Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fear and Loathing in the Used Car Lot

Few things in life cause me more anxiety than buying a used vehicle. I've had several bad experiences. Used vehicles are expensive and unpredictable and I've heard the horror stories about people who drove a vehicle off the lot only to have it fall apart at the next corner. And since I know nothing about cars I'm entirely at the mercy of the dealers. Buying a car in South Africa was the last thing I wanted to do. It was also the first thing we needed to do. South Africa isn't a place that can be visited by bus, and renting a car for six months was not an option.
We started our used car shopping with the name of dealer. It had been given to me by some South Africans I met in a pub and seemed as good a starting point as any. Lara and I hopped in cab to throw ourselves at their mercy.

“My parents in law have a car for sale,” said the cab driver. “It's an Opel Corsa. 100,000KM. If you want I can phone them and we can go to take a look at it. It's only thirty thousand rand ($3000 dollars).”

He made a couple of phone calls and a few minutes later we had stopped at a grocery store to pick up his in-laws..

“Is it far?” I asked nervously, eying the still-ticking meter.

“Only 15 km, don't worry. You'll be safe. Foreigners always think we are going to rob them.”
About 25km later we pulled into a small house and Lara did a test drive of the vehicle. It seemed OK but it was small and cheaply made. We decided to continue shopping and the cab driver took us back towards town. We went down Voortrekker road, a busy street studded with used-car dealerships. We had an address mix up and couldn't find the dealership we were heading for so we took a chance and stepped out at a random dealership. We paid the whopping cab fare.
“I've got just the vehicle for you” said the helpful young man. “It's a Toyota Camry. 3.0L motor. Lots of power. Whatever you do, don't buy a vehicle privately. Too many crooks. It could be stolen and you'd never know until you went to sell it. And if you mess up the paperwork you'll have all sorts of problems later.”

We took the Camry for a test drive. “Isn't it supposed to accelerate when I put the pedal to the floor?”, asked Lara.

“We've got a 4 wheel drive station wagon coming in tomorrow. I think that would be perfect for you. Come here early and you can go for a test drive.”

The next day we rented a car so that we could continue our shopping without taxis, and we drove off to the dealership that had been recommended to us. Unfortunately it was more high-end than what we were looking for. We were still debating whether to spend more for a better vehicle and risk losing a lot in the resale, or buying something cheap that might give us all sorts of problems. Unfortunately this dealer was completely outside of our price range, and not to friendly to top it off.

We went back to the first dealership to test drive the station wagon.

“That's it over there. Just sold it. You should have been here earlier. But I've got a Volvo coming in tomorrow. That'll be great for you! It's exactly what you need.”

The next dealership was Xenith motors. It specialized in older vehicles. “We sell to lots of foreigners” the gregarious owner assured us. “We'll even buy it back from you in six months, though of course not for what you paid. We are a business after all. And if anything goes wrong you can always call us. We rely on repeat business. You can trust us.”

We told him about the Volvo.

“Nobody buys Volvos. Impossible to get parts. No wonder they are trying to sell it to you. You want a cheap, common car with a small engine so that it gets good gas mileage. Like this Honda over here.”

“The Honda probably isn't a very good choice” said the next dealer. “If you are going to Namibia the only common vehicles are Volkswagon and Toyota. This Volkswagon over here is very nice and has very low mileage.”

We took it for a test drive and were amazed at how a vehicle with such low mileage could have such worn seats and pedals. The service history was conveniently missing. We continued our search.

“This one has had only a single owner. See the yellow license plates.” It drove great but the price was a little high. Still, if the dealer was willing to stand behind it and buy it back.

“If you give me a month's notice I might be able to find somebody to sell it to when you leave,” said the dealer. “It all depends on the market. I'm not promising anything.”

“It sounds very over-priced.” said the next dealer. “And you said it's green. Nobody buys green vehicles. And it's a big motor so it'll have no resale value. We have some great vehicles here but they might be a bit expensive for you. We can arrange a buyback if you like but the more expensive the vehicle the more you lose on the trade-in.” Their honesty was refreshing and the vehicles were beautiful. Too beautiful for me unfortunately. I couldn't see how these beautiful cars would survive driving through game parks and dirt roads for six months without some serious wear and tear.

