I'D RATHER go through childbirth again than buy another used car. For one thing, you know the odometer on the baby is correct.
When we needed a second car this spring, we figured it would take two or three days of looking, a dozen or so phone calls, and several test drives to find our straight-eight Holy Grail.
But we multiplied everything by a factor of ten, drove 125 miles to an auction, got in a luxury car that wouldn't even go into gear, bought a car our mechanic called a death trap, and heard unending stories about maiden aunts and grandmothers who drove all these cars very, very little.
We watched one high-mileage car advertised for three solid weeks, starting $3,000 below list at $5,500, dropping to $4,000, then $3,000, and finally disappearing from the classifieds with the plaintive note: "Last time at this price."
We talked with an unemployed actor who told us all about his Mercedes SXL 300 out in Beverly Hills, but who fell strangely silent when we pointed out the electric windows on his 1983 Cadillac wouldn't budge. "Must be frozen," he said.
We had one man calling us every week to see if we'd buy a 1984 car with only 27,000 miles on it -- owned by his ancient auntie. Why was she selling? "She just bought a $40,000 Jaguar." By the third week, he was willing to drive the car in 80 miles if we'd just take a look.
Two men were selling their cars because of divorces. One guy said he needed the money to pay off his wife so he could marry his girlfriend. He wanted all cash. The other moaned his wife was "going to take me to the cleaners," so he was selling his Continental and his Mercedes but keeping his pickup truck. So much for a 50/50 split.
Another seller with a very low-priced car had a 1983 body with 40,000 miles on it, and a used engine with 60,000 miles on it. "Let's split the difference and say the car's got 50,000 miles on it," he pleaded.
An executive in a big fancy house was showing a car for another executive who owned it but was out of town, he said. When he got into the glittering Biarritz, pulsating with automatic options and with stereophonic music floating out of the sun roof, he put it in all four gears, and it didn't budge an inch. He tried for five minutes, getting quieter by the second. "He never told me he had any trouble with it," he finally shrugged.
We thought we had one terrific deal, signed a contract contingent on our mechanic's approval of the car, gave our check, and took the little beauty on a spin before we left it with our mechanic.
He called us immediately, complaining the car was in "criminal" condition. The hydraulic brake lines were rubbing against bare metal on the wheels each time they revolved. "They could rupture any minute and you'd have absolutely no warning and absolutely no brakes," he screamed.
We stopped payment on the check and called the owner to come fix it, or we'd call the police.
Once burned, we were super cautious. Finally, after more than three weeks, we found exactly what we were looking for: a one-owner El Dorado from a dealer, complete with service records, our mechanic's seal of approval, low mileage, a warranty, the right color, all the right options, and only a little over the Blue Book price.
Who owned it before? we asked.
Would you believe a retired schoolteacher?
We did, and we bought it.