Sales Talk : Small profits, big chancers!

Part exchange clunkers from a dealer’s point of view, are mainly moved on to the scrapyards, auction halls or low end traders.

But now and again something nice comes along that just might be able to flip a tidy profit. One thing is for certain, the cheaper the car the bigger the headache or more awkward the punter…

Words: Mike Humble

The games people play

The stunning 214SEi - Still a cracking little car even today if you find a loved one!

It’s a well known fact these days that unless your car is stunning condition and only a few years old, your local dealer will not be interested in general. He will only want your chopper if it is ‘prime meat” i.e. popular and sell-able. Old knackers tend to be thrown away by dealers to the ever dwindling Arthur Daley type gravel and bunting brigade, scrap yard or auction houses. No Volkswagen dealer for example would entertain pitching a 25 year old Jetta GL even if it is show condition, besides, many manufacturers will ban used stock that is over a certain age – its all about profit and risk. Smaller dealers operate to different protocol and now and again, something really special will be thrown into the melting pot which you know a home can be found for in double quick time and maybe make a few bob on too.

Used cars tend to be a nightmare; I for one have avoided selling them from a professional level mainly because many customers tend to expect to find a new car for used money. I like the relationship building and process driven environment of new car sales, to some, a new car is like buying a dream, where used cars quite often tend to be bought out of desperation or sheer necessity – neither being the ideal motive for shelling out your money or building up a longer term rapport. Going back to the first paragraph, sometimes a really nice little part ex tootles along that simply begs to be retailed, and one such example was a car I have the pleasure of owning a brace of – the Rover 214 SEi. These run out models were lovely little things containing a nice mix or wood, leather and pretty paint schemes.

Powered by a 103bhp version of the 1.4 K series, they were priced keenly, nippy and most of all – looked a million Dollars especially in Nightfire red or British Racing Green Pearl. Cute starfish alloys along with a powered roof and front windows, they sold like hotcakes and even now, a tidy example still looks fresh and mouth-wateringly appealing. We took in a stunning BRG example against a brand new 25 Impression S model, the owner only changing because they had owned it from new and fancied a change, trust me as you read this – the car was almost as good as new. The only fault on the car was a clutch that was nearing its life’s end – though good for a few more thousand miles, everything else was just superb – even the factory fit Philips wireless was present along with the code and just 65 clicks on the Speedo too!

Everyone agreed it was as pretty as a picture and owing to the fact it still had some rent in the screen, I smoked around in it for a few days never tiring of the glowing walnut and the unique Rover aroma of hide and carpet – a veritable pocket sized mobile palace. We parked it up on the back row with a screen price of £1500, and as sure as the sunrise, that very Sunday afternoon a youngish lad wombled onto the forecourt and started sniffing around the 95 N SEi. There was only two of us on duty that day so I ventured outside to see what gives and the customer asked if he could have a look round inside – he seemed keen and above all, genuine enough. As with any sold as seen motor, you keep the dialogue to a minimum keeping the topic along the lines of ‘it is what it is” as to avoid implicating any future come back.

One of my own SEi models - I liked them so much I had two!

Unlocking the door I felt a nip in the air so, I told the chap I was grabbing by jacket and would be back in a jiffy. To avoid the risk of a walk off, I was back outside in a flash but I took a different route (a tactic to catch people off guard which does work) and I noticed the lad with his head buried in the foot well area. I hadn’t been spotted yet and then he got back onto his feet and continued to wander around the car, making my presence known again I asked him for his thoughts. He asked for the obligatory test drive which I agreed to on the pure understanding he was genuinely interested, harsh this may seem but a direct question which sorts out the wheat from the chaff. The bonnet was still up at this point and I wound the key to fire up the low mileage engine only for the motor to fire up and conk out.

Now this was mighty strange as I had been using the car and it had never missed a beat, sure the fuel gauge was reading on car sales level (just above the red) but nevertheless there was at least two gallons of fuel there. Feeling somewhat confused and embarrassed, I invited the customer into the showroom where my colleague would make him a coffee and I would endeavour to get the car running. As anyone who knows me will testify, I never forget a face, and I was certain he worked in a fast fit centre nearby and was more than sure I had also clocked him at the local car auctions. This was never mentioned of course, but by now I was pretty sure he pulling a fast one. Refusing my offer of a sit down and a brew he offered me price on the car making a play on the fact it seemed a non runner.

That was it! I knew he was bent at this point, he offered a stupid price for which he would have it taken away that afternoon, but by now I had not desire to raffle the car or play games. The customer then tried to give me patter about how he was doing us a favour by offloading the motor from us. Turning the key one more time I noticed there was no buzz or click sound coming from the priming fuel pump, so either a relay or fuse had failed or someone else had been tinkering. Having noticed him looking deep into the floor area of the car, I reached my hand around the centre console and felt the inertia cut off device which isolates the fuel pump in the event of an accident or heavy impact. In layman’s terms – it’s a switch that pops up rather akin to a circuit breaker on an extension cable, you simply press to reset.

