Marginal Motoring

DTW’s Daniel O’Callaghan remembers the once fraught and risky business of buying a second-hand car.

Used Car Lot (c)

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.   

A warranty AND extra clean! (c)

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. 

Is it all it seems?

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.

Not pretty

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.

Aargh!!! (c)

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

20 thoughts on “Marginal Motoring”

  1. Actually I learned a few new tricks 😉 The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen was an Opel Kadett B, which had a completely rotted out floor of the luggage compartment. However, tt only showed when the car was lifted. When you looked inside the luggage compartment you saw a perfectly flat piece of carpet. It was only when you lifted the carpet you’d see a very thin layer of concrete… Great DIY job.

  2. It’s pleasing that such dealers offered the option of purchasing an ‘extra clean’ car: For those for whom merely clean just isn’t clean enough.

    1. Hi Chris. I always thought that ‘Clean’ in used car terms had nothing to do with its appearance, per se, but was a reference to the car having an FSH, no outstanding finance and no previous serious accident damage repairs. In that context, ‘Extra Clean’ is a puzzle!

    2. Well there’s an interesting conundrum… perhaps it means they actually bothered to check?

  3. I’m hoping these kind of nefarious tactics are all but banished from the small plots. Legislation, social media, heavier fists contain more “clout” these days. I’m sure the bodging must still occur – cut n’ shuts that happen neath railway arches (or probably in high tech but clandestine workshops) but this is a timely reminder of just how painful buying a car was back in not too distant past.
    When was the last time you saw a car like the one entitled “not pretty” above?

    1. If any younger readers find the things in Daniel’s article hard to believe, let me assure you that there is no hyperbole or creative licence in what he wrote. Back “in the day” as a lad petrol attendant I used to see it going on at the garages I worked at: it was truly despicable. Never was ‘caveat emptor’ more relevant.

    2. Hi Dale. Thank you for verifying what I wrote through your own first-hand experience. I recall reading about many of these tricks in a 1960’s issue of Practical Motorist magazine. It really was the Wild West, especially as cars were much more troublesome and fragile back then.

      Even today, one still sees too many troubling reports on consumer TV programmes about unscrupulous used car dealers and their victims are usually those with limited funds who need basic reliable transport. At least there is more legal redess these days.

  4. A great little trip down Memory Lane – thank you Daniel! Mind you, there were genuine bargains to be had, too – like a newly-MOT’d Hillman Super Minx I bought for £60 and ran for two years (needed a couple of light bulbs for the next MOT), consuming only petrol and oil. A bag of sugar which some moron tipped in the tank killed it, but I still got £40 from the scrap man. Unfortunately the dealer was by then no longer trading….

  5. So true, and thank you Daniel for that nice trip down my not-so memory lane!
    From my experience, sometimes the seller became dismissive and aggressive, if you dared to be persistent and asked “too many questions”, and tried to steer you away from the main point, that the car in question was a rusty, beaten down bucket of trouble.
    I regret to report that in less car-cultured countries like Greece, where car ownership was considered a privilege, and taxation crippled new buyers, the used car market flourished, keeping the same practices even today, ranging from high-mileage cars imported from the EU (mainly Germany) represented as lightly used rust-free examples with a fraction of the original miles, to literally dangerous chopped and bodged cars plastered with bondo and painted at a shed, using mish-mashed parts from different models.
    The worst example I’ve seen was a 1970’s ALFA GT Junior sold a few years ago. The body was held on with wood beams screwed on the chassis legs, the floor was replaced with a stop road sign, the fenders were filled with foam, and the doors were glued shut. Windscreen and rear window were not attached, as there wasn’t enough frame left to retain the rubber. The car was spray-painted red to cover up the crime, and when we tried to open the door, the whole frame collapsed and the body split in two. And this monstrosity was sold (and then resold to another gullible alfista) for 4000 Euros.

