Mike Humble on the trials and tribulations of being in the used car business…
Words and pictures: Mike Humble
Buying a car is like making love to a beautiful woman…
JUST a while ago, I was browsing through my Facebook homepage and I noticed Keith Adams has put on his profile status, ‘First To See Will Buy’; that load of old pony that car sellers add to an advert to seemingly make the car more desirable – what a load of compete cobblers. Going back a couple of years ago when I was spinning cars (buying and selling, that is) I would spend half my life browsing through the Autotrader, Exchange & Mart and various other motoring inkies to spot my next possible car to make a few bob on. I would never get bored reading the badly prepared adverts with blurry dark photos and god awful text containing misleading and often incorrect facts.
I remember calling one person that was selling a late model Rover 618 for the vendor to tell me it was 1850cc and had a Triumph engine – well correct on one statement anyway. Another seller, this time with a Vauxhall Omega, waffled on without pausing for almost 10 minutes telling me what a wonderful and brilliant car his big Vauxhall was and how he didn’t really know why he was selling it. I concluded my enquiry by advising him not to sell it, and I duly hung up.
Vendors sometimes really wind me up, I tried to enquire about a decent looking Ford Mondeo once, after leaving a couple of messages I gave up thinking the car had been sold. Fast forward a few weeks and I receive a phone call from the vendor apologising for not getting back as he had been on holiday in Africa. What complete iditot pays good money to advertise a car for sale and goes on holiday not leaving anyone in charge of the car?
There was also the man who was selling a Vauxhall Vectra who stated that I couldn’t test drive the car unless I was going to buy it. I walked away
Ed Doolan, the veteran consumer champion on BBC Radio WM always uses the phrase, ‘if it’s too good to be true, it usually is.’ I totally agree. My own take on this is that there is no such thing as a cheap car, they will always cost you money one way or another so it pays to be buyer beware. Even in today’s cutthroat market place where only the good traders survive, the old Arthur Daley-type pitches still exist here and there sporting gaily coloured bunting, gravel and shale forecourt, caravan or ropey Portakabin, German Shepherd tethered out of site, battery boost pack permanently plugged into a mains socket and a leather bound black book on the desk.
I love these places so much; it really shows how bad the motor trade can be. Go back 20 years though, and this how it was generally done. Even when I much younger and greener, I would laugh and snigger at the multi coloured banners that would be inside the windscreen telling you of the exiting equipment and trim inside making the most boring or basic car sound like a Rolls.
Electric Pack Fitted (standard equipment)
Any Trial (It’s Knackered)
Rare Model (would you want a beige 1.3 Sierra three-door?)
Sports Pack (previous owner fitted a small steering wheel and alloys)
Economical (Stick this in the window of any car under 2.0)
One Lady Owner (burnt clutch and bent front wheels)
Seven Seater (okay then, so where will the luggage go in a Montego 1.6 estate)
You don’t see so much of nowadays but a little while ago every used trader were slapping these yellow, blue and green banners everywhere. Small lockup traders used to line the rear of the premises with mirror glass to make the tiny showroom look much bigger. Various pictures and posters on the walls showing old Bentleys, Porsche 911s and Jaguar E-types – five extra points if you spot a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow hub cap on the wall, I miss these emporiums so much.
Like I mentioned earlier, the game has moved on. There genuinely is very small profit in cars these days, especially volume new stuff like Ford, Vauxhall, and Citroen for example. Survival of the fittest is where it’s at these days, even the big dealer chains are being hit hard. Evans Halshaw for example has closed almost 100 dealers in the last two years and showroom recruitment is like a revolving door with mangers and dealer principles being hired and fired all the time.
What is on the increase though, are wannabe traders popping up on eBay and Auto trader, no longer are the rogue traders of old down your manor, they are on your PC monitor. Many of them are good blokes but equally many are out to fleece you of your bunts and couldn’t lie in bed straight. Beware of the seller who portrays himself to be a private seller when in fact he’s a trader. Never ever ever buy a car from the side of a road where there are 3 or four other cars for sale, unless you know what you are doing, it will end in tears.
Everybody knows someone who knows even just a little about cars. Never buy without inspection, any seller that’s worth his salt wont bat an eyelid with an inspection. Go with a gut feeling too. Only just the other month a neighbour asked me to look at a used car, all the signs were there, a vendor that wouldn’t shut up prattling on about ‘how brilliant’ the car was and while I was giving the car a thorough going over, the vendor kept his beady eye on me. The buyers were advised by me not to purchase the car, I had a gut feeling, they bought the car anyway and swallowed a £500 bill for cylinder head gasket three weeks later.
This is no reflection on me, its all about going with your instincts. They say a car is the 2nd most important purchase we make in our life, so why are so many people still being conned or mislead. My old business of being a mobile mechanic was only ever built on being honest and true rather than to go for the big kill.
‘Swiss Mike’s’ Diamond advice
As long as there is the four stroke engine, people will get ripped off, so here is some sound advice to stick to if you are in the market for a car or selling one:
Always assume the buyer will know his stuff – don’t mislead or over-sell.
If your car needs taxing, tax it. If it needs a tyre, replace it – this reduces the number of objections and lessens the reasons for the buyer to haggle you down in price. Don’t ever take a penny less than what you have mentally decided what your lowest price would be.
Set a budget and stick to it!
Always buy the best car you can afford
Polish and clean your car, make it saleable
Don’t feel embarrassed to say, ‘no thanks’, and walk away
Always take a knowledgeable person with you if you have no mechanical or automotive aptitude.
Never feel obliged to sell the car if your think the buyer will be trouble.
Make sure all the paperwork, chassis numbers etc., for the car are in order whether buying or selling, and be aware of the old chestnut excuse ‘I’m still waiting for the logbook from the DVLA.’
Never buy a car from laybys
Never buy a car from an internet auction site unless you can see, touch and drive beforehand.
And Always go with your gut instinct, if you are in any doubt simply drive or walk away.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.