On certain cars, you only have to slam a door with force to operate this safety device and yes the device had indeed activated – most surely by thumping it or tapping it hard with a butt of a screwdriver. After simply pressing in the switch, I turned the key to ignition and the pump in the tank gave an audible hum and click indicating that fuel flow was restored. By now the customers face was a picture, I could see in his eyes he was dying so I happily re-offered a test drive, brought him back and relieved him of the sum in the region of £1400 blaming a dodgy relay for the fault. We arranged for him to collect the car the very next day in which time we accidentally disconnected the battery and lost the code for the radio, replaced the unused spare wheel for a worn one and misplaced the locking wheel nut – all of the previous items he had previously failed to check. He knew that I knew he had tried to pull a fast one – and failed, though nothing was ever mentioned. Still, we made a few quid that day that’s for sure!

Mike Humble


  1. My best deal was a £50 Fiat Tempra which I sold onto a bloke who “Just needed a car” for £500. Deal was sweetened by us keeping and cashing in the 11 months of tax that came with the car.

  2. You know, you can tell the suckers from the benders, im impressed you kept your nerve, im impressed you didnt tell him off and im impressed you sold the car for a profit and releived the sucker of a few vitals on the car. Liked the story though, the sort of thing i would love to do but dont have the steady nerve like you have. Its a classic…..

  3. Remind me of the time i bought a 1991 416Gti years ago, it was being sold as spares or repair with a month or so tax and mot, the owner had given up on the car as it wouldn’t run, when i turned up to look at it i noticed the pump didn’t make the nice humming sound.
    The owner told me that he went down a pot hole and the car cut out, and me playing dumb offered him £80 to take it off his hands which he didn’t even haggle with. I then reached behind the center console reset the fuel cut off and off i drove into the sunset.

  4. I had one of those fuel cut-offs beneath the driver’s seat of my Alfa 145. The first day I took it into work, I took a couple of guys out for a spin – first time I’d needed to push the front seat back. When it came time to go home, damn thing wouldn’t start. I was there for an hour on the office car-park, convinced I’d bought a dud. In those pre-mobile days I went back inside (looking rather sheepish) and dialled the AA. They told me right away to check under the driver’s seat………

  5. #3, Simon – would you buy a used car from this man?

    It’s apt that the cover pic for an article called “Small profits, big chancers” features a photo of an easily shiftable car with Swiss Mike leaning on it! 😉

  6. 6 Simon – I had a 145 bread van (great fun!) and mine used to cut off if you slammed the passenger seat back into the upright position to hard! the button was just under the seat base.

    7 – Sam – Mr Humble is positively smouldering in that pose, Matalan’s would snap him up with that look, I have paste and cut and sent it to there head office!

  7. I never owned a Rover 200 R8 series but was invited to test drive one in 1992, when I had an Escort 1.3 company car. I remember the Rover had a much more upmarket feel than Astras & Escorts at that time. As Mike says, The SEi run out models were a good buy as they were well equipped machines at a keen price. I later did own 3 MGRovers (414, 45, ZS) and think the kit levels on all of them were good.

  8. Mike, I’m sure you did – I have seen your 75!!

    Cars like the 214SEi and 618is had a great image – just the right blend of traditional Rover and a more youthful, mass appeal.

  9. The dealers/salespeople can be chancers too, or sometimes downright stupid. Several years back I took a friend to one of those car supermarket places. He was after a run out Escort (Finesse or Flight or something) and there was a lovely metallic blue example on an x-plate, loads of kit very low miles etc etc. So we piled in for the test drive only to find a horrid squeeling noise from the front wheels and no movement of the car. The back brakes were locked solid and the car wasn’t moving. This was enough to put us right off the car, the salesman became a bit of an arsehole at this point, saying how the car was perfect etc etc so he had put us off the whole place. As we walked away he insulted us. On the way home we spotted a very tidy low miler Escort 1.6 Ghia on the road side on an M plate for £900, and bought that instead.

    And then the private sellers – last year I went to look at an immaculate K plate 214SLi belonging to an elderly lady who was giving up driving. She was pretty much giving it away, just asking for the cost of the 11 months tax and full tank of juice (£100 iirc) but, as soon as her son heard what she was doing he intervened and asked £500 with no tax. That, and the fact there was no PAS made me leave it. Nice car though.

