I’m not exactly a fancy sort of person. You can tell this easily by asking me to empty my pockets and counting all of the loose screws and mildly chipped peanut M&Ms mixed in amongst the 41 cents in change, one of which is a prized Canadian penny. My lack of fanciness means that when I’m placed in a Fancy Human environment, I get a little uneasy, which, coupled with my inherent unease with spending large amounts of money at once, means that a car auction is very much not part of my natural environment. But I love cars, and I know people, like my wonderful friend and business partner Beau Boeckmann, who genuinely love car auctions, and he decided he should show me what they feel like. Because they definitely feel like something, perhaps a combination of a blind date and gambling and a chess match and fight. And I felt it all despite not even using my own money. I’ll try to explain.
Beau and I were at the Amelia Island Concurs recently, and in between me being shocked at boring-seeming Buicks and shooting some videos, I noticed a very charming little car: a yellow 1958 Berkeley SE328 with an amazing green stripe that ran all through it — into the floor mats and upholstery and everything. I wrote about it, even.
The car was being auctioned, and Beau noticed it too; he had a great idea: What if we were to try to get it at the auction, but this time Beau would let me be the one to do the actual bidding, just to get a feel for what a car auction is like? This wouldn’t just be a random purchase, to be clear. Beau has one of the world’s greatest collections of microcars and, while he has three Messerschmitts, he doesn’t have a single Berkeley. Maybe it was time to fix this.
Beau described auctions as exciting and sort of addicting, in a gambling sort of way. There’s strategy to it — a lot more than you may realize. You want to win, of course, but you also want to spend as little as possible, so there’s a lot of reading the overall vibe of the room with regard to the particular car currently on the turntable. It means trying to read subtle cues in people’s faces and demeanors to try to assess how determined they may be; it means interpreting the pace of the bidding, knowing when to ignore the cajoling of the auctioneer, knowing when to wait and let the tension build, or when to leap in early and take control. It’s subtle and cunning and requires a lot of ability to perceive subtle things while under pressure. I’d be terrible at it.
Beau and I discussed some strategy, and set a maximum bid amount – a bit over $30,000– for the car. He’d be next to me, coaching and helping, so it should be no biggie, right? I mean, it’s not even my money and I won’t actually own the car myself, so no pressure, right?
Eh, not so right. You still feel pressure. In fact, just knowing that a tiny gesture or even a loaded look at the auctioneer can mean spending tens of thousands of dollars is strange unto itself. In fact, Beau is such a pro he showed me the cool kid way to bid, a simple look and a nod. How does the auctioneer know to scan the crowd to see such subtle signals? And how do they not accidentally sell cars to people just trying to order a sandwich or saying hi to a friend?
As you can see in the video there, Beau had to coach me pretty much nonstop. And the nervy feeling I had isn’t faked; there’s a real tension in the air in an auction, even for a car in as little demand as a funny old Berkeley. It’s still a competition that one can screw up, and I tend to have a penchant for that; and these auctions usually evolve into head-to-head battles — subtle wars of will happening across crowded rooms, fought with gestures and nods, and the battle literally costing the winner more in the end.
It’s strange, but, yes, kinda fun, and I can see how it could be addicting. And, in our case, we won, possibly helped by the massive cloud of bluish two-stroke smoke that enveloped the stage when the Berkeley drove up.
Coming to The Autopian tomorrow: We explain how @JasonTorchinsky and @BeauBoeckmann ended up buying a spectacular, silly car at auction. pic.twitter.com/lxQEyWWAXC— The Autopian (@the_autopian) April 3, 2023
Anyway, now we have access to a Berkeley! These were really interesting cars; if you’re the sort of person who always wanted a Bugeye Sprite or an MG Midget but felt those were both, you know, too much car for you, then boy are you in luck, thanks to the Berkeley.
Berkeley was primarily a maker of fiberglass caravans – what we in America call campers or camping trailers – but that was a seasonal business, so the company was looking for something to sell when camper sales were slow. That’s why when Berkeley was approached by designer Lawrence Bond, the guy who would had made the Bond Minicar, about designing a low-cost, fun sports car that could be “something good enough to win World 750cc races,” the team was willing to give it a go.
