YOU'RE CRAWLING AROUND a dark field in the wilds of Delaware, thinking about buying a car you can't really see, can't get into, can't turn on, and can't test drive.

You're not crazy. You're at a car auction.

We went to one when our late-lamented Mustang went off to college with one of our scholars after spring break. Shamu, our battered gray Chevy station wagon, is a whale of a car, but even his big heart couldn't hack four drivers alone.

So we asked a good friend, a world-class shopper who's flushed out bargains in a three-state area, where to get a good buy on a used car.

Wilson's Auto Auction near Lincoln, Delaware, Andy announced with the finality of a man who's bought four cars there in five years, none of them clunkers. And all, he swore, 30 to 40 percent off list.

That did it. Fueled by a gambler's instinct, my husband decided to go, "just to look" for an El Dorado.

Our 19 year-old son, Justin, jumped into Shamu too, secretly coveting a Corvette or Camaro.

Gripped by greed -- and panic at what they might do -- I rode shotgun as the resident nag.

Andy came along to look and to reassure us.

We did have a few qualms. For one thing, the auctions start at 6:30 p.m., prime cocktail hour. And, as we hurtled across the Bay Bridge toward the gathering dusk clutching flashlight, car guide and bank letter of credit, we realized we were pretty much in the dark about the whole thing.

When we pulled into the dimly lit lot after a 2 1/2-hour ride, there were about 25 cars lined up: a few late models, a couple of sports cars, some distinct bow-wows, and a lot of pickups. All of them locked, all of them unknown quantities to us.

The back lot was where the "B lane" cars were languishing, all pre-1977 models. A marvelous glut of fins and chrome and muscle. And rust. A gaggle of men were arguing about whether or not to bid on a screaming yellow 1976 Cadillac battleship. It was right out of Lucia Di Lammermoor -- either the sextette or the mad scene, take your pick.

More cars kept rolling in all the time, until there were well over 100. Was Shamu's new sibling here, we wondered?

Inside the big warehouse building people were drifting in, the men bellying up to the two wood stoves, the women eating chili dogs, the kids popping bubble gum. Everybody looked the same from the back, with dusty rear ends from sitting on the bleachers.

Pretty soon a man rolled out what looked like a weatherbeaten bomb, about the size and shape of the V-2s that pulverized London during the blitz. He turned it on, and clouds of rusty smoke belched out for ten minutes. This was a space heater.

It must have been a sign the auction was about to start, because all of a sudden about a hundred men materialized, most of them in baseball caps and nylon windbreakers. A lot of them were dealers, there to buy and sell. All of them were eyeing the first four cars rolling in the door.

That's when the smoke really hit the fan. Get that many cars together in a fairly closed space, and forget emission controls. Forget oxygen. Forget breathing. Paddle fans churned overhead, but it was like Scarlett O'Hara trying to clear away an atomic cloud with her lace fan.

Two women broke out surgical masks.

The first car entered the ring. The driver, behind closed windows in the only clean air in the place, was merrily puffing away on a Camel.

About 20 people attacked the car like piranhas, going for the hood latch, feeling under the fenders. bouncing the shocks, rummaging in the trunk.

"Rev it up," somebody would yell, and the driver would accelerate to 100 or so. About eight heads went under the hood, like surgeons in greasy coveralls. A few guys yanked the doors open and gave the insides a 20-second CAT scan.

The whole physical took about 90 seconds before the auctioneer, owner Dave Wilson, began his incantations. A drum roll of the tongue, a vowel here and there, no breathing for minutes at a time, no swallowing, not a word we could grasp.

"What'd he say?" we kept asking each other. All the while, people were circling the car, eyes locked with the auctioneer's, nodding, blinking, calling out numbers or waving.

He seemed to start the bidding at $5,000, and within minutes it was at $500. Was this reverse psychology or what? By the time he got to $1,000, he was haggling for "nickels and dimes" -- $5 and $10 raises.

After a while, we caught on to the sing-song and could do simultaneous translations. But we hung back, paralyzed by indecision and numbed by the signs all around.

"As Is -- Where Is Definition" said one particularly straightforward one. "There is no implied warranty of merchantability and there is no implied warranty of fitness. There is no impied warranty at all . . . expressed or implied."

Forget about bringing back the pieces, we figured.

"Any vehicle requiring assistance to go through the auction ring will be charged $5 additional (towed or pushed.)"

It required too big a leap of faith for us. Justin, gutsier by far, would have bid on a beautiful 1982 Camaro six-cyclinder except we stuck a rag down his throat. It went for $2,450. He never reproached us.

There were two Cadillac El Dorados -- 1980s -- that went into the gloaming for $2,525 and $4,050. We never opened our mouths, struck dumb by caveat emptor-itis.

Andy, the veteran, had his eye on a 1982 9-passenger Olds Custom Cruiser diesel station wagon. When it came up, he just kept steady eye contact with Wilson, and got it for $3,100.

Justin drove home with him. We followed meekly in Shamu.


