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Auction still revs car fans' hearts

So this is where old police cruisers go to die, only to live again in a bargain shopper's garage. For as far as the eye can see, there are cars. Cars lined up in long rows for sale, and cars on the highway streaming into the vast parking lot of the Tampa Machinery Auction out on U.S. 301 east of Temple Terrace.

The second Saturday of every month, thousands of people from all over the state come looking for a deal on a new set of wheels at the largest public auto auction around. Even when it's 42 degrees, spitting rain and the inventory isn't what it usually is, the used car crowd turns out in force.

Gates open at 7:30 a.m. and the bidding begins at 9. Game on.

Lined up in tidy rows are cars of all makes and models, including the coveted white Ford Crown Victoria police cars. There are pickups, vans, trucks, trailers, over-the-road tractors, garbage trucks, firetrucks, bucket trucks, digger derrick trucks, bulldozers, golf carts, motor scooters, ATVs and farm equipment.

The sea of vehicles, about 1,000 on this recent Saturday, comes from private sellers, commercial dealers, Salvation Army donation lots and municipal governments from across Central Florida.

The Tampa Machinery Auction is where "retired vehicles" are sent from sheriff's offices from Pasco to Sarasota counties. City-owned sedans are shipped in from Temple Terrace to Treasure Island. Utility vans from Orlando Utilities to Florida Progress make their final calls here, too.

Basically, if you can't find what you're looking for here, you just haven't looked hard enough.

Right up front, there's a 2003 Ford F250 XLT Supercab 4X4. Ooh, and over there is a pretty powder blue Mercedes 260E sedan with a Bucs license plate on the front and an Avila gate pass sticker in the windshield. Definitely a car with pedigree.

Want something a little more old school? Here's a classic 1973 Mercedes 450 SL, a slick black convertible coupe in cherry condition.

Down the line sits a 1993 Volvo 740 GLE station wagon, apparently Junior's last ride before graduating. Comes with the Tampa Prep parking stickers, and the rear window sticker for Swarthmore College. Buyer beware, though. Another bumper sticker declares, "Bondurant Graduate, School of High Performance Driving."

In a Volvo?

Diamonds-in-the-rough are far outnumbered by the dogs, those unfortunate models that lost popularity faster than Blue Book value. How about a Colt Vista ("Imported for Dodge") station wagon bearing the Radio Disney decal? Or the Mitsubishi Mirage with 129,824 miles and a bumper sticker that says, "Don't tailgate me or I'll flick a booger on your windshield."

"Sure, there are some dogs," said Tampa Machinery Auction owner David Nelson. "But somebody's got to sell them."

He needed the job

Nelson started working at the auction about 20 years ago, and like the guy who used to do the Remington shaver commercials, he liked the place so much he bought it.

Originally from Jacksonville, Nelson went to high school in Sebring and then attended the University of South Florida for two years where he learned computer programming. Nelson dropped out of USF for financial reasons, and dropped into the auto auction for those same financial reasons. He needed the job.

"I got started back in the early '80s. I designed and wrote the computer software programs and just kind of got roped in," Nelson said. The auction had been around since 1971, but when Nelson got a chance to take it over, he jumped at it.

Ever since, it's been an auction a month, 12 of them a year, like clockwork.

For his effort, Nelson nets 10 percent of each sale. He employs seven full-time employees and on auction day hires another 50 or 60 workers. These include auctioneers, car starters, sign holders, ticket runners, cashiers and records clerks. For one day, Nelson's lot turns into the state's largest retail auto outlet.

Typically, they sell 80 percent of what's out there, and that runs to more than 1,200 cars, trucks and assorted vehicles. They can easily move 1,000 sets of wheels in one eight-hour shift.

At the January auction, Nelson's auctioneers hollered "Sold!" about 800 times on a lot that held about 1,000 items. Not a bad day. Not a bad day at all.

Not much to go on

After parking the rides that delivered them to the auction, eager buyers walk past the Big Man's BBQ tailgate operation (7:30 a.m. is sort of early for pulled pork) and make for the free Krispy Kreme and coffee stand set up by three guys from Bell Shoals Baptist Church.

From there, they move through the fierce chain link fence topped with electric wire to the main office where they line up behind one of 20 service windows.

Each buyer fills out a simple registration form and is given a buyer's number. If they are the successful bidder on a car, that's the identification they'll need when paying for it.

Then, the fun begins.

For the next 90 minutes, shoppers prowl the rows of cars looking for bargains. There's not much to go on. In each window there's a sheet of paper describing the make, model, year and mileage, if available. If there are any known defects, Nelson's workers will have scribbled them in wax marker on the windshield; things like "bad transmission" or "no reverse" or "doesn't run."

"You just have to be kind of selective, but not too particular about what you want to buy," Nelson said.

A little before 9 a.m., four auctioneers climb into four small sheds on wheels. From there, they run four auctions simultaneously.

Workers quickly pop open hoods of cars three at a time and fire them up. Prospective buyers huddle shoulder to shoulder over the engines, listening for any hidden defects, listening for the purr of a motor that still has oomph.

At 9 a.m. sharp, it's game time. The auctioneers explain the ground rules. All purchases are "as is" with no warranties. All sales are final at the closing bid. All purchases must be paid in full on auction day with cash, a certified check or a personal check (though the buyer can't drive off until the check clears the bank.)

Auctioneer Jason Trunzo cranks it into gear. The first few hardly used trucks are no-sales because the bid price didn't exceed a predetermined minimum set by the owner. But then he gets to a mid '90s Crown Vic, a Tampa Police Department car with 87,969 miles on it.

Barking into a brittle public address system, Trunzo spins his staccato pitch. "500, badum, badum, bidda bum, 500 . . . badum, badum, bidda how 'bout 550."

About 100 people, most of them men in jeans and boots and caps, crowd around the noisy shed. At the center of the crowd, another auction employee is stationed to scan the bidders for tell-tale hand signals and discrete nods.

"Badum, badum, bidda-bum, 550, 550, badum, 600."

The din is constant and monotonous, almost trancelike as Trunzo climbs the price ladder. "I'm at 1,200 sir, stay with me now," he says, creating a Turkish bazaar frenzy around the old clunker. After another round of badums, Trunzo makes the sale at $1,300.