I think that's really important in the car space.
We were talking to Laura Kukuk last week, and she was saying that when it comes to collectible cars, the whole truth is out there but the parts of it known by people are quite subjective, and you have to really piece your way through. I suppose the internet is a great way of doing that, although it might come with a certain kind of downside - do you think the hidden gem ‘barn find’ is still possible, and do you think the little guy can still get a good deal on the internet?
I certainly think it's still out there. I mean, that's how BaT started, so I'm reasonably well-versed in hunting around! Last night I was on eBay and Craigslist; in the USA we have these sites where you have to trawl through a thousand terrible cars before you find one good one, but that hunt is still super fun. I'm as shocked as I'm sure you and your audience are at the continual discoveries that still happen. You read these stories… we get submissions on BaT just in our corner of the space all the time where you have to ask, man, where did that guy find that rare car and how on earth was it in the middle of some relatively populated area hidden in some outbuilding? It's always mind blowing.
Obviously there's more people on the hunt for that sort of thing now, so that means more of the barn finds have surfaced, but there's still crazy stories out there. Thankfully there are enough cars across the entire landscape that have been produced, and enough crazy people out there who are hiding them, or forgetting about them. So there's still cool stuff out there. I think on BaT we've certainly brought a large audience to bidding on the cars, so people that are looking for cars to buy and sell really at a bargain price, I think that's hard to do on BaT now, or really any kind of site that has a meaningful audience. There are still corners of the internet or elsewhere however where people list things poorly, or with no photos or with no good information, and it is an Indiana Jones treasure hunt to go to try to put two and two together. I think that will always exist on some level.
There’s always that guy with a piece of priceless Ferrari bodywork in his shed! So on the hidden gems, what are some of your favourite auction stories? It doesn't necessarily have to be something hyper expensive...
We never thought BaT would be the place to sell $1 million cars, as has happened a few times. My favourite stuff tends to be much cheaper than that. One of my favourite things on BaT is the way that something can come out of one’s own history as a buyer. You're watching BaT, you don't know what's going on, but then a car comes up and you realise you know that car or have experience with it. We had an early Volkswagen Beetle convertible, I think it was a late ‘50s one, that was listed on BaT a number of years ago. It was red, black top, cool original specification and not perfectly restored or anything, just preserved over the years in Southern California. The person who ended up bidding on it and buying it on BaT did so because they not only knew the car, but they had owned that exact car way back in the day and had lost track of it. It had come up on BaT and somebody had obviously forwarded it to them. It turned out they still had a memento in a drawer - the key to that car from 30 years ago! And so they not only won the auction, but when they went to pick it up, they took the key, opened the car and started it! They probably never would have done that if it wasn't for the reach of BaT; that story telling component is really the romance of it.
What a happy ending! Is there any recent high-value car sale that stood out for you, whether because of a lively discussion or a selling process that really got the community fired up?
As you know the big ticket cars always make headlines everywhere, and they tend to be wonderful landmark models. You list a BMW 507, you list a Miura, you list a 300SL, even a Saleen S7 LM: those bedroom wall poster cars capture people's imagination. It's been wild to watch six-digit and a few seven-digit cars transacted on an online platform like ours with a $5,000 capped fee. It's a totally new frontier that nobody ever thought would exist; those cars are usually transacted privately or under bright lights at an expensive auction house.
Seeing people getting excited about those and selling them in a new and innovative way has certainly been eye opening, and the storytelling on those, honestly, is not hard. Here's this car, and there's 12 magazine articles written about it (!)... those cars just come with such a depth of following, materials and photographs. We’ve had two Gullwing 300SL sold on BaT, both sold on BaT. Obviously Mercedes knows the history on all of those cars, so it's very thoroughly vetted by the time it hits our site. It’s a very different kind of story from the ‘58 Beetle!
As we alluded to earlier, it seems in 2021 that everyone is trying to get in on the auction game. Do you see the market consolidating, and do the large auction houses with the bright lights and enormous prices still have a place?
