So you think this is 1986, and auto dealerships have mended their high-pressure ways? You think they explain everything clearly and willingly? You think they give a potential customer plenty of time to make up his or her mind? Judith A. Kelton begs to differ -- from the heart.

Here's what happened to Judith when she went shopping for a car one recent Saturday afternoon at a well-known dealership near Tysons Corner:

As soon as she walked in, Judith was approached by a saleswoman. Judith explained that she was just beginning to shop for a new car.

The saleswoman nodded sympathetically, and offered to take Judith for a test drive in a new model. She accepted. When the test drive was over, "I liked the car enough to want to discuss price," Judith writes.

The saleswoman asked for the keys to Judith's 1980 Mazda, so it could be appraised. A few minutes later, back she came -- without the Mazda keys, but with a sales form. It read:

"Buyer will buy and take delivery of car now for $8,500."

Judith told the saleswoman that she wasn't ready to sign any such thing. The saleswoman replied that she couldn't go to her sales manager and fight for a good price on Judith's behalf if Judith didn't sign the form. "This is the way it is done," the saleswoman told Judith.

Judith reluctantly signed the form. She also reluctantly turned over her American Express card, the registration to her Mazda, a $100 deposit, and the title to the Mazda, which the saleswoman insisted she sign over to the dealership. The saleswoman assured Judith that it was "no big deal," and that she could get all these items back if she chose not to buy the car.

Next stop: the office of a financial manager, who calculated that Judith's monthly payment would be $249. That was far more than Judith wanted to spend, so she said she'd better come back some other day and asked for her keys, title, deposit and credit card back.

A few seconds later, the sales manager appeared. "You have a problem," he told Judith. "You bought a car."

Judith said she hadn't and didn't want to; the manager said she had and would have to go through with the purchase.

Back and forth the jawing went. At one point, the sales manager called Judith a "sleazebag," and threatened her by saying: "You think you can come in here and play games? Well, you picked the wrong place to play games."

Judith admits that she was intimidated. But she stood her ground and kept demanding the return of her materials. Finally, after 3 1/2 hours (!), without a word of apology, the sales manager handed them over.

No question that this is a horrifying episode -- everyone's worst fears about auto dealers come true. But what's the legal situation? And what should you do if you're hustled the same way Judith was?

Louise Stracke, consumer affairs investigator in the Alexandria Office of Consumer Affairs, said: "You should definitely not sign anything without realizing the full ramifications of what you're signing . . . .If pressure is being applied and if you're not comfortable with the deal being offered, walk out. If they say they can't talk about a deal if you don't sign, that's simply not true."

George B. Rose, chief of the automotive unit of the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Affairs, pointed out that such tactics persist at auto dealerships "beause people are not accustomed to buying cars. Most people only buy cars every 5 or 10 years. It would never work on a loaf of bread or a quart of milk."

A spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs noted that asking Judith to sign the form was not illegal in itself. However, once the dealership tried to make her buy the car on the basis of the signed form, and if Judith had actually bought the car, "it's an unlawful trade practice. It's misrepresentation," the spokeswoman said.

What it boils down to is that you've got to have the courage of your convictions if you're going to go car shopping. There are sharks out there -- lots of sharks, in lots of dealerships. Don't be a minnow.

Carl Callison spotted it aboard the rear fender of a Toyota that was headed east on U.S. 50:


From Ashley Cooper, writing in the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier:

I heard about this couple that used a computer dating service.

Subsequently, they were married and divorced.

The latest is that she's suing him for incomputability.