Were there any justice in this world, the author of these words and his helpmate would be luxuriating today in the crisp air of the Berkshire Mountains, visiting with friends and absorbing the regenerative effects of total leisure. But because in point of fact there is no justice, because the Pride of Baltimore elected to expire the other day, we are instead spending the summer's last week of "vacation" in the heat and humidity of our very own neighborhood, licking our wounds and staring mournfully at our eviscerated bank account.
The Pride of Baltimore is, or was, a prematurely elderly sedan of Japanese extraction. Her blue exterior had long ago turned a beguiling shade of rust and her cloth upholstery had disintegrated, but over the years she had so reliably and doughtily gotten us from Point A to Point B that we had come to believe she was immortal; her increasing tendency to lurch, choke and gasp we interpreted as mere quaint middle-aged eccentricity. When, toward the middle of last week, she began to emit bilious, petroleum-scented clouds, we assumed that this was nothing a new muffler and a few 10-dollar bills couldn't fix.
How wrong we were; right on time, at 56,000 miles, built-in obsolescence had checked in. The gentleman at the Service Department gave us the news. After treating the old girl to an inspection tour of depressing thoroughness, he pronounced the Pride a near-terminal patient whose only hope lay in the infusion of a stunning array of new parts, among them brakes and gaskets and hoses and heaven only knows what else; the entire engine would have to be overhauled, he said, from stem to stern, and he was kind enough not to mention the crying need for reupholstery and a paint job. A couple of grand, he said, should do the trick. Better, he said, to let the Pride go to her reward; with that he steered us, lambs to the slaughter, to the New Car Department.
Has anybody out there actually been to the New Car Department lately? If not, take it from one who has: The act of buying a new automobile, which even at best is one of life's most odious and degrading experiences, has become more distasteful than ever. Not merely must the buyer take the blind chance of dealing, as the buyer always has, with sales personnel whose methods of persuasion can be primitive, deceptive and/or insulting; now the buyer must be prepared to contend with, and ultimately to pay, prices that leave one gasping in disbelief.
If the prospective purchaser wishes to "Buy American," as was our initial instinct, the shock is greater by far--or at least it was for me, in a sampling of Baltimore dealerships. First there were those incredible prices. Gossip may have it that dealers in American cars are so desperate for sales they're giving the things away, but I detected no evidence of charity. Now as in the past, the stripped-down models one reads about in ads and Consumer Reports are nowhere to be found on the lots. They're stocked, as always, with hulking monsters loaded down with every conceivable embodiment of automotive gimcrackery. On one lot, featuring the cars of a manufacturer who should be desperate to drum up new business, none of the so-called "compact" models had manual transmission, few had price tags under $9,000--and the bored salesman who poked along in my wake made no effort to suggest that he might be able to make me a deal.
That guy represents the second part of the shock. I had thought, in my boundless naivete', that the salesmen at American dealerships would be so eager for our business they'd smother us with kisses. Yet this indifferent, vaguely hostile fellow was more the rule than the exception. At a couple of places I wandered undisturbed through the new-car lots while salesmen gazed out at me from the air-conditioned comfort of the showroom; in neither place did anyone ask what I was interested in, much less make an active effort to interest me in a sale. Whether fairly or not, I came away from my survey of the American dealerships with the determination that I had no desire to buy a car from people who had no evident desire to sell it to me.
It was at one of the Japanese dealerships that I found good old American salesmanship hard at work. The hard sell, a grand old American tradition that seems to have been abandoned by American dealers, is alive and well among Americans working for the Japanese. While wandering through one showroom, I witnessed an example of it that gave me a severe case of the shivers. A young salesman sat across a desk from a young couple. The salesman was livid. His eyes flashing with what looked for all the world like pure hatred, he glared at them and snarled in a lacerating voice I could not help overhearing: "What the hell is wrong with you people? Why are you chickening out? I told you ninety-five hundred, and that's it. What's the best deal you got? Damn it, you're fools if you don't take this!" The woman looked about to burst into tears, the man's embarrassment was palpable. So, I must say, was mine.
I've no idea whether those poor people finally were bullied into that $9,500 deal, with all the attendant and equally degrading trips to loan offices it doubtless entailed, and I probably don't want to know the answer. No doubt they succumbed, just as we did--though I suspect we were considerably more fortunate. Because the service representative had directed us to a specific, high-ranking salesman, we were given considerably more courteous attention than others seemed to be getting and we ended up arranging to buy a vehicle that we can more or less afford. If Consumer Reports and Motor Trend are to be believed, it should give us our inflated money's worth--at least until the odometer hits 56,000 miles and the gasket blows as sure it has been programmed to.
We came out all right, I guess, so why is it that I feel so soiled and abased by the whole business? Why are the civility and honesty one routinely expects when buying a suit of clothes or a pair of chairs so difficult to find--though in the end we did find them--when buying a new automobile? And why, oh why, did the Pride of Baltimore elect to cash in all her chips just as we were heading off for vacation. Fine friend she turned out to be!