(Not) Buying a Beater

So, here’s my deal: Thanks to some unexpected income, and a lack of knowledge about tax law, I found myself with a 5-figure income tax bill. Obviously some belt-tightening was in order, so I had to sell the GTO back to CarMax, leaving me with just my Triumph Trophy for daily transportation. That’s not a bad thing on a daily basis, but, sometimes, you just need a car. And I need a cheap car that I can buy outright, because the IRS is on my back. So, I had to enter the exasperating world of buying a beater car.

But, not just any beater car. I mean, I could find an old Ford Thunderbird or Saturn for dirt cheap. But, oh, no, I have to have something with a little more style and panache. I’m a special flower that can’t be seen in a Camry or mom-van. I have to have a car with some gearhead street cred. In other words, I’m making life hard for myself, right off the bat.

First, I tried the Craigslist route. I mean, all the horror stories about private-party sales through Craigslist just have to be wrong, right?

No. They aren’t.

I found a 1995 BMW 540i on Craigslist for $2,900. The ad said it ran good and had a clean title. And, when I went to look at it, it did run well. I even had a mechanic look at it, and he said it looked mechanically sound. I’m feeling optimistic about the whole thing, right up until the second it fails smog check, and visions of a $2,500 trip to a BMW dealership start filling my head. No thanks.

Strike 1.

The second car I found was a 1996 Jaguar XJ8 for $1,900. Again, the ad has the obligatory “runs good, clean title” verbiage. So, went and looked at it. Runs good? Check? No check engine light? Check. The “clean title” turned out to be the problem, though. First the registration had expired two months previously. The fellow trying to sell the car—lets call him “Mr. Smith”—did, in fact, have a title certificate. Sadly, it was in the name of a “Ms. Jones”, from whom he says he bought the car a year ago. I got on the phone and called AAA. They assured me that the original owner was, indeed, Ms. Jones, to whom the car was still registered, and who had submitted a title transfer last year to…wait for it…a “Mr. Taylor”.

Mr. Smith assured me that this some sort of silly mix-up, and if I just handed the money over to him in return for a bill of sale that he would sign for me, I could go to the DMV, and they would clear all this nonsense up for me and issue the title in my name. Yeah. Because that’s how car registration works. You just show up at the DMV, present them with a hand-written bill of sale between two people who are nowhere listed in the registration history, and they just magically wipe their records clean and give you a title, without once calling the CHP to impound your obviously stolen vehicle. 

Strike 2.

The third car I went to see was a 1986 BMW 325i. It turns out the gray color was, in fact, primer gray, which disguised the accident that destroyed the original left rear fender, and resulted in the car being issued a Salvage title. Which, the seller informed me, I obviously shouldn’t worry myself about at all.

Strike 3.

All right. You don’t have to beat me over the head with a mallet to recognize the facts, which are that buying from a private party off of Craigslist is  painful experience, requiring much patience with lies and chicanery.

Which means that now I have to troll through the low-end used car dealers for that hidden gem. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since most dealers don’t sell cheap cars. For the most part, anything that retails below about $10k goes straight to one of Southern California’s wholesale auctions, which is to say, to Mexico. So, finding a decent car at a cheap price takes a bit of commitment to slogging through Autotrader and Car Gurus. It took a while, but then I found what seemed like the dream dealer, once I expanded my search radius beyond San Diego.

And it was a dream dealer, in the sense that nightmares are, technically, dreams.

Econo Automotive Center in La Habra advertised three cars that were relevant to my interests: A 2004 Volvo V70R Wagon (300 HP, All-Wheel Drive) for $5,900, and both a 2001 BMW X5 and 1997 BMW 540i for $3,995 each. I called the dealer to tell him what cars I was interested in, and to let him  know I would be driving up from San Diego. Since my Dad was visiting from Houston, giving me access to his rental car, we girded up ourselves to take the 83-mile drive from San Diego to La Habra. 

Good luck, sucker!

It takes about an hour and a half to drive there, and as we were fighting our way through the Orange County traffic, I kept looking at the little thermometer for outside temperature that was displayed on the dashboard of the rental car, because it wouldn’t stop…climbing.

It started out as an uncomfortably warm 94º. When we pulled into La Habra, it had climbed to 110º, without a cloud in the sky, which, I felt, fully validated my decision that morning to wear a black, long-sleeved shirt. I felt like the most stylishly dressed fellow in Hell.

Naturally the dealer lot was an open, unshaded expanse of tarmac, jammed full of cars. And my dad and I were the only humans in it. It took several minutes to find the dealership offices, which were actually located in the annex of another dealership across the street. Not that finding the office did any good, as it was unoccupied and locked. Now, keep in mind, I had just called this guy two hours previously to tell him I was on my way. I called the number I had for Econo Automotive Center, and got the manager on his cell phone. He told me to go to the other dealership and ask for Miguel, who had access to all the vehicle keys.