Two days passed in a confusion of dealerships and conflicting advice. Just when we thought we had it figured out we'd find yet another option to consider. This one had fuel injection which was good. Or was it bad because it was hard to fix? The one thing almost all the dealers agreed on was that there were a lot of crooks out there who would rip us off. We were shown a number of times how to tell if a vehicle had been in an accident, and how to accurately assess the age.
In the end we went back to the Xenith motors and settled on an old VW for just over $3000.00. Of all the dealers we'd seen they had been the most welcoming and they seemed happy to buy the vehicle back from us when we left. The VW has very high mileage but it drove nicely. The only problem was a worrying pull to the left.

“Don't worry, I'll sort it out before you get it. We do a full service of all our vehicles. I want you to be happy. If anything goes wrong just call me.” We paid the deposit.

“It'll be ready in a few days. We've sold lots of vehicles this week and it takes a while to get them inspected and ready to go out.”

The next few days were agonizing. Had we made the right choice? It was cheap, but the mileage was very high. Maybe we should have bought a newer car, or a smaller one, or a whiter one, or a different model. Every time we passed a car dealer my eyes scanned the prices. Why was that 2001 Toyota so cheap compared to ours? By the time we returned we'd almost talked ourselves into abandoning our deposit and going shopping again.

“We'll take it for a test-drive before we pay the rest,” I reassured Lara. “If we aren't happy we'll just walk away. It's only a couple of hundred dollars.”

We did the registry paperwork in the morning and then waited in a shopping mall for most of the day while they finished the car. In South Africa all cars need a road-worthy inspection when they are sold. When we arrived back at the shop at 5 PM our car was still in pieces. They'd been having troubles with the brakes. It has passed inspection, we were told, but Michael felt the brakes weren't good enough and he wanted us to be happy.

“What about the pull to the left?”

“Don't worry about it”, he said. “I know these cars. It's just the tires. It's good now. You'll see.”
Finally the brakes were done but the shop was closing and we took it for a hurried test drive. “It seems good” said Lara worriedly. We paid the rest of the money and they closed the shop.
We drove off in our new car. We turned left onto Voortrekker road and drove three blocks to the freeway entrance. We turned right onto the freeway and accelerated.

Whump, whump, whump. WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP.

“What the hell is that?” said Lara.

The car was pulling badly to the left and the front end was making a sickening noise. We pulled over, but nothing was obviously wrong.

“We can't drive it like this.”

“We can't leave it here either.”

We drove slowly and made it home. If we only turned left it felt almost normal.

I didn't sleep much that night. All the horror stories about used cars floated in my head. We had only Michael's verbal assurance that we could trust him. Surely we had just been suckered. What better way to get rid of wreck then sell it to some stupid foreigners who couldn't tell the engine from the transmission.

It was a nerve-wracking weekend but fortunately the weather was nice and we were able to climb Table Mountain to take our minds of the car.

On Monday morning we hopped back into the car. It wouldn't start.

“Oh, wait a second.” said Lara. “It has a manual choke.”

She coaxed it to life and got it out onto the freeway. We drove noisily towards the dealership when the engine coughed and died. Lara pulled it over the the side of the road. The needle was on empty. In all the excitement we'd forgotten to fill up the gas. Lara went off for gas. I waited.
By the time we got to the dealership our nerves were shot. I bent down to look at the wheel one more time before we went in and my fingers instinctively probed the lug nuts. The nut turned in my hand. So did the other ones. The wheel was loose. They had forgotten to tighten the nuts after doing all the brake work.

Michael came out. “I wish you'd called me.” he said when he saw the problem. “This has happened before. One time the wheel came right off. Passed the guy on the highway. I keep telling the mechanic to double check but its hopeless.”

“It doesn't start very well either”, said Lara, still shaken.. She demonstrated.

“Oh, that's the choke. You only pull it half way out. If you pull it all the way out it floods the engine.” He demonstrated. It started flawlessly.

Our fears evaporated like the clouds pouring off Table Mountain behind us. Michael took us on a long test drive. “It's nice to be out of the shop for a while”, he said. “Our baby keeps us up all night. We get so little sleep.” The car still pulled a bit so he took us to an alignment place and negotiated a cheap price on a wheel alignment.

“It's a used car,” he said. “It's unpredictable. I can't see the future and I don't know what will go wrong, but if people are nice to me I'll try and help them out as much as I can. Just don't yell at me. If you have any more problems, just call me. Now follow me and I'll show you a place where you can get some great sausages for cheap.”

Used cars, like people, are unpredictable. We won't know until the end of our trip if we got lucky with our vehicle. We do know that we were fortunate with our choice of dealer. That's a big comfort.

1 comment:

mashenka@dc said...

Taco, just reading the post makes me feel anxious. You're a great writer ... Mari