  6. I have to share my experience with second hand dealers in the UK ( where I was visiting and trying to buy a car with an accent giving away the fact I was not local) back in 2010
    Within the same day I tried to test drive two cars. First an audi allroad. The car did not start to begin with, had to jump start it (fair enough I said, they are honest enough not to prep it up for me). The “dealers” were obviously a family (big one) judging from their appearance. So me and an uncle of mine together with one of the dealers test drove that poor car ( which I have to say was nothing like the advert/pics) which obviously had something very wrong with its motor, huffing and puffing to get up a small hill. But as that short drive was near its goal the engine gave up completely. The dealer itself and others from the family tried to start it again and we ended up pushing the car back to the dealership.
    Trying to be polite and say I was not interested the dealer said he should charge me for destroying the car. To this day I do not know if he was serious or not, but from the looks of the whole family/gang that was around I took it not everybody thought that was just a humorous remark like me and my uncle did. We drove away as fast as possible.
    Next stop was another audi A6 4,2 this time. This dealer chose a row of greenhouses as his garage (greenhouses not being famous for their lack of humidity but that thought only came to me some hours afterwards). This car did actually start but I had to test its off-road abilities in order to get it out on the street. Despite history provided with it the dealer could not account for an extra gearbox lying in the trunk along with other parts I could take with the car should I decide to take that beauty of a car). Just how it got there he did not know.
    I have not been able to shake that memory every time I see that model on the street.

    1. Good morning Vkarikas and Alexandros. Yikes! What hair-raising stories of the dangers of trying to buy a used car. Thanks for sharing them. I have to admit that my own experience is very limited, despite having either owned or had use of over twenty different vehicles over the course of my adult life. Only a minority were bought second-hand, and most of those and/or their sellers were known go me personally beforehand. Thankfully, I’ve never bought a complete dog (although my Approved Used Mercedes-Benz SLK came close). Having some knowledge of what to look for, I have saved some family members and friends from making a poor choice.

  7. At one point I “helped” someone buy a used car in Coventry. They ended up with a Ford Escort with different tyres on each wheel and an engine that died a few months later. At that point I resolved never to assist in such an endeavour. The last time I seriously looked at a used car (the Lancia Delta, reported here) I found leaves in the engine bay and signs of the car having rested a long time before being presented to me. I find used-car buying dispiriting because of the implicit dishonesty and cheating involved in the business. It really is a matter of caveat emptor.

  8. Yes, buying a used car is associated with dishonesty and fraud on the part of the seller. I think anyone with a certain age and experience can tell stories for an entire evening.

    But there are also other stories. Those where the buyer was lucky – and chose, luckily, the “right” car.

    In 2016 we decided to buy a small car as daily driver. The choice was a Lancia Y (Tipo 840) because of the design (Actually ONLY because of the design! After all, life should be lived in style, what sense should life have otherwise).
    Via the internet portals of the usual suspects we looked at the selection. The choice was a vehicle in orange metallic with an interior in cream-coloured Alcantara (!!!!), from the stock of a FIAT dealer in Bremen who has given up the business. It was from 2000, the mileage 62.000, offer price 1.750 Euro.
    So we drove 140 km to look at the car – no, actually we drove to the destination because we wanted to have the car. It was clear to us that one should not miss the unique chance in life to own a Lancia Y in orange metallic with cream-coloured interior in Alcantara.
    So we, the-best-wife-of-all and I went around the car. We looked at the interior (more or less in factory new condition), looked into the engine compartment, yes, there was an engine, if you turned the ignition key, it ran. No test drive, because the vehicle had no registration! But what can go wrong with a Lancia?
    The price negotiation was done by the-best-wife-of-all. The purchase price included an item for “used car guarantee”, which she generously waived because “Do you want to go to Bremen because of a defect? Exactly!”. We then – sans “used car guarantee” – put 1,250 Euros on the table and signed the contract.
    One week later, the seller made a new general inspection (HU) in the meantime (I think in GB this is called MOT), I went to Bremen by train with new licence plates to pick up the car.
    The money we saved we put into an inspection and new tyres. The Lancia is still a faithful companion in everyday life.
    (… and not only for short distances. We even took it on a trip to Bruges, because we wanted to stay in the same hotel where the film “In Bruges” was shot – the German title is even funnier than the original, it’s called “See Bruges… and die”).