The scene is certainly evolving rapidly, and COVID has obviously changed things and brought some developments more rapidly forward over the last year in the online space. We were online for years before all this happened, so in an advantageous position, but I think a lot of people's eyes have really been opened. There were a lot of sceptics of transacting vehicles online early on, in 2014-2015.
A fear of just selling something on eBay?
Yes, there's a certain and worthy concern. With buying a car on eBay, there's not a lot of oversight, and there's no phone number to call if it goes wrong. It was tricky back then and it still is. I've bought cars on eBay - sometimes you just accept that risk and just go for it because it's an emotional thing - but I think it was important to refine that model, add reliability, trustworthiness, knowing where exactly I am sending my money, all of that. We saw a way to elevate the whole experience, and others are seeing it too.
I actually think the entertainment value of an in-person big tent auction is almost a totally different value proposition. It's like a car show in front of you, very physical and they charge you for a ticket at the gate, $12 for a beer...
And you have to dry clean your best suit...
Yes, it's like going to a sporting match of some sort. You know it's going to be really expensive but there's an entertainment factor to it. So I think those sorts of experiences will go on, and those companies, the RMs and the Goodings and the Silverstone Auctions you guys have over there, I'm very envious of them actually. They are companies that do a genuinely good job at that sort of thing, they get amazing inventory and they sell it in a glamorous way. As long as they can keep getting the inventory, they will be fine. If all of their customers decide to go online, they're going to have a problem and we'll have to watch what happens with that. But I think so many of those businesses are relationship based, enthusiast run, and I respect them.
BaT sells up to 400 cars a week and there's no slowing down. There's more people that want to be on BaT than we can even handle. I think the online world is steering towards a legitimate desire for a lower fee and more convenient model. That's why the online component works so well, and I suppose why a bunch of people have rushed in to the space recently. What won't survive will be the sort of naïve approach of thinking that you can just turn on an auction site and everything is going to be great, and everyone will end up a millionaire. I don't think the dynamics work like that. You may remember Yahoo Auctions back in the day going up against eBay; if you're the second or third or fourth coolest auction, you tend to get the second or third or fourth coolest inventory. Everybody actually just wants to go to the best one. We don't need 50 or 60 online auctions; it just gets too difficult for the customer. I don't know if some of the smaller ones will survive, but it’s going to take some years to figure out what will happen to them.
Moving on from the auction world, could you tell us a bit about your own car collecting? What's in your garage and why?
Good question! It's fun to have cars come in and out of the garage. We actually have a headquarters in San Francisco in an old brick warehouse, so we have a little bit of room for our staff to have project cars on display. Turning wrenches and restoring cars has always been my favourite thing to do, so you need a little bit of room to do that out here. Like a lot of people, I have an affinity for cars that were popular when I was growing up. I turned 16 and got my drivers’ license in 1993, and so I mean Group B, ‘80s and ‘90s stuff from the glossy car magazines that I liked. I have a Renault R5 Turbo and a Lancia Delta Integrale. Those are my ‘80s hero cars. I didn't dream of a Lamborghini or Ferrari - I like crazy, turbo charged, all wheel drive and mid-engined cars like those.
I think a lot of people are a bit sick of the old bedroom poster supercars - as you say, Turbo R5s and Group B-inspired cars are ones that people really seem to love now.
Oh, they've gone totally crazy in terms of price. That's true of a lot of later collectibles, ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s cars. With Group B in particular, there's so much good content online too. It used to be grainy YouTube videos, if you could find them, that were like zero resolution and absolutely terrible quality...
You had secret cults on early YouTube hoarding Audi Quattro videos, releasing them to a select few…
Hah, that's right. Videos of old European cable TV shows that somebody had pointed a VHS video camera at. I watched that stuff back in the day when I was a kid and I loved it. Now you've got so many people producing awesome videos for those types of cars and really building the enthusiasm for them, rightfully so, and those cars are really fun to get your hands on.