We went to the main showroom of the other dealer, which had no air conditioning whatsoever, but did have Miguel, who grabbed a big pegboard full of keys—as well as a bucket of additional miscellaneous keys, in case the pegboard didn’t work, I guess—and walked across the street with us to the other dealership.  We first went to the Volvo, where we stood in the oppressive heat while Miguel fumbled with the Big Board o’ Keys and, ultimately, failed to find any Volvo keys that fit the V70R.

“OK,“ I panted, “Let’s go look at the 540i at the end of the lot,” where we slogged over to the sedan, and enjoyed a repeat of Miguel’s Magic Key Trick, which was exactly like a Penn & Teller card trick where they don’t find the card you choose, as he couldn’t make any of the BMW keys open that car, either.

I would’ve liked to see the BMW X5, but it was parked in a fenced off, locked lot adjacent to the main lot, so we couldn’t even get to it.

To be fair, though, I’m not sure what finding any of the keys would’ve accomplished, since the cars were so packed into the lot that it would’ve taken an additional 30 minutes of moving cars to take the ones I wanted to drive out onto the street for a test drive. An operation during which we would’ve had the choice to stand in the light of a fiery sun and broil, or sit down in the un-air-conditioned showroom of the other dealer and bake.

We did the latter anyway, because Miguel called the manager of the Econo Automotive Center—whom I’ll call “Bob”—who relayed that he was moving 100 cars from another lot to the lot we were at. Where he was going to put those extra 100 cars was a complete mystery, because every inch of available space on his lot was jammed full of cars as it was. But, Miguel told us that Bob was on his way to help us, and would arrive in 10 minutes. He invited us into the showroom where we could sit, lightly poaching in our own sweat, and offered us bottles of water that were slightly warmer than Satan’s urine, which we could drink, until the mysterious Bob appeared.

Which he didn’t. Not in 10 minutes. Not in 30 minutes. After waiting for an hour, I gave up, and we left. By this time, it was almost three o’clock. Had we waited any longer the nightmare of the Orange County rush hour would ensure we would be trapped on I-5 for hours. We were out of time, and had to go. As it was, that’s five hours of my life I won’t get back, and the only thing I want to do before I die is find Bob, put him in a bamboo cage, and poke him with sharp sticks. He clearly had no respect for my time. It was almost as if he felt I was driving all the way up from San Diego to waste his time. It was unforgivably rude and unprofessional.

At this point, I’m thinking of just stealing a car. It literally can’t be any more trouble than trying to buy one, and I’m including a short prison stay in that calculation.

Author: Dale Franks

Dale Franks is the former host of The Business Day, ”a daily, four-hour business and financial news program on KMNY Radio in Los Angeles. From 2002-2004, he was a contributor on military and international affairs for TechCentralStation.com. Currently, he a publisher and editor of the monthly political journal The New Libertarian, as well as an editor of the popular web log, Q and O. Dale served as a military police officer in the United States Air Force from 1984 to 1993, in variety of assignments both in the United States and Europe, where he also was assigned to the staff of the Headquarters of Allied Forces Central Europe. In addition to broadcasting, writing, and speaking on various topics, Dale has also been a long-time technical training instructor on a variety of computer software and technology subjects. Dale has also long been involved with information technology as an accomplished web designer, programmer, and technologist, serving as the corporate knowledge specialist for Microsoft Outlook at SAIC, the nation's largest employee-owned corporation. Additionally, he is the author of a number of software user guides used for classroom training by one of Southern California’'s premier computer training and consulting firms. His book, SLACKERNOMICS: Basic Economics for People Who Find Economics Boring, is available from Barnes & Noble.

9 thoughts on “(Not) Buying a Beater”

  1. With all the difficulties of buying a good used banger, how did California become the car mecca of america? (and america the car mecca of the world…)

  2. If it makes you feel better, it could’ve been worse. We had an 80-acre brushfire a couple blocks south of there Tuesday evening. Just think, you could’ve added smoke and ash to the fun!

  3. Well there was that stupid “Cash for Clunkers” idiocy that removed many good used cars from the market a while ago…

  4. “I’m a special flower that can’t be seen in a Camry or mom-van.”

    OK, I got it. But looking for German or English cars as beaters? C’mon, that’s just asking for trouble. Maybe SoCal is in a weird, perpetual high-priced used car bubble, but just traveling to Las Vegas or St. George or Denver gets you out of that crappy alternate universe. My Accord’s transmission took a dump last October and I had a job in Victorville so I bought a ’00 Frontier for $3200 in Denver. Changed all the fluids to synthetic and three days later did the 2000+ mile RT with nary a problem. On 1/32nd tires. I was glad there was no snow on Vail Pass.

    BMWs and Jaguars aren’t beaters, not in the classical sense. Beaters need to be reliable, low $$$ cars. Toyota/Honda/Nissan/Hyundai come to mind. Nothing from the EU.

  5. Saw a for-sale sign in the window of a BMW 325CI. If it’s something you’d be interested in, I noted down the phone number.

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