How not to be an idiot.
I'll start this off by telling you what I used to tell my kids: whenever you do anything involving other people, or power tools, don't be an idiot. If you already are an idiot, try not to act like one.
Have you ever bought a used car? And I’m not talking a certified pre-owned Lexus from your sales bro at the local dealership who used to sit behind you in Algebra II back in high school – I’m talking about a dodgy Dodge in a dim and dank barn from a shady dood named Shecky? Or blind, from a complete stranger, in a weird part of the country, off of ebay or Craigslist, or Autotrader, with cash? No? What the hell have you been doing with your life, Kemosabe?
This is the exact kind of interesting and sometimes sophomoric adventure that I think should be on everyone’s bucket list, especially politicians, lawyers and loud know-it-alls. And social scientists and policy makers and full-time professional wonks too. I even think if you started a company offering foreigners an opportunity to purchase a big-ticket item off the internet and take it or ship it home with them as a kind of treasure hunt into the unsubtle heart of the country, you’d get a lot of takers and I’ll tell you why. It’s the perfect opportunity to see what America is really like – good souls and sometimes side-cast glances of suspicion and cackalack accents, life stories and struggles and hope and all.
Just be sure you want to find out. I once drove all the way up to Utica, New York in the dead of winter to buy a triple-white VW convertible from a hippie freak named Sugaree L’mont. No lie. I had spoken to him on the phone several times and it was the exact car I was looking for, and the price was just about right. He said it was in the garage at his trucking company, and the last time he had taken it out it started right up, no problem. Brakes were a little soft, and it might need a new battery, but overall good. So I’m driving forever on my way up and pass a boat being raised in a lock on the Saint Lawrence seaway fer chrissakes. Way, way up even more. I finally get there and meet Sugaree and we go out to this industrial garage and it’s filled with all kinds of old cars and trucks, tractors and elevators of all things. I spot the VW in the far corner and when we finally get up close, I can see it’s an absolute wreck. Covered in years of filth and dust, all tires flat, doors rusted shut, a complete basket case. I say to him I thought you said it was running the last time you took it out. He says yes, it was. I ask when was that? He said sometime not long after that bastard Nixon resigned.
Fast forward back to reality: I took a recent trip to Tuckahoe with my Teutonic sidekick, Peter Trautmann. Not that I’m the Lone Ranger or anything, but he’s the perfect compagne de voyage: a funny, up-for-anything car aficionado and expert wrench. Couple of wrong turns in Scarsdale on the way – man that town is leafy and rich! Up a couple of sidestreets behind the train station and to a neighborhood of tightly-packed houses one driveway width apart. I can see the car we came looking for in front of a garage out back. This must be the house. We double park in the street since there’s no room for us to try to swing into the driveway. No place to turn around since cars were lining both sides of the street. Two kids are playing catch right in the road. Reminds me of Queens in the ‘70s. Where you ever in Queens in the ‘70s? No.
Vito comes out and we say our hellos. He’s an old-school paisano, so we hit if off immediately. No guile or pretense or b.s. The car is a battleship-gray 1961 Mercedes 220, 4-speed manual, 4-door sedan absolutely all original. Asking $6500. Fordham parking sticker from 1969 on the bumper. Last registered in 1997. Vito’s grandfather bought it in 1962 from his best friend who bought it new in '61 – his father drove it to work every day until Vito took it to college. He used it as a daily driver until the early ‘80s.
Let me backtrack (I was just about to write ‘backpedal’) a bit. Since this is a how-to, I’ll give you all the advice you need to know in a nutshell: show some common sense. Pretty simple, even though it doesn't seem to be easy for most people. When you first go on Craigslist or ebay or whatever marketplace, I’m going to assume you know what you’re looking for, have a rough budget in mind, and have already decided on how long you want to look and how far afield you’re willing to go. If you haven’t figured these things out beforehand, you’ll be searching for the rest of your life, or, you’ll buy the nearest cheapest easiest lowest hanging piece of fruit, so-to-speak, and then be either existentially unhappy without knowing it, or why, or selling the junk back pretty immediately at a loss, but the wiser.
Second, make sure the ad is legitimate, and accurate. If it seems too good to be true, it is. I’ll repeat that: if it seems to good to be true, it is. Believe me, don’t waste your time or you’ll get trolled or phished or scammed or rolled. If it seems like a really, really good deal, and the ad is more than 1 day old, it’s a scam. If it seems like a really, really good deal and the ad is less than 1 day old, you’ve already been beaten to the punch, I guarantee it, so keep looking.
So, how do you make sure the ad is real, and that they’re actually selling what’s pictured? First, if there’s only an email address, I send my name and phone number and tell them to call me, I’m interested, in this case in the 1961 Mercedes 220. If there’s a phone number, I call and leave my name and number and tell them that if the car is as they say it is in the ad, I’ll buy it. If they don’t call back, then there’s your answer – it’s sold. If they do call back, I have 2 questions that I ask them right off the bat, if everything I want to know is in the ad itself, which it usually isn’t.
Why are you selling your vehicle? Vito said his son bought a boat or an ATV or something and he needs the space in Vito’s garage to empty his garage to make room for it. That answer makes sense and is believable.
