Bruce Springsteen might best have encapsulated the seamier side of the second-hand automobile business in Used Cars, his melancholy ballad from the Nebraska album of 1982. “My little sister’s in the front seat with an ice cream cone,/My ma’s in the back seat sittin’ all alone,/As my pa steers her slow out of the lot for a test drive down Michigan Avenue./Now my ma, she fingers her wedding band/And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands./He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could, but he just can’t…/Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again.”
Used cars. For people who can’t afford new ones; for the haven’t-quite-made-its; for those who aspire, but somehow don’t achieve; for people who don’t look at How To Spend It. In reality, however, there are plenty of people reading Howtospendit.com right now for whom a certain used-car marketplace will need no introduction. Because in City circles the hugely successful website PistonHeads seems to be viewed almost as regularly as trading screens, by the same people – and often with considerably more enthusiasm. For those who love interesting motors, the site has come to be regarded as one of the richest sources of news, information, opinion and (of course) “used cars” on the internet – not least due to the fact that it serves as a mine of information for the burgeoning number of enthusiasts who are investing in the fast-growing modern classics market.
For the gearheads who haven’t heard of it, PistonHeads was set up in 1998 by talented computer-coding geek and TVR-sports-car enthusiast Dave Edmonston. It soon expanded to become a forum for those with an eye for interesting cars in general, and then a virtual meeting point for everyone and anyone who wanted to talk about anything to do with vehicles of any sort. By January 2007, the site had reached a level where it was attracting 900,000 users per month – at which point Edmonston was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by a major publishing house and sold up for an undisclosed sum that is widely rumoured to have been nicely into seven figures.
Edmonston has since become something of an enigma, refusing interviews about his past involvement with PistonHeads and instead communicating on forums as PetrolTed, while continuing to develop code, notably a powerful used-car search engine that has been adopted by another publishing house and used by some of its motoring titles.
Now, almost nine years after Edmonston relinquished it, PistonHeads has grown to draw more than 5m unique visitors per month, who, between them, have so far made more than 39m posts at a rate now of 9,000 per day. Much has been written about their varied subject matter, which ranges from diets and dress sense to what watch to wear and how to conduct oneself at a formal dinner. It has even been called “the Mumsnet for men”, thanks to the broad mix of topics that gives the site its variety and makes it generally more interesting than a motoring forum that relentlessly focuses on cars and cars alone.
But from a business perspective it’s undoubtedly the used-car offering – which invariably exceeds more than 125,000 classifieds – that makes the site successful. And while its broad church of readers includes first-car owners looking for performance tips, and even teenagers who aren’t old enough to drive but dream of getting behind the wheel, it is proving increasingly popular with the wealthier type of petrolhead.
The person largely responsible for the site attracting such people is Lee Williams, executive director of PistonHeads and digital revenue director at parent firm Haymarket Publishing. In 1996 he launched the UK’s number-one digital automotive marketplace, Auto Trader, which underwent a £2.35bn flotation this March – and he is now focused on taking PistonHeads to a position to where it is snapping at its rival’s heels.
In the past two years, Williams has overseen the technical enhancement of the PistonHeads site to the tune of £1.5m, which, among other improvements, has enabled the launch of a bespoke search engine and this month sees the release of a groundbreaking system that enables prospective purchasers of specific types of car to bring together vast amounts of reviews and financial and ownership data to help in the decision-making process.
“It is well known that traditional classic cars have proved to be exceptional investments in recent years – but the PistonHeads classifieds are now being used by people who are looking for the emerging cars, more modern models from the 1980s and 1990s, which are starting to rise in value dramatically,” says Williams. “The data we’ll be making available will show how values have changed, how the listed prices have risen for specific cars and, through the huge amount of information supplied by members via our blogs, just what various cars are really like to own. We have a big following in the City, so we have also developed investment-style charts to help people decide whether or not a particular car is a good buy.”
The site’s editor is motoring journalist Dan Trent, who has the additional remit of co-presenting PistonHeads TV, a video portal launched in February that broadcasts short car-related pieces. Trent is also a regular attendee at the increasingly popular Sunday Services organised by PistonHeads, at which up to 500 followers of the site meet at notable locations around the UK to talk about, and drive, their cars.
