Randy Nonnenberg was a car-crazy Northern Californian with an engineering degree and a business-development job at BMW when, in 2007, he co-founded Bring a Trailer (BaT) in his spare time. The website’s goal was highlighting cool machines being sold around the country for what became a large audience of similarly afflicted classified-ad devotees. Seven years later, BaT harnessed its engaged fan base and inaugurated its own online auction system. Its runaway success led Hearst Autos (Road & Track’s publisher) to acquire a controlling interest in 2020. Nonnenberg, who loves cars as much as ever and remains BaT’s president, spoke with us about the ride.
This story originally appeared in Volume 18 of Road & Track.
Road & Track: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you were the first person to appreciate and then actualize the idea of auctioning cars online.
Randy Nonnenberg: I think that’s a little too much credit. I mean, eBay? I cut my teeth obsessing over eBay, and that was an auction, with some things I felt could be improved. But they had car auctions online in 1997 or thereabouts.
R&T: Of course. Well, what makes you different?
RN: Verifying the claims made by sellers. With eBay, Craigslist, dealer websites, and the entire internet of selling cars, unfortunately, a lot of the things claimed online are half true, sometimes not true at all. Being able to put that to an enthusiast audience who can help get to the truth via open discussion was the major difference in value added by BaT. It means you can trust what is being said a little bit more. That’s a big necessity on the internet.
R&T: How did you get started?
RN: We didn’t know we were doing it at the time, but BaT was building a community. I was just having fun talking about and finding interesting cars for sale—a labor of love, not a business model. It was therapy for me, because it gave some sort of semi-legitimate point to all the hours I spent surfing around for cars. The fact that I could share them with people instead of doing it for myself—it wasn’t a money thing, it was a social thing. The first two years, it hardly made a dime. But after that, once there started to be some eyes on it, people asked if they could list cars, and we started getting compensated for sending traffic some places. It ended up being a business. People actually started to post checks to my mailbox in San Francisco.
R&T: The demographics have changed.
RN: It was adopted by a younger set faster, 2012 to 2017. And in that era, there was a lot of skepticism, particularly from the older collectors, people who frequent tent auctions, wondering: Is this a viable way to sell vehicles of any value, but high value in particular? It took longer for them to be convinced, but now they are.
R&T: What’s that done in terms of what sells?
RN: We thought younger people liked Eighties and Nineties cars—Acura Integra Type Rs, Eighties Toyota pickups and 4Runners, Supras, Fox-body Mustangs. We featured them alongside prewar cars and Fifties and Sixties muscle. Now you see people in the older demographic appreciating Eighties and Nineties cars in a way they weren’t before. At an Amelia Island auction, one of the banner sales is a Type R. I mean, that’s crazy, right? An older demographic is now adopting the cars once celebrated solely by young, techie, online sorts. So it’s had this cross-pollinating effect.
R&T: BaT once sold a Ferrari for almost $5.4 million. For those on a budget, what’s looking value priced these days?
RN: If all you’re looking at is early Porsche 911s or six-figure Broncos in the Hamptons, you might think the hobby is for rich dudes only. But a Sixties or Seventies British roadster, an MGA or B, could be 25 grand or less. If you want to get something that’s a little more usable, I think Datsun 280ZXs and Nissan 300ZXs are so cheap right now. The bigger challenge than the price is finding a good one. But if you’re patient and watch places like BaT, you can buy the best one out there for 16 grand. To kids, they look like a spaceship from long ago.
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