What’s wrong with it? Vito started to tell me what was already in the ad, and I said yes, I know, I read that, but what else is wrong with it? What’s really wrong with it? He said the ad was pretty accurate, and he has all the service records, etc. He seemed like he was one the up-and-up. I tell him that if the vehicle is as he says, I’ll buy it.
Third: arrange for a mutually-agreed upon time and place to meet. Make sure the vehicle itself is going to be at that location. Make sure all of the paperwork and anything else that’s going to be needed for the sale is there too. I once bought a VW Cabrio and flew out to Detroit to pick it up, sight unseen. Everything was as the guy said it was and I gave him the cash and we went to the bank together to pay off his loan so he could get the title, and then sign the title over to me. Only his mother had co-signed the loan and the bank said she needed to be there to sign off on it. She lived in Indiana. Are you kidding me? Luckily, and purely by chance she was coming that evening for a weekend visit and we were able to get back to the bank just before it closed, with mother in tow, and did the do.
I almost always trailer the vehicle home, even though I was able drive the Detroit VW all the way back to Connecticut on the previous owner’s plates and insurance. But the last thing you need is to be bombing down one of the long steep descents on I-80 in Pennsylvania and have a brittle brake line break. Or maybe it is – I shouldn’t pretend to know what your idea of ‘fun’ is.
Once you’ve got an appointment and your transport (and a co-pilot, if necessary) lined up, decide how much you are going to pay for the vehicle, your absolute upper limit, and then bring that much in cash. This will keep you from offering more than you want, since you don’t have it, and hundred dollars bills fanned out in front of a seller’s eyes is very beguiling. I never argue price – I tell them flat out what I’m going to pay and they can take it or leave it. I once bought a Fiat from a kid in Bayonne, NJ and he was hemming and huffing as we pulled into the bank parking lot to get him the cash. (In this case I didn’t want to drive through the ghetto with cash, and I had googled the bank and it was 2 blocks away.) I told him look – I’ll go into the bank and get an extra $100 over what I agreed to pay. We’ll flip a coin: if you win I’ll give you the extra $100, if I win I’ll subtract it. Most people want the bird in the hand and back down. Not this kid: he flipped that quarter in the middle of the TD Bank parking lot in Bayonne, NJ, and lost. But he had a story to tell for the rest of his life, and so do I.
As a sidebar note, I hadn’t driven that Fiat 3 blocks from the bank on my way home when I stopped at a stoplight and some random jamoco came up to me with a huge, wide-eyed grin and I thought he was going to car-jack me. Instead, he said his dad had a car just like that and did I want to sell it?
Back to Tuckahoe. We have a look at the car. It looked pretty much as he’d said and what you’d expect. I asked Vito what this curious circular pull-out thing was coming out of the trunk. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen one. He said his dad put it in – it was an after-market accessory. I asked him what it was for. He said it was so the hunting dogs could breathe. I'm not making this up.
Clutch cylinder is gone – Vito has a clothesline rope tied to the pedal to pull it back up. No big deal. Brakes need to be bled and rubber hoses replaced. Typical. Some rust underneath, but the frame seems to be solid. Tires are not too bad. After a lot of effort we finally get it started. Engine sounds surprisingly good. Peter goes back under the car to check for rust and Vito and I tell war stories. He tells me about his family coming over from Italy and settling in the area when most people in town mined marble at the local quarry. Cool stuff.
Peter had been under the car the whole time swearing to himself in German. He came out from underneath. He asked to see the inside of the trunk. Then he pulled out the back seat and looked underneath that. He said it was just as he suspected: Mercedes back then put a kind of rubber undercoat on all their cars and even though the undercoat seems like it’s still in good shape and intact, water usually went in behind it and rusted out the frame and chassis. And that’s what he fears has happened to this vehicle. Vito said in the ad there was no rust, and he wasn’t being dishonest – he just couldn’t see any and assumed there wasn’t any. Peter said most likely the rust was extensive and the whole undercarriage would need to be ripped out and re-welded. Huge, expensive job.
Peter and I went for a stroll and had a powwow. I asked him what did he want to pay for the car. He said he didn’t want it – too much work. I said the rest of the car is actually in pretty good shape – would he want it for $1500? He said there’s no way we could get it for that. I said we could offer Vito that, and if he didn’t take it we could just go home. He said ok.
I told Vito the car was one inch away from the junkyard, and no one else in their right mind would ever buy it. We would offer him $1500 for it and we would make sure his grandfather wouldn’t die. In fact, he would be happy that his pride and joy wasn’t turned into a recycled metrosexual toaster. Vito called his wife, his son, his car buddy, and I think even rung up his priest, but in the end sold it to us.
I won’t tell you about the comedy of errors getting it out of the driveway and onto the transport. We tried to get it going again but nothing. A simple jump start since the battery was dead? Nope. We finally figured out it wouldn’t start because we couldn’t get it out of gear since the clutch pedal with the genius rope attachment fiasco wouldn’t work this time for some reason, surprise, surprise. Push it? The Bismark, as we already affectionately called it, weighed literally a ton. Or two. But we soon realized that if we tried to start it in gear it would jump forward 5 feet or so since the starter was turning the engine which was turning the driveshaft and therefore the wheels. So we drove the Land Cruiser beside it with the jumper cables attached like an automobile external defibrillator sparking the death lurches of an epileptic elephant up onto a circus trailer. Send in the clowns!