    In 2019 my wife decided to close her company and retire. For 2020 we planned to travel to visit the 7 seas. A suitable vehicle had to be found. (We are too old for long distances in our Alfa Spider, the Alfasud Sprint doesn’t like rain, in the Y you would have to fold down the seats and what you don’t want to tow to the hotel stays in the car as a temptation for dark figures, no).
    In focus was a Buick Riviera Boattail (you remember, life in style), but we soon realized that we are no lovers of HardRockFestival and at our age we didn’t want to get tattoos anymore.
    The choice fell afterwards on a Rover 75. In an advertisement among the usual suspects a vehicle in wine-red with velour in beige without air conditioning was advertised, 98.000 km, 1.700 Euro. Hits. It doesn’t get any better than that.
    I communicated with the saleswoman by SMS. “Yes, we want the vehicle”. Unseen. (What can go wrong with a Rover 75?) We blindly transferred the first half of the purchase price to the seller to seal our will to buy. The saleswoman brought us the vehicle shortly before New Year’s Eve. No test drive, only the pictures of the advertisement.
    Afterwards the Rover got a big inspection, the garage said about the vehicle “three thumbs up”.
    And if the virus hadn’t come, we would still have the Rover and would be travelling the coasts of the 7 seas…

    1. What a great story, Fred! I thoroughly applaud your optimism, sense of romance and obvious joie de vivre. I can only imagine that the “best-wife-of-all” heartily reciprocates your lovely compliment!

      I hope 2021 will bring you both the opportunity to make that wonderful trip you have planned and that the Rover proves a faithful companion.

    2. Well, when the first “lock-down” came in spring, we realised that travelling would not be possible in the foreseeable future and with a heavy heart we sold the Rover again.
      Should we be allowed to regain our old freedom in the near future – I doubt that, too many contemporaries dream of a “great reset”, where – not only old – people should stay at home for the benefit of the world climate – the Alfasud will have to go for it. If he, or we, suffers from bad weather, that is the way it is.
      To preserve the car for posterity makes no sense anyway, we don’t have children. And if the 15-year-old neighbour’s boy will be allowed to drive a over 40 years old fuel burner in a few years time when he is alowed to drive a car, is rather, hm, questionable (not to overstress a much-cited statement by Oscar Wilde about cynicism).

    3. As an alternative used car for living the high life for a while, why not a Hyundai XG350? It looks like a Rolls Royce but is more reliable and less fuel hungry? It even has a V6 as far I can recall.

    4. Hi Richard, I’ve added a couple of photos of the XG350 in a colour I thought you might like, to show readers your suggestion, and a good one it is too. A well maintained example would be an excellent companion for a big touring holiday.

      If you can’t quite take to the Hyundai’s looks, how about one of these instead?

      I spent three weeks driving a 300C around New England back in 2015. It was a free upgrade from Alamo, and a most agreeable and comfortable car.

    5. Thank you very much for the advice. It is a real temptation.
      But first of all it is not a car of a doomed European brand and secondly as a wannabe upper class car it is only avaiable with leather seats. So more likely no Hyundai.

    6. What an unusual situation, one I would never have anticipated. But the universe is infinite and all things are possible. Thus I find myself considering the relative merits of the Hyundai XG350 and the Chrysler 300M (I think it is). I must say the Hyundai is for me, far and away the more agreeable of the two cars and it is available in gold. It is truly sumptuous, a delight. The Chrysler is a bit too macho and I prefer the gentle character of the XG350 more. I can see the appeal of the Chrysler though and maybe if I was thinking of the US driving environment it would be just fine (up until I decided to go for a large Buick saloon such as late model Park Avenue).
      (Thanks for posting the photos).

    7. Oh yes, the 300C. It was also available in a version by Lancia. Sick.
      A good choice to destroy your assets. But it is also only available with leather seats…

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