“The site really does attract extremes,” says Trent, who has been editor since 2011. “What I find so rewarding about it is the fact that it is very accommodating to all types of enthusiast, from the not so well off to those who have really impressive collections of supercars. It’s a great leveller, because there are people from all walks of life whose shared interest brings them together to discuss all kinds of topics on the forums – and it has resulted in what could be termed an ‘anti-bragging’ culture. We have many members who own extremely special cars worth seven-figure sums, but they will happily contribute to a forum along with other people who could never afford anything so valuable, but are extremely knowledgeable about them all the same.
“But it’s the used-car aspect that drives PistonHeads, which means we angle the editorial content towards buying and selling. What is unusual is that it’s not all about us giving news and information to readers in the conventional sense – it is equally about them recounting their own experiences of buying and selling and imparting the knowledge they have gained in doing so.”
To illustrate his point, Trent cites the recent example of a forum topic about Porsche’s launch earlier this year of the limited-production Cayman GT4. “Initially, Porsche announced that a certain number of these cars would be produced and various people who had written letters of intent to purchase them posted the fact on the site. Inevitably, several of these people didn’t make the list – but then they were contacted by Porsche to say that production numbers were to be increased and that they were being offered a second chance to buy one. That’s probably not something that would have become widely known without it becoming a discussion on PistonHeads, but it’s important because it relates directly to the future market value of the cars. From an editorial perspective, that sort of thing is fascinating, because we are learning from the readership rather than the other way around.”
One person who pays close attention to such valuable snippets of information that could later prove key to deciding whether or not to buy a particular car is Darius Sanai, a magazine editor, wine collector and modern-classic-car enthusiast whose stable of investment-grade automobiles includes a fast-rising Porsche 911 996 Turbo and five Ferraris (Testarossa, 512M, 550 Maranello, 575 Maranello and 430 Spider). “Logging on to PistonHeads is part of my daily routine,” says Sanai, who landed both the Porsche and the Ferrari Testarossa this year after trawling the site for suitable examples. “I am very much a buyer of modern classics, so I’m always looking out for the next car that is likely to rise in value. At the moment, my interests are very specific and that is partly why I find PistonHeads so useful – it encourages vertical, not horizontal, car browsing.
“In the old days you’d leaf through lots of classifieds advertising every car available, or scan dealership adverts listing lots of marques. With PistonHeads, I always focus on my car of interest and am never led away to something else. So I will look at, say, dozens of 993s or 911 Supersports or Ferrari 355s each evening, and never Astons or Maseratis and so on.
“What I’ve also discovered is that the people who use the site tend to be discerning, which means that junk seldom, if ever, turns up there. Plus, if a desirable car is on sale anywhere in Britain, it is almost invariably listed on the site – if it’s not, it probably doesn’t exist. Other sites simply aren’t so exhaustive, and they also don’t offer the useful comparative valuations that are available on PistonHeads for even very rare cars.”
But for Jeremy Copp, the chief commercial officer of eeGeo, which provides a 3D mapping platform for mobile-phone applications, PistonHeads is simply a great place to talk about cars and to look for new ones to add to a burgeoning collection that currently includes a Lamborghini Gallardo, Caterham Seven, Land Rover Defender and Audi RS4. “I have been using PistonHeads since it was launched and was one of the very first forum members; its attraction never diminishes,” he says. “The reason it works so well for someone like me is that it largely focuses on the enthusiast market, which means it is mainly about interesting cars rather than run-of-the-mill ones. The combination of great editorial, a wide spread of forum topics and the large number of cars for sale means there’s a lot to look at and, frankly, I probably spend way too much of my time on it.
“But, as someone who is in the digital-media business, I can really appreciate what it has to offer in terms of its search facilities. Right now, I am looking for a classic from the year of my birth, so I’ve simply set up an alert to let me know every time a car made then is listed for sale.
“I’ve no doubt PistonHeads will find me one – the problem is, I’m running out of storage…”