The Berkeley we won – and this is the auction context of “won” that involves paying – is an SE328, so named because it’s a Sports car with an Excelsior motorcycle engine displacing 328cc. It makes a fabric-of-time-rending 18 horsepower, has a chain-driven three-speed sequential gearbox (and a reverse!) driving the front wheels, and weighs all of 672 pounds.
People raced these things, even though they’re the size of a small bathtub and feel like you’re wearing motorized pants when you drive them. The car is an absolute blast, and pretty unique among microcars of that era in that it was made for fun, not a minimalistic transportation solution for people with no other options, like most microcars. Most other ’50s-era microcars, like the BMW Isetta or Messerschmitt or Fuldamobil or whatever were reactions to postwar scarcity, and designed to just get people around as best they could; the Berkeley was the only one to take Microcar-type mechanicals and methods and re-cast them as a sports car, because even in desperate times, people still want – maybe need – to have fun.
So, with that in mind, get ready for more fun Berkeley content. It’s gonna be good.
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My dad actually has two Berkleys, crazy to see one pop up here as they are pretty rare. One is mostly a shell he is turning into an auto-crosser, the other is mostly original. The thing has a rumble seat in the back, two seats in the front, and is TINY. You’re sitting very low, and very tight – Two men sitting in it can’t help but be shoulder to shoulder. Pretty fun to ride in, and definitely unusual.
the repair shop where my morris minor was getting a new clutch put in had one of these. i think it had a three cylinder ring ding motor. i thought it was a saab, but no it was something called a berkeley. he wanted a thousand bucks for it, back in the late 60s.
I had the honor of being hurled around a parking lot in the passenger seat of this thing with Torch behind the wheel last weekend and it was both hair-raising and delightful.
“feel like you’re wearing motorized pants when you drive them.”
This is SUCH a great line!
The car emerging onto the stage in cloud of smoke was absolutely perfect!
The TIMING of the car emerging onto the stage in cloud of smoke was absolutely perfect, killed off opposition bids right there!
What really caught my eye was 672lbs for the curb weight? That’s very light. That’s lighter then 3 bubbas in a typical pickup around here where I live. And it’s an entire CAR. So cool.
There’s a video on youtube from MyClassicCar where the host is interviewing the owner of a Berkeley and gets permission to lift up the rear end of the car because it’s light enough that you can do that.
Congrats @Beau with that color (or is it ‘colour’) scheme, you now can be featured in a place of honor for any Packers home game at Lambau Field!
There’s been a DougCar shaped hole in my life since Mr. Fancypants Demuro decided to go all big time, stop buying cars at the whims of moron readers like me, and get successful.
Perhaps The Autopian Populi can now fill that hole by spending Beau’s $$$ on silly cars and do fun things with them!
I really, REALLY hope to read more on your Berkely-adventures. I just love that little yellow bastard!
Paint it red.
NO! Keep it as is.
Years ago, an article about bidding for things on eBay claimed that things are worth only what the market is willing to pay. If no one is willing to pay what the winner did, then the winner paid too much and therefore lost.
So as a corollary nothing is worth anything.
Yes, but if it’s vintage nothing then it could be worth more!
Eh? But the winner is evidently willing to pay what the winner bid.
My brain hurts.
I smell toast.
“These were really interesting cars; if you’re the sort of person who always wanted a Bugeye Sprite or an MG Midget but felt those were both, you know, too much car for you, then boy are you in luck”
This whole story put a big smile on my face. Agree also about this being an interesting twist on microcar’s reason for being.
Now Beau and Jason need to drive it from Florida back to North Carolina, before Beau sets out to solo it to California.
That’s a DT move
But don’t automotive writers who relate their
storiesmisadventures of poor choices and the stuff they had to buy to fix said choices write them off as a business expense?
I bet Torch got the Changli for free after write offs.
This is exactly the sort of craziness that keeps me coming back to this site!
Wait, wait, I think I met someone who has one of these before! This was Park Ridge, IL in 2021:
Let’s name it – here in the comments, or a poll, or a fund raiser, or ? I’ll start…Smokey Banana
This is why we need thumbs down voting.
It’s already named — “Motorized Pants.” Perfect.