If you're interested in joining the bidding, some auction sites require a bank letter of credit, a cash deposit, or a registration fee.

The fee or deposit is almost always refundable if you don't buy anything, or is applied to your purchase if you do. It's used to discourage irresponsible bidding and "buyers' remorse," where a purchaser tries to get out of a deal, or simply walks away from a purchase. There may also be other various buyer and seller fees. Purchases are usually made by cash or certified check. ON THE BLOCK

Following are some auctions open to dealers and the public.

WILSON'S AUTO AUCTIONS INC. -- U.S. 113, one mile south of Lincoln, Del. ; phone 302/422-3454 or 302/856-2110. Auction every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.; open to dealers and the public. Rotating weekly specials: late models, imports, trucks, 4 and 6 cylinders, 8 cylinders. Established in 1977. Owner Dave Wilson says 60 percent of the cars sold are from dealers, 40 percent from the public; about 75 percent are bought by the public. Sells between 8,500 and 9,000 vehicles a year. Sellers pay $20 registration fee to sell up to $500, plus $5 for each additional $500. Buyers pay a straight $20 fee. Buyers also must have a bank letter of credit or make a $100 cash refundable deposit. If you can locate the seller on the premises and get his assistance, you can get in and start the engine and lift the hood.

To get there from the Beltway, take U.S. 50 across the Bay Bridge to Maryland Rte. 404; take 404 southeast to about 4 miles past Denton; then Maryland Rte. 16 east to U.S. 113; then 113 north about 6 miles to the site.

CAR AND TRUCK AUCTION OF MARYLAND INC. -- 1370 West North Ave., Baltimore; 301/669-1661, or free metro number 737-3453. Auction every other Saturday at 10 a.m. (Next one May 10). Averages 200 vehicles each time, many repossessed or from leasing companies; no registration fee or deposit. Buyers pay a sliding scale from $30 to $75; sellers pay flat $60 to consign.

CARROLL'S AUTO AUCTION -- just off U.S. 13 in Felton, Del.; 302/284-4911. Auction every Tuesday at noon and every Thursday at 7 p.m.; $10 non-refundable registration fee to sell, plus a flat $15 fee if your car sells. Buyers pay $20 to $35. About 100 vehicles per auction.

VIRGINIA-CAROLINA AUTO AUCTION -- 1426 Goodyear Blvd., Danville, Virginia; 804/797-5165. Auction every Friday at 7 p.m.; $7 to enter a vehicle for sale; another $20 if it sells; buyers pays $20 fee. About 100 to 125 vehicles a week.

WRANGLE HILL AUTO AUCTION -- 3482 Wrangle Hill Rd. (Delaware Route 72), Bear, Delaware (2 miles south of Newark, Del.); 302/834-6673. Auction every Monday and Friday at 7 p.m.; $20 seller's fee; graduated buyer's fee starting at $30; no registration fee. Averages 180 vehicles each sale. OTHER AUCTIONS

Other auctions offering impounded, surplus, seized vehicles and the like are: DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

D.C. POLICE -- First or second Tuesday of the month. Next auction May 13. Gates open 7 a.m., bidding at 8 a.m. Can open the hood, but not start cars. Most are impounded. $50 refundable fee. Certified check or cash. 5001 Shepherd's Parkway SW, Blue Plains impoundment area. Call 767-7586. MARYLAND

MONTGOMERY COUNTY POLICE -- Abandoned vehicle auction, third Saturday of even months (next one on June 21). Gates open 8 a.m., auction starts at 10 a.m. Can run the engine; $25 refundable fee; cash, certified or personal checks. 580 Metropolitan Grove Road, Gaithersburg. Call 840-2453.

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY POLICE -- Every five weeks (next one this Saturday). Gates open 8 a.m., auction at 9:30 a.m. Can open the hood; no keys; cars are impounded, some inoperable. Cash only. $50 refundable fee. 4920 Ritchie Marlboro Rd., Upper Marlboro; Call 336-8800, Ext 207. VIRGINIA

ALEXANDRIA POLICE -- No set dates. City Impounding Lot, 5249 Eisenhower Ave. Gates open 8:30 a.m., bids at 10 a.m. Cash only. $50 refundable fee. Call 838-4664.

ARLINGTON COUNTY -- Both confiscated or impounded cars from the police department and surplus county cars. Last Saturday of the month, auctioned by Freestate Auction Services, 8708 Armstrong Lane, Upper Marlboro. Refundable fee of $200. Phone 420-7257 for further information.

FAIRFAX COUNTY -- Surplus county vehicles auctioned by Freestate, same time, same place, same refundable fee as for Arlington.

FAIRFAX COUNTY POLICE -- No auctions. A spokeswoman said impounded or seized cars are either given to charity, returned to owners, or become county property.

GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION -- Surplus car auction about once a month, usually Friday, starting at 9 a.m. Next auction this Friday. Can inspect the cars, start them and look under the hood but not drive them, up to two days before. 6808 Loisdale Rd., Springfield. No fee. $100 deposit on any vehicle you buy. Call 557-7796.