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Used Car Hell

By Scott E. Roeben

Friends are an odd thing. They're not unlike bank loans. They seem plentiful enough during the good times, but they're hard to come by when you need them most. Then again, you usually don’t have to pay interest penalties on a friend. Clearly, similes are a pain in the neck, and you can never find one that will serve your purposes. Now that I think about it, friends are more like similes than anything else. But that has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

What I'm getting at—with all the subtlety of an interview with a professional wrestler—is that I go out of my way to help a friend when I can. This usually involves trips to the airport and the occasional housesitting. Recently, though, I had the opportunity to really go out on a limb for a friend. The friend was in the market for a used car. I agreed to go along on the search. I know this was a stupid thing to do, but I am also the guy who let a Jehovah's Witness into my home to "rationally" discuss theology. I am known for having the same caliber of judgment as your average lemming.

salesman1.jpg (10999 bytes)Car hunting and used car salesmen have long been fodder for humorists. You'd think that salesmen would've tired of being fodder, but since no one really knows what "fodder" is, salesmen have deemed it prudent just to be quiet about the whole thing. I looked up "fodder" in the dictionary. I couldn't locate the word "fodder," but did discover a divine recipe for "Potato Parmesan Gnocchi." All right, perhaps it wasn't a dictionary. Get off my back.

Most people dread shopping for a used car. There's something masochistic and degrading about the process. This is perhaps because we aren't sufficiently prepared for such an undertaking. We, after all, are laypersons. Car salesmen are professionals. They are salesmen every day, month after month, year after year. We are car hunters maybe once every three to five years or so. We often don't know the rules by which the used car industry plays. Sometimes, we even forget it's an industry. I have no doubt there are buildings full of people who spend time devising new techniques to make making the average layperson feel more like the average lobotomy patient.

In fact, it is my guess that the people who acquire and sell used cars have stacks and stacks of manuals and studies and research to aid them in doing what they do. Here's a brief overview of some tips I imagine are in a typical training manual for used car salesmen.

HINT #1: The car the customer says he or she (and let’s hope it’s a she) wants has nothing to do with the car you’ll be showing them.

The customer is not in the best position to decide what they want. A customer has no idea which cars have been sitting on the lot since the Carter administration, nor can they discern which cars will provide you with the largest commission.

Just remember, if the customer is always right, why are they considering purchasing a used car from you?

HINT #2: There is no such thing as "just looking around."

In the used car business, there is no such thing as browsing. Comparison shopping is counterproductive. So, too, is integrity. Try to keep these to a minimum.

HINT #3: Never actually talk about the price of the car.

It is essential to break the numbers down into easy-to-digest monthly payments. Stating a price will only serve to weaken your position. Remember that your position is already weakened by having to actually show the customer a car up close—don't make things worse.

HINT #4: Car buyers might say they want "reliable transportation," but what they really want is jargon.

There is a fine line between jargon and bullshit. Know what that line is—and ignore it whenever possible. Most laypersons are terrified when it comes to technical talk, so this can be a powerful tool for you as the sales professional. Many customers will "close a deal" just to keep from having to hear you say things like "You know, on this model the lifter is near the intake port so the compression ratio will affect the torque of the intake manifold."

One more thing about jargon. Always emphasize "horsepower" and "acceleration." It is none of your business why someone might want a car with a cruising speed of 180 m.p.h. when the posted speed limits are substantially less than that. You are not a police officer, nor are you the customer's mother. For all you know, the customer might be buying a car to take with them to use on the German autobahn.

HINT #5: Be friendly. (But only if it serves your purposes.)

First, never wait for a customer to ask for your assistance. Don't even wait for a customer to get out of his or her car before you offer help. A salesman with real initiative will go that extra mile and travel to the home of a customer before that customer even realizes he or she needs a car!

HINT #6: Armor-All is the miracle sales tool of our generation.

Never underestimate the power of this miracle product. Most customers are perfectly willing to believe that some cars from the 1950s can have engines that glimmer like newly minted nickels. Who are you to disagree?

HINT #7: They aren't "used." They are "pre-owned."

Used cars are old. Pre-owned cars are "broken in." Used cars break down. Pre-owned cars experience "downtime" at a "quality service installation." Used cars repel members of the opposite sex. Pre-owned vehicles are aphrodisiacs on wheels.

I think you’re beginning to get the picture. Laypersons should have a handbook. We would write one, but we have better things to do—like watching television and eating Cheese Whiz and slamming our fingers in major appliances.