I’m all over the place, however. My first car was a Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40, really popular here in California because the top comes off and it's a summer beach-mobile. I also have an early Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which is sort of my vintage rally car that I get to drive with my buddies that have ‘60s cars, so those are fun. I built that car with my dad, and it's sort of a modded car. I'm sure you're familiar with Alfaholics in the UK?
It's the pinnacle of all things Alfa worldwide. The UK is so rich for that kind of thing, I'm constantly on UK websites and you guys have so many vendors sending wonderful parts packages crossing the Atlantic.
It sounds like very much a driver's garage you've got going on. The wrenching seems to be a big part of it.
Yes, and I love modifying cars. I'm not a concours-grade, 100 point, bone stock original type of person. I mean the Land Cruiser has a big Chevy engine in it, and the Giulietta has a bunch of GTV hotrod parts all over it with a 2.0 litre engine. I just love tinkering. I mean that's my history - maybe it goes back to those race paddock days, but I like optimising cars for performance and trying to spend as much seat time in them as I can on the roads here in California.
That’s what they are for, of course. So I've got some quick fire questions to end. The first one of which is: what's your greatest driving experience?
Greatest driving experience hands down for me was actually flying to Europe, to the Netherlands, buying an Alfa Romeo step-nose Giulia Sprint GT 1964 in Bluette and driving it from Amsterdam to the Nürburgring. I lapped the Nürburgring with a very good friend at slow speeds with that 1600cc engine. I was not breaking any track records, but I had some great moments - windows down on a lovely autumn day, with not many other people on track. We then shipped it back to the US, but touring around Europe and doing a couple of laps on the Nordschleife in that car was really something out of a dream.
That sounds absolutely perfect. Second question is: which is your ‘one that got away’ car, if you have one?
Oh man, I would say it's more cars that I have had that I later sold. I had a 1959 Porsche 356A silver, black interior, a little rally car with the leather straps on the hood, lowered with no hubcaps and a loud exhaust. Super cool, I bought it for $15,000 - I'm not that old, I'm 43, so I'm not like an 80 year old guy talking about the olden days… but I bought that car when I was in my 20s off a Craigslist ad in San Francisco. I sold it for $30,000 and thought I had made all kinds of money, but now those cars go for four times that.
It was a special car and honestly I had an emotional connection to it. Not just the miles I got to drive in it, but the fact that I could not have done Bring a Trailer full time without it. I needed money so I sold that car for $30,000 to bridge a couple of months while we tried to build some revenue on BaT. I wanted to keep it but I couldn't. Then again, I traded it for BaT, and in the end that was a worthy trade - but I was sad to see it go.
That's one hell of a trade. You haven't seen it come up on BaT recently have you?
Well there's been some similar ones on, and everybody on my staff always jokes about when Randy is going to go buy a silver 356A. There’s even a poster of it in the office!
I need to get into the comments section when that happens! And so to my last question. I know you're a bit of a racer yourself, so what is Randy Nonnenberg's favourite race track?
My favourite race track is probably Spa or Goodwood. I don't know, you've got the UK audience man, I've probably got to say it's Goodwood.
We've had a lot of love for Spa in the past but yes, Goodwood is a great choice.
My goodness, I've been very fortunate. I mean my dad started my car obsession, and so I was able to go to the Revival with him a number of years ago. As you can tell from the kind of cars I own, I really like the ‘50s and ‘60s, that unadulterated era of sports cars.
I mean, you guys in the UK can do an event better than we can do these events in the US. I wish every event over here was like the Goodwoods and the Silverstones that you put on. They're just so impressive, and then the period component that they do at Goodwood is really out of this world. I haven't driven that track yet. I know there are some track day possibilities, rentals and so on. My fantasy however is to drive a Mark I Cortina at Goodwood and lap it in a race. So if anybody in your audience knows how to figure out how to get me to do that, I am ready to sign up right now!
We will put the call out, most definitely, and what a lovely note to end on. Randy, thank you so much for your time. It's been such an interesting interview, and thanks for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having me!
To see Bring a Trailer's currently auction listings, please visit www.bringatrailer.com.