At fairgrounds, bidders answer sirens' call


Sonny Miller wanted something different at yesterday's auction at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. Nothing like John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls-Royce, Madonna's 1969 Mercedes or even Jacqueline McLean's Mercury Grand Marquis. This wasn't Sotheby's, after all. We're talking Timonium.

No, at the first auction anyone around here remembers for emergency vehicles, Mr. Miller bid for a 1986 Econoline 350 ambulance, with plenty of room for arm boards, head blocks, burn sheets and an amputation kit. Canary yellow and only 93,000 miles on this baby!

"I'll put it in a boatyard," said Mr. Miller, a self-employed 57-year-old from northeastern Maryland. "Big hospitals around there. You know they charge $500 just to drive you to the hospital?" So, the plan is he could take wounded boaters to the hospital in his new, old ambulance.

Mr. Miller is not currently employed in the field of emergency medical transportation.

"I'm liable to get into it," he said. He was willing to bid $5,000 for the ambulance, but it was sold for $6,250. "I'll find one cheaper," he said, leaving the auction. He wasn't bitter; his boatyard plan was still alive.

Everything else gets auctioned in this country -- from Custer's battle flag, and Einstein's pipe to Fred Astaire's top hat and Elvis' last Harley -- so why not emergency vehicles?

"Everyone needs a fire engine, don't they?" asked auctioneer Steve Wilcoxson of Atlantic Auctions, speaking very quickly before about 50 men, milling in the fairgrounds' south parking lot.

But with the bids starting at $15,000, it was a hard sell. There simply wasn't that kind of money walking around the fairgrounds.

Auctioning cars is one thing. Talk up the mileage, how clean the interior is, maybe mention how the car was driven only by nuns in a 3-mile radius. Auctioning fire trucks -- dripping of nozzles, clamps and stick shifts -- is a different sales beast. The auctioneers attempted to seduce the crowd with promises such as, SOME OF THESE EVEN HAVE STRETCHERS! and MOST DO HAVE SUCTION UNITS and IT DROVE IN HERE! No one mentioned whether the sirens worked -- which seem like an important feature.

It was Mr. Wilcoxson's first time auctioning emergency vehicles. He went to work pitching a 1990 Chevrolet Swab Box Medic Unit. (He happens to be a volunteer cardiac rescue technician.) His "auctioneer's cry" went like this:

$15,000. Nice diesel. I hear $10,000. $12,000. Will you bid $12,000? Will you bid $12,000? $12.5? Sir? $12.5, sir? Will you bid $12,000? Will you go? Do it again sir. Do it again. I'll take $12,500. $12,500. Sir? Will you go? (Time elapsed: six seconds.) A man working his portable phone bought the ambulance for $12,250. Ken Ulrick, who works at an auto wholesaler in Pennsylvania, bought four emergency vehicles yesterday. He was all over the place, all over that phone.

"I'm here to be the highest bidder," he said.

An auction has its own language: "As Is" and "Subject To" and "No Sale" were popular phrases yesterday. Meaning, you have to buy the 1979 Seagrave Pumper Tanker As Is, and this is Subject To another phone call because your price is too low, so low it's probably a No Sale. Atlantic Auctions sold about half of the 20 emergency vehicles, but the other half were No Sales.

As Mr. Wilcoxson told one bidder, "I'll take $5,000, but you're not in any danger of buying this one . . . you haven't bought the pump yet." The auctioneer kept it light and fun. "You can put out your own fires!" After all, they weren't foreclosing on any farms. "No sense in getting real serious about it because it's kind of fun." He knew many of the men just came to look. Tire-kickers, he calls them.

Elmer Knight came to Timonium from Aberdeen. He bid $4,250 (Subject To) for a real red beauty of a fire engine, a custom Ward La France pumper, parked there all by its lonesome. Sad-looking thing, too. Mr. Knight plans to use the fire engine as a maintenance truck. He has no plans to pursue a career in medical transport.

Mike Bruns had a large time at the fairgrounds yesterday. He bought two fire trucks and one ambulance all for under $10,000. He thinks the diesel engines on these trucks alone are worth a lot more than that.

Mr. Bruns, who works for a wholesale dealership in Baltimore, wasn't sure how to remove his purchases from the fairgrounds. He's never been in the driver's seat of a fire truck. These trucks have something like seven, stick-shift-looking things.

"I'll take a shot at driving it," he said.

And he wasn't sure about what to do with his day's catch. Sure, any man can buy used emergency vehicles, but what the heck do you do with them? Wearing a "what-have-I-done" expression, Mr. Bruns got an idea.

He could park the vehicles in front of the dealership. All their showy lights could be turned on, he thought. Fire up all the sirens, although he had forgotten to check if the sirens worked.

"It could be a cheap Grand Opening kind of thing," he said.

Or maybe there's a boatyard nearby.

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