If you want a cheap car and fancy cutting out the middleman, why not pop down to one of the dozens of vehicle auctions held each week in London? Every type, from luxury vehicles and classic cars to bangers can all be bought instantly provided you have the cash and the confidence.

If the thought of buying your next car at wholesale prices interests you, it is important to realise that things happen quickly at auction - blink and you will miss a lot. And what you bid for is what you get: there are no test drives and no comebacks.

Those of a nervous disposition won't enjoy the experience so it pays to do some reconnaissance work before taking the auction route to used-car nirvana.

Rule one is leave your money at home; rule two is to choose your auction carefully once you decide what to spend and what to buy.

London is well served with venues. South of the river, Capital Car Auctions and nearby Belmont Car Auctions, in Charlton, specialise in evening and Saturday sales.

In the more fashionable SW postal districts, General Auctions hold a small sale on Monday afternoons while London Car Auctions favours evening and Saturday sales.

Deeper into the suburbs is Central Motor Auctions, part of a nationwide group in Wimbledon, holding mainly weekday sales with plenty of quality vehicles. Dingwall Motor Auctions in Croydon runs more down-market evening sales. In the north-west, Wembley Car Auctions sells older vehicles.

Further out in Middlesex is ADT, where the largest auction group in the world has a large site in Enfield selling bangers and company cars. Marston Motor Auctions, in Tottenham, have a selection of older used cars, as do many east London sites at Bow, Whitechapel and Chingford.

It is vital to ring the auction first to check what time it all starts and discover the type of sale: whether bangers, warranted company cars, or a mix of both. Some will fax a list of entries to you and larger auction groups, like ADT and CMA, offer fax-back numbers.

Most companies hold sales three times a week. Generally, weekday morning sales are attended by the trade, which keeps prices down, whereas evening and weekend sales are crowded affairs full of bargain-hunters, and the fierce competition pushes prices higher.

The really upmarket sales are the classic auctions and although the majority of companies involved are based in London, like Coys, Christie's, Brooks and Sotheby's, not all the events take place in the capital.

However, on the week that were on the auction trail, Coys was holding a sale at the Horticultural Halls in Westminster. Entry is usually by catalogue (pounds 15-plus) and you can bid for every type of classic, from restoration projects at a few hundred pounds to collectors' items costing thousands.

On our auction day out, we popped into Wembley Car Auctions, located within the shadow of the stadium. The cars, marked with lot numbers, were lined up in a large hall, parked end to end. Most were dealer trade-ins and a bit tatty around the edges - a bit like some of the buyers.

The worst cars are auctioned first, a collection of mangy Datsun Sunnys and Ford Escorts which barely break the pounds 200 barrier. You can guarantee that these will turn up in the classified ad sections at pounds 500-plus within the week.

There are the odd one-owner, well-cared-for gems, like a low-mileage Sierra, a bargain at pounds 800, probably destined for the minicab circuit.

At ADT in Enfield, we concentrated on the company-owned vehicles which looked surprisingly showroom fresh and, for those in search of a nearly new bargain, represent the best value.

Highlights were a 1993 5-door Rover Metro 1.1S, with 5,000 miles on the clock that went for pounds 5,400 and currently costs about pounds 9,000 on the road. Further up the scale, a new-shape 1992 BMW 318i, that had covered 35,000 miles, was sold for just over pounds 11,000. The same model would cost pounds 12,500 on a dealer's forecourt. So there are savings to be made and banger bargains to be bought. However, one must first consider auction etiquette.

Always pick up a copy of the auction's Conditions of Entry and Sale which sets out the rules that apply and the rights you'll have and the deposit required.

Inspecting a car is difficult - look out for bodged body repairs and be around when the car is started and driven towards the bidding ring. Poor starting, noisy running and smoke should put you off.

Listen carefully to what the auctioneer says about the car - a warranted mileage and full history is good news. Buy a car price guide from a newsagent to familiarise yourself with trade values.

Set yourself a buying budget and stick to it. Bid confidently, but not too early and be aware of the bid increments - is it pounds 50, or pounds 500? Always buy the youngest car from a company fleet, as these have been well maintained and the mileage is genuine.

In addition, pay about pounds 30 for an indemnity that protects you against the vehicle being stolen, an insurance write-off, or still subject to finance.

Never buy on impulse and always take a friend with you to restrain you from making a hasty mistake.

Where to buy

ADT Auctions 081-366 1144.

Belmont Car Auctions 081-858 5429.

Bow Car Auctions 071-538 3812.

Capital Car Auctions 081-691 0066.

Central Motor Auctions 081-944 2000.

Chingford Car & Commercial Auction 081-524 5964.

Dingwall Motor Auctions 081-684 0138.

General Auctions 081-870 3909.

London Car Auctions 071-736 0086.

Marston Motor Auctions 081-800 8000.

Wembley Car Auctions 081-900 2344.

Whitechapel Car Auctions 071-377 1422.

Classics

Brooks 071-228 8000.

Christies 071-839 9060.

Coys 071-584 7444.

Onslow's 071-793 0240.

Sotheby's 071-408 5268.

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