Uncle Sam had a garage sale yesterday, and about 300 people showed up in Springfield in hopes of striking a bargain on a used car from the government's vast motor pool.
"$4,300! Can I get $4,350?" auctioneer Jim Smallwood shouted in staccato outbursts as his poker-faced audience eyed a 1984 white Chevrolet station wagon. "$4,350! Can I get $4,400? $4,400! $4,400! Going once. Twice. Sold for $4,400!"
With that, Jerre Snider of Waynesboro, Pa., became the first buyer of the day.
It was housecleaning day for the General Services Administration, the government's landlord and central supply agency, which oversees nearly 7,000 government-owned or leased buildings and periodically disposes of items -- including cars -- deemed surplus.
Last year, the GSA sold 36,973 used cars, trucks, vans and motorcycles for $56.8 million in more than 500 sales around the country, according to agency officials.
Yesterday's sale, one of about 10 the GSA holds each year in the Washington area, brought in $268,755 in about 3 1/2 hours, GSA employe Jackie Arrington said. All 102 vehicles on the block were sold.
The selection did not include a Mercedes, BMW or Porsche. Instead, the government was unloading its surplus fleet of 1984 front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Citations and Celebrity station wagons.
Regardless, the market was there. Families went, looking for a second car or something for a son or daughter in school to drive. Dealers went, looking to buy at wholesale and then resell at a higher price.
After about 15 minutes, it became clear that this was not a harmonious group.
"It's a shame that they allow the dealers to go away with 10 cars," said Pat Childers of Springfield. "I think it should be like at the grocery store, limit three to a customer. I can't afford to compete with the dealers. They came with a pocketful of money."
Not so, said Bob Greenway of Claybank Motors in Waldorf, Md. "The public is driving the price up," he said, because people are not aware of the vehicles' "book" prices.
Fred Ellis of Mocksville, N.C., looked as if he was not sure who to blame for his bad luck. Ellis was constantly shaking his straw-hat-covered head as bids went higher than he wanted them to. For two hours, Ellis, who said he buys cars and resells them at his own auction, used a variety of bidding gestures -- including waving a yardstick, whirling his hands and making karatelike motions -- all without success.
Gerry McHugh of Middletown, Md., said he has been buying his family cars at GSA auctions for 10 years. "I was hoping it would rain today," he said. "Most of the best deals come in the rain. If it's sunny, prices are up."
McHugh, who bought a Citation for his 20-year-old daughter, a student at Old Dominion University, said the "sunshine cost me about $400" extra. But he was not complaining: The car he purchased for $2,400 has a wholesale value of $2,850, he said.
Each vehicle auctioned has a minimum price the government will accept. Most purchasers get fair deals, said Byron Strain, GSA chief of personal property programs for the area. He added that the government cannot "give" the cars away because of its obligation to the taxpayers.
"The public thinks the $100 Jeep is still around," Strain said. "That day is long gone."