Classic car auction does big business in region

Monday, September 19, 2005
Sherm Smith, owner of Smith's Auction Co. of Dexter, sits in the luxury interior of a 1958 Chevy Impala.

DEXTER, Mo. -- Sherm Smith of Dexter graduated high school in 1957, the year Chevrolet came out with its legendary '57 Chevy. Almost 50 years later, Smith still has one in his garage.

"It's my all-time favorite classic car," said Smith, a former publisher of several Southeast Missouri newspapers. "And I probably sell more '57 Chevy convertibles than anybody else in the country."

After leaving the newspaper business a dozen years ago, Smith accelerated into the classic car business. He started Smith's Classic Cars and held his first auction in Dexter. He said it was fun and a success.

Within a couple years, Smith held his first classic cars auction at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau. He was something of a maverick in the car auction business by then. He said most auctions he had attended in the past did not offer good service to buyers or sellers. And entry fees and other charges were too high.

"Where other auction companies were charging entry fees of $400, we were charging $200 or $150," said Smith, who runs Smith's Auction Co. with son Sherm Smith Jr. "And instead of charging sellers 12 percent to auction a car, we started doing it for 8. And we cut the buyer's premium to 5 percent while other companies were charging 8 percent."

Smith said he makes good money selling classic cars. He holds auctions twice a year at the Show Me Center, and the most recent one in July set a record -- more than $2 million in cars sold.

Smith said the average selling price of his cars range between $30,000 and $40,000, and the "muscle cars" of the late '60s and early '70s are currently popular. He has sold several Shelby Mustangs of that era for more than $100,000.

Following several years of successful weekend auctions in Dexter and Cape Girardeau, Smith expanded to Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and Collinsville, Ill. He tried holding auctions in Dallas, Texas, and Tulsa, Okla., but found business was best within a six-hour drive of Dexter.

"We fill up our auctions if we stay within a certain region," said Smith, adding that last year he held his first auction at Branson in the former Mel Tillis Theater.

Smith said he starts promoting an auction about a month in advance. He has a mailing list of about 3,000 car collectors he has done business with. He advertises nationally in car auction publications and sends out flyers.

Smith said he spends about $70,000 to promote each Show Me Center auction, and people come from all over the country.

"The Cape auction is one of the top auctions we do," said Smith, charging the battery of a 1958 Chevy Impala in one of several warehouses where he stores classic cars. "We do more business in Cape than we could ever do in Dallas or Tulsa. In Cape, we are the event of that weekend."

Smith said organizing the Cape auction includes booking about 75 motel rooms for special buyers who fly in from Texas and Georgia. He usually auctions 300 cars and sells about 75 percent of them.

"There's a guy in Atlanta who usually buys 12 at a time," said Smith. "A group from Texas flies in and we meet them at the airport. They'll buy cars and I'll have them hauled to Dexter and store them until they're picked up."

It takes about 15 employees to staff a Show Me Center auction. Two auctioneers have been with Smith since he started his classic car auctions. One lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the other lives in Iowa. They fly in and handle the bidding. When a car goes on the auction block, bidding lasts about three minutes.

Smith said he pays members of Cape Girardeau car clubs to drive the cars from the Show Me Center parking lot to the auction block, then back to the parking lot.

There are six or seven classic car auction companies in the country that provide good service at reasonable prices, according to Smith, who ranks his with the best. He said he has never lost money at an auction.

"People call me the oldest teenager in Dexter," said Smith, wearing a ball cap over his white hair. "I've just stayed the same. I still drive old cars and I still love old cars.

"I just took a love and a passion and turned it into something that makes a lot of money."

Photo by Jim Obert

PIC -- Sherm Smith, owner of Smith's Auction Co. of Dexter, sits in the luxury interior of a 1958 Chevy Impala.

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