3. Obtain expert help
It's OK to bring a restorer or knowledgeable friend with you. If you can't, seek out authorities who know that car or model and ask questions. The man standing next to you may be an expert who's just waiting to talk about the car. Inspect a car very closely before it goes over the block. Read all the display material. Check the car mechanically. Many auctions have independent diagnostic services on site. For a fee they'll examine the car and give you an evaluation. Get to the auction a few hours before the sale begins so you can look at cars and select the one(s) you want. If you can talk to the owner, do so. If he (or she) will start and run the car for you that's even better.

Jay Leno, who has an impressive collection of cars and motorcycles, says, "Buy the owner, not the car." Leno tries to establish a rapport with a seller, evaluates what he says about his car, and can prove it. Then Leno judges the individual (as well as the car, of course) and makes up his mind.

Testdrive the car, if you can, and note any visible problems. If you don't feel qualified, retain an expert to help. Make a fair offer, bearing in mind any work that's needed. If you're bidding at a vintage car auction, know your limits and the car's real value so as not to overbid. Arrange for shipping with a reliable specialist transporter. When the car is in your garage, examine it closely again, and make any needed repairs before registering it and taking it on the road.

4. Always have a number in mind
Once you've made a bidding decision, know when "your" car is going to be offered for sale. Know what you want to pay and be ready to bid. Remember to add in auction company commissions and fees to get the full selling price. Stay within your limits. Use pre-bid time to pick up tips, talk with other bidders, and examine the car from every aspect. Remember, when a car is actually on sale, everything happens very fast. Look to see who's bidding. If you spot one of the high rollers discretely raising a paddle, consider bidding on another day.

There's a palpable tension in a live sale, so if you've never bid at major auction before, learn what it's like by bidding at a smaller auction, even a charity event, or on eBay at sale's end, so you've had practice bidding under pressure. With bid paddles waving, tensions mounting, the auctioneer shouting, and the price rising rapidly, it's no place for on-the-job training.

5. Work With the ringmen (and women)
Top auctions have ringmen (and women) stationed strategically in the bidding area. Find the closest one and identify yourself. Tell him or her the car you want to bid on. Be near them when "your" car comes up. Their job is to ensure your bid is recognized and to keep you on top of what's happening. They know who's bidding, they'll coach you on when to bid, and when to wait. They're wired into the auctioneer's platform, so if you don't hear the bid, or need a clarification, they'll get it. They WANT you to buy the car, so they're "sort of" on your side. Don't ever reveal how high you're prepared to go, but be alert and ready to bid. The ringman will tell you when it's your turn. Know where you want to start. Stay cool.

If the car fails to sell on the block, try to find the owner right away, along with an auction company representative, and negotiate a deal. (Tip: the owner is usually that sad-faced guy walking after his car). Both parties would prefer to sell that car, right there, right now, rather than ship it home, so both sides are willing to compromise on price and commission. And you'll be the winner.

Have fun, but be prudent. Vintage cars have vintage brakes and steering, very few safety devices, and they may have long-distance limitations. Until your "new" car has proven itself on the road, be cautious.

With the strong interest we currently see in building and driving rods and customs, and the eligibility of hot rods and custom cars for Concours classes, SRP believes it's only a matter of time before prices begin to head upward again. Learn successful auction techniques, do your research, and be ready.

(Editor's note: If you need to ship your car to an auction company location, or you've just bought a car and want to ship it home, SRP has worked with and has had success with Intercity Lines (800-221-3936, www.intercitylines.com) or Reliable Carriers (877-744-7889, www.reliablecarriers.com).