DTW’s Daniel O’Callaghan remembers the once fraught and risky business of buying a second-hand car.
Before the introduction of effective consumer protection legislation and manufacturer backed Approved Pre-Owned schemes, buying a used car was often a fraught business. At the bottom end of the market, the stereotypical used car dealer operated out of a Portakabin plonked in the corner of a pot-holed lot in the dingier parts of our towns and cities. The recently (and soon to be again) vacant lot was decorated with gaudy flags and bunting to distract visitors from the cheerless and grim surroundings. The salesman was a matey and overly familiar geezer, superficially affable, but with an unsettling hint of menace should you cross him.
The cars were usually of dubious provenance and, despite being highly polished and having their tyre sidewalls coated with shiny and sticky black bituminous paint, they often had the countenance of an ageing drag artist, with too much slap trying to hide the signs of a hard life. Inside, they smelt overpoweringly of Mr Sheen, lemon air freshener, damp, and something unsavoury you couldn’t quite identify.
The cars were often ‘sold as seen’ and once you had driven your new pride and joy off the lot, the dealer would recognise neither you nor the car again, should you have the misfortune to suffer a problem and have to return. Even if you got a third-party warranty, often at extra cost, they were typically for no more than three months and came with an encyclopaedic list of exclusions.
There were endless tricks to hide mechanical and cosmetic maladies from the enthusiastic but gullible purchaser. Handfuls of sawdust would temporarily quieten down a grumbling gearbox or differential. Rattly, tappety top-end? Just screw down the adjusters to eliminate the valve clearances completely. Copious quantities of Holts Radweld or Bar’s Leaks would seal up a blown head-gasket just long enough for the new owner to make it home.
Engine burning oil and producing lots of white smoke when cold? Simply change the oil for some that has the viscosity of molasses. Low oil pressure or a faulty alternator? Just wire the oil pressure warning light to the generator warning light, or vice-versa, and both will illuminate and extinguish together as expected.
Rust was, of course, the hidden killer back in the days before galvanized bodyshells and often took hold before the car was even out of its manufacturer’s generous one-year warranty. Any claims within the warranty period were easily dismissed as resulting from external factors, in other words, the fact that you had driven the car.
So, what was the second-hand car dealer to do? Rust holes in the sills? Just plate over them with the thinnest gauge mild steel you can find and slap on as many coats of bitumastic underseal as necessary to hide the welds. Perforated floorpan in the footwells? No need even to plate, just glue down the carpets with Evo-Stik and apply bitumastic paint to the underside. For bodywork corrosion, copious quantities of Isopon or Plastic Padding reinforced with chicken wire would do the trick nicely, for a month or two at least before the tell-tale bubbling would appear through the pristine new paintwork.
A dressing with paraffin would restore lustre to flat paintwork, at least for 24 hours. Speedometer cables would be attached to an electric drill run for as long as it took to wind the odometer back many thousands of miles, so the hard-used hack could be advertised as having had “one elderly lady owner, used only for weekly church attendance”.
Requests for an immediate test drive were often declined because “nobody was available to man the phones”. However, if you returned in an hour, the salesman would be happy to oblige. During this golden hour, the semi-flat tyres would be inflated, the car jump-started and driven around for it to be warmed up sufficiently so it would actually fire up on the first twist of the key when you returned.
During your test drive, the salesman would talk incessantly to distract you from the cacophony of rattles and squeaks emanating from every corner. Anything you might question would be dismissed as a “they all do that” characteristic rather than a fault. If you did get the salesman reluctantly to concede that something was actually wrong, he would assure you that his expert mechanic, who ‘specialises in all makes’, would get the fault fixed before you collected the car.
If you had a trade-in, the salesman would cast a critical eye over it, pointing out every minor blemish while sucking air in between his clenched teeth. He would patiently explain that there was no demand for a model such as yours; “Can’t give ‘em away, mate.” He would then make a derisory offer, explaining that his boss would probably sack him for taking in such an old nail.
Any attempt to negotiate would be met with pained expressions. Eventually, he would agree to “talk to the boss” purely because he likes you and wants to help you out. He disappears for long enough to make you sweat, but not so long that you up and leave, before returning with a marginally improved deal and the news that the boss is “not happy” (ergo, you should be).
Even franchised dealers seemed rather embarrassed to have to engage in the grubby business of selling second-hand cars. They were often parked around the back, out of sight. When you arrived in the showroom, you could sense the salesman’s disappointment when he found out that you were not interested in the shiny new models on display indoors. One of his junior colleagues would be summoned to escort you out of the showroom, ensuring that the established system of apartheid was maintained, and he could focus on ‘proper’ customers instead.
I should conclude by acknowledging that there are many small independent used car dealers out there, just trying to make an honest living. Only a small minority engage in the sort of shady practices described above, but to fall into their clutches can be very painful indeed.