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Sharp Cars

Oct 12 2002

I've never owned a truck, never owned a vehicle I could use to pull and haul things, never owned something I didn't have to drive gingerly over dirt roads and potholes. That was the attraction of the truck -- that, and the $3500 price tag for a 1998 vehicle. That made it fall well within terms I found financially maneagable, even in hard times. Dragging out my dusty knowledge of the difference equations that underly ammortization mathematics, I found $69 monthly over 60 months could make the car mine.

Of course the price was too good to be true, but I told myself this might be different, this might be the genuine sweet deal that everyone hopes to happen on a few times in their lifetime. The dealer shopped at the auto auctions in Salt Lake City, right? I've been to those auctions myself, and while many of sales which take place aren't spectacular, there really are a few steals for the having. The dealer's story was that he had, in fact, bought this truck from just such an auction, and had barely been able to get it back to his lot in Payson it had run so poorly, but he knew it was a good car at heart. He'd had a mechanic repair the bad valve that was causing the enginge malfunction, and now it was fine. "The transmission is tight, the engine has power -- what else could be wrong?" he asked. A door handle was missing, I noticed, and the odometer read 98,000+ miles, and the paint was worn, with hints that it had been the second paint job, perhaps covering business signage it used to sport. But I got in and drove the thing myself, and the dealer was right, it did appear to run well. And the price was right. I wanted to believe.

But I wanted to know a little bit more, too. I asked the dealer if I could take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic in Orem or Provo. No, he replied, too far away, too much traffic -- the last time he had let someone take a car there, they'd gotten in a wreck. I wasn't sure whether to take this at face value; I simply let him know I'd think about it.

And I did: the prospect persisted in my mind, and after several days of thinking about it, I called some friends in New York, who used to live in Payson, and asked for trustworthy mechanics. I also called most of the Payson mechanics in the yellow pages, and asked for prices on evaluation. And so the following Saturday morning, I drove down to the dealer's and picked up the truck at 10:40. "I'll need it back in about an hour," he said, "I'll have some folks coming to look at it today."

After spending 20 minutes of said hour to find the mechanic's new place (at a different address than the one I'd been given), I was a bit nervous about getting it back on time, but the mechanic had said it shouldn't take long. I read magazines, I listened to country songs over the PA, made notes in a notebook. Another half an hour passed, and the truck hadn't moved from where I'd parked it. I went to the bathroom. The truck went in shortly thereafter, and I called the dealer and let him know they'd just started. "Get it back as soon as you can," he said, "it's hard to sell it if it's not on the lot." Too anxious to simply read, I went for a walk, passing a park, shops, and a library, worried about upsetting the dealer, wanted the truck to check out just fine. I talked to lost Fed Ex delivery man, confused by the layout of the city and naming of some of the streets, and felt better about my difficulty finding the mechanic's place.

I walked back to the shop. 12:30. The truck still wasn't done. The mechanic must have noticed my discomfort, and came over to give me a status report. "Do you know if the car is salvage title?" he asked. I didn't. What did that mean? "It's been in a wreck," he said, "a fairly significant one, from what I can tell, and if it's been in such a wreck and repaired, it should have a salvage title." The repairs might be good cosmetically, he went on to say, but it was hard to say what underlying structural or mechanical problems might still lurk. He'd have the mechanical report soon.

12:45 came, then 1:00 -- closing time for the shop. They still weren't done. What was taking so long? At 1:15 I found out, right after the dealer called, with a stern note in his voice and a demand for the immediate return of the vehicle. I went to carry out the demand, wondering if I could summon a similarly stern note, but fortunately, the mechanic was ready.

The list of things wrong with the vehicle, he said, was not short. The gas gauge sensor did not function. The temperature gauge did not function either. The oil system leaked significantly in some spot or another which I can't remember. I also did not remember the details of the next 4-5 problems that tumbled over my half-numb brain -- the other half of my brain felt vindicated, relieved that I'd chosen to check out the vehicle instead of just buying it, but mostly, I felt numb with the realization that this much was wrong with it. Either the dealer hadn't known or hadn't told me himself, and either way he wasn't doing his job, and I had nearly been taken in. I stopped the mechanic from going through the rest of the list of problems he'd found and made out my check. None of the malfunctions would have been sufficient to sink my confidence in the deal by themselves, but combined, even the first portion of the collection he was prepared to recite was conclusive.

I apologized to the dealer when returning the truck and the key. He looked at me, half-expectantly, a look I interpretted as a request to know whether I'd buy the thing. I told him that $3500 was a great price for a working truck, and perhaps one could fix the problems and still find it a value, but it wasn't worth it to me. I offered him the evaluation of the mechanic, in return for the time I'd cost his truck on the lot.

"Naw," he replied, "I don't need it. We mostly sell to Mexicans, and there's some here who are interested now. It'll be gone by this afternoon."

On the way out, I resisted the temptation to staple the mechanic's report to the truck door (or perhaps the dealer's forehead) as I heard him call out to an assistant to call Carlos and tell him the truck was his if he wanted it.

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