  10. I’ve heard any number of fuel pump inertia switch stories over the years, but here’s one I witnessed. Over 20 years ago I was on a business trip to Los Angeles and was sat in a diner with some colleagues, when we saw a car pull up outside and the driver get out. He then walked back towards the main road, which we couldn’t see. He soon reappeared, but helping another guy push an Escort Estate into the car park of the diner. From what followed, we guessed that both cars had been involved in a minor shunt on the main road. The exchange of details looked reasonably amicable and the first guy soon got back in his car and drove off. The Escort driver clearly couldn’t re-start his car, lifting the bonnet and scratching his head. Our view through the diner window was obviously an inertia switch that needed resetting. It fell to me to go outside and suggest this and sure enough a check of the handbook revealed a removable cover in the luggage area for just this purpose. I don’t know about European Fords, but putting the switch just in front of the left hand rear light cluster didn’t seem like the smartest location. It’s just as well the handbook was available, as my initial thoughts were to check the bulkhead area (Austin Rover practise) or under the front seats, which is where they used to be on Land Rovers.

    I understand that the function is now often performed by the air bag controller. Not everyone fitted inertia switches, some relied on the engine stopping in the event of a crash, but in my opinion a few problems with the inertia switch were a small price to pay for more certainty in cutting the fuel pump in the event of a crash.

  11. my neighbour has a lovely soft top example in bright red and j reg 1991? very solid and classy looking even now!!

  12. I love the SEi – it was a fantastic package for the money. Kudos for robbing the fast fit guy too Mike!

  13. The Rover SD1 could play similar tricks with the electric window thermal cut-out switch.

    We had the pleasure of dealing with a local undesirable family who came up lucky on the football pools (remember those ? Pre-lottery, this was back in the 80s). They were very demanding and their upbringing had omitted the chapter on good manners.

    Anyway, they all bought themselves something nice and the mum had a 3500 in red which they all piled into one day to go to Ascot.

    It was a hot day, they were all rather large, especially the laydees, and it was before air-con was a common fitment ( in fact I don’t think it was even available on the SD1 back then ).

    Unfortunately when they left home they found they couldn’t open the electric windows to let some air in so they rocked up outside our service reception at around 10am with all the windows firmly closed and five large sweating bodies sitting inside. They demanded we “fix this heap of sh*t ” there and then as they were going to Ascot and didn’t have time to waste.

    Our service receptionist was a very mild mannered man but had an evil streak when it came to getting revenge on difficult customers. He knew it was just the cut-out switch but told them it needed a part which he’d order specially for them and would make sure it was in this afternoon if they called in on their way home.

    Sure enough, they turned up around 5pm, looking even redder and sweatier than they had at 10 am, having driven about 50 miles pressed together on a hot day with no fresh air.

    Our receptionist asked them to wait while he fitted the part. He drive the car round into the workshop and left them waiting for it until around 6pm when we were shutting up. He then drove it back round from the workshop for them after having simply pressed the reset button.

    The irony is it was the first time they actually showed some gratitute for anything and dropped a pound note in his hand.

  14. You get chancers on the private used sales too, especially I find on gumtree – texts offering insulting scrap money, tyre kickers, if the car has a fault you tell them on the phone, they turn up and act surprised.

    In terms of used car dealers, I remember the time I wanted to buy a C5, I phoned to check it was still there. By the time I made it to the dealers, the window price had been upped…
    I asked why and he spun some story about replacing a headlight.
    Test drive and the MFD blinked all sorts of error messages.
    I walked away from that one.
    Though I did end up with a nice Accord coupe from a dealer, low miles, good runner but heavy on fuel.

  15. I’ve only ever looked at 6 cars for sale and one of them was a Rover 45. It was quite cheap, but when I got there it was parked up among the nettles in a gipsy encampment with no tax, no oil in the engine, wouldn’t start til after a few attempts, seller was a tough, illiterate Irishman who swore at me when I asked if it was taxed! Almost certainly stolen, I think. You can learn a lot about a car from its seller.

  16. These pictures made me sad – I just scrapped one of these, in Nightfire too. It was a lovely car, but the body & engine both finally gave up after 17 years and 197,000 miles. Sorely missed.

  17. I quite liked Sold As Seen.

    I knew the trade well enough to know if I wanted to, I could unleash misery on a dealer. But THEY knew me well enough, and if I said “trade sale”, I meant it.

    Got a lot of cheap, fun cars that way. I’ve had plenty of warrantied “young” bangers at big money from dealers where it essentially becomes a battle over whose time is worth more. Mine usually is, unfortunately. Much prefer paying “it’s a pile of crap” money then being pleasantly surprised.

  18. BUYER BEWARE, the motto of every Auctioneer in the land, I spend my life in antique auctions and I have yet to meet a straight one yet, that’s why I always use common sense before I purchase something. Do you homework and either thoroughly check it or get it checked before buy it, a lot less hassle in the long run.

  19. I haven’t heard of an inertia cut off until tonight. Don’t worry, I won’t try it 😉 Great read as ever, Mike!

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