So, my companion and I sheepishly began our search for the perfect, low mileage, "late model" used car.

cars.jpg (22701 bytes)My companion, I should mention, was female (and still is as far as I know). I mention this fact because I suspected salesmen might try to take advantage of a female car-hunter, based on what I’m sure is an outdated notion that most women know as much about cars as people in the Sahara know about ice cubes. My companion quickly dispelled this myth by promptly asking the first salesman we encountered, "Which of these cars do you think is cuter?"

One of the more interesting aspects of the car-buying experience is the test drive.

The first thing to remember when you are about to take a test drive is that the salesman is required by his insurance company to drive the car off the lot himself. This law is not easily understood. Not so much because it is complex, but rather, because I have long been known to have the cognitive ability of a soft-shell crab.

The test drive provides, my friend and I learned, the perfect opportunity for the salesman to point out all of the car's displays, dials, panels and buttons. In fact, during one test drive, my companion almost drove into a fairly sizeable building because our salesman was busy describing all of the car's safety features. This would be ironic, and perhaps even humorous, were it not for the fact that it took three rescue crews and the "Jaws of Life" to remove my fingertips from the car's dashboard. I'm not real good when it comes to near-death experiences. I can barely manage the trials resulting from my near-life.

Test drives, above all else, are a fine chance for you to find out the maximum capacity of a car's air conditioner. Salesmen make a big deal out of how fast a car's air conditioner can get cold. It is best to just ignore the permanent ear damage from the blasts of ice cold air pointed at your face. Your friendly salesman knows what's best.

After your test drive, you then enter the phase of car shopping known as the negotiation process. Remember that tip in the "Salesman's Handbook" about never mentioning the price of the car? This is the time when that tip comes in especially handy. It seems that as car buyers we are far more likely to agree to pay "$350 for 400 months" than we are to go for a car which will cost "$34,000 with boatloads of taxes, interest and floor mat surcharges tacked on."

The main thing you should keep in mind when you negotiate for a car is that there are two types of automobiles. The safe, clean, sleek, "like new" cars—and the ones you can afford. After you come to terms with this reality, you'll soon be getting down to the brass tacks of hammering out the specifics of cutting to the quick of getting to the crux of flying blindly into a process in which you can't possibly prevail.

scream.jpg (19040 bytes)No one fully understands why car dealerships do things the way they do. It's not clear what keeps car dealers from stating their "rock bottom" price up front, but do you get the funny feeling that the way they do things is not intended to work in your favor?

Once your car-buying negotiations are underway, you’ll probably be asked to fill out a credit application. My companion filled out numerous applications, and I was surprised by the complexity and depth of the questions on the forms. I understand the basics. Name. Address. Bank information. But it got worse. Previous address. Rent or own. Credit cards. Nearest relative. Underwear—new or tattered. Favorite synonym for mischief—knavery, rascality or roguery. Number of fillings. Preferred form of breath freshening—rinse, mint or gum. Population of Amsterdam. Name of Miss America in 1937.

The questions go on and on. It's a wonder anyone qualifies for credit. Even people hoping to join the Secret Service don't have to go through a screening process like that.

Assuming you are found worthy of further discussion, the hard core, nitty-gritty offer and counter-offer ritual begins. It is interesting to observe how often salesmen have to leave the room during the course of a negotiation in order to confer with the boss. This happened a few times with me and my friend. After awhile, it felt much like it does when you deal with one of those shopping mall Santas. I understand that they're Santa's "helpers," but you get the distinct feeling you’d have more luck if you could just go directly to the person in the red hat and suspenders. Or something.

The car buying ritual seems to go on forever. One begins to envy those drug kingpins and strippers with enough cash to walk into a car showroom and bypass the handshakes, grins, business cards, test drives and negotiation endurance/survival test.

Closing time can come and go at a car dealership. The staff seems perfectly willing to counter-offer through the night if it will "get you into a car."

In time, my friend did end up in a car. The final deal had something to do with years of almost manageable monthly payments, an extended, fixed, limited warranty—as well as an agreement to name all her future heirs and assigns after the salesman's third wife, Dottie.

Hopefully, my friend won't have to car hunt again for another few years. With any luck, I'll be dead by then. It'll probably happen when someone on a test drive plows into me as a car salesman points out a driver's side air bag.

Oh, and before I forget, it's 702,444. The population of Amsterdam, that is. The main mode of transportation in Amsterdam, incidentally, is the bicycle.

I think you get the picture.


Scott Roeben, 2001. All rights reserved.