When you buy a new car, you're probably not going to find a discarded wedding ring under the seat. That's why used cars are more fun - they come with a free history lesson, and not always the good kind.
If you're smart, you go into a used-car deal looking for trouble - the ideal car buyer is a professional negotiator and police detective with a mechanic's license, a PhD in psychiatry and a tattoo that reads "caveat emptor."
In the late 1970s, I went on a car-buying trip to Nova Scotia's South Mountain with my black-sheep cousin Ed MacCluskey. I was carrying $750 in cash, and we were on the trail of a cherry-red 1967 Volkswagen Beetle to replace the one that my girlfriend had just totalled in a crash.
A used-car deal is best approached with caution, and this one called for more than usual - I loved Ed, but his history did include several failed rehab efforts and some firearms incidents. Even without a guy like Ed involved, a used-car deal can go bad fast. One of my friends bought a used van, only to learn that the owner had disguised a bad transmission by dumping sawdust into it. Another friend bought a used BMW for a spectacularly low price, only to learn that it was stolen - the police hauled it away a week later.
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But you can also get spectacularly lucky with a used car, as I did with my first '67 Beetle. Against all odds, I found that Beetle on a car lot, always my least favourite place to hunt for a used vehicle. (To me, trying to find a car on a sales lot is like hunting for a wife in a singles bar.) But this time it worked. I spotted the '67 sitting beneath fluttering pennants as I drove past the lot on my way to work in Vancouver. It looked even better up close: all original, no accidents, virtually no rust. I paid $750 - a genuine bargain.
Like all used cars, my Beetle came with a history. I found bobby pins and lipstick tubes beneath the driver's seat, and the glove compartment yielded a crumpled ticket to a long-ago Toronto Maple Leafs game and a receipt from a gas station in Northern Ontario. My Beetle had journeyed east at least once (I took it east myself when I moved to Halifax to attend journalism school and lost my cat).
I thought I'd have that Beetle for the rest of my life, but my girlfriend's crash had spelled the end. Now Ed had located a replacement in a farmer's barn up on the South Mountain. It was a low-mileage 1967 with original factory paint (cherry red) and no rust. At least that's what Ed told me.
"It's perfect," he assured me. "Mint." He insisted that he'd been sober when he saw the Beetle. As with many used-car claims, this would prove to be a fabrication.
I packed my tools and we were off, winding through the green hills behind Wolfville in Ed's dented Chevy pickup. Empty jars of Chipmans Golden-Glow cider rolled around in the back like bowling balls, and there were sunroof-sized rust holes in the floorboards - I watched the gravel pass beneath my feet like a grey river. The shift lever had been snapped off - Ed had repaired it by clamping a set of vise-grip pliers to the metal stub. His automotive standards were significantly lower than my own. (I'd spent several years working as a Porsche-VW mechanic.)
Now we were at the barn that allegedly contained the Beetle of my dreams. Myth and reality quickly diverged. The barn didn't have a roof, and the house connected to it was straight out of Deliverance, with tarpaper walls and windows covered with duct tape and plastic sheeting. A dog was chained to a stake out front.
Ed fetched the owner, an old, rail-thin farmer with teeth that looked like toppling headstones in a neglected country cemetery. I asked the farmer how long he'd owned the car. "Don't remember," he said.
The deal was off as soon as the barn doors swung open. The Beetle wasn't a '67. Instead, it was mid-'70s Super Beetle, the worst car Volkswagen ever built. The condition was far from mint: the body looked like a crushed beer can, the tires were flat, and someone had smashed in the driver's-side window. And it wasn't cherry red. It was acid green (with brown primer patches). I turned to the farmer and announced that I wasn't interested. The news was not well received. The farmer turned to Ed. "We had a deal," he announced. There was a nasty edge in his voice.
Ed huddled with the farmer, then came over and pulled me aside. He looked desperate. "Give him the money," he pleaded. I refused. The farmer headed out of the barn toward the house. Ed grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the door.
Seconds later, we were in Ed's truck. Gravel sprayed from the back wheels as Ed gunned it through the yard. I watched as the farmer came out the front door of his house. Was that a gun in his hand? I couldn't be sure, because we were going fast, swinging out onto the road.
I gradually dragged the details out of Ed over the next few days. The farmer was actually a South Mountain bootlegger. Ed owed him money. Once again, I had learned that buying a used car isn't so much a financial transaction as a journey into lives other than your own.
The hunt for a used car usually begins with an advertisement. Back in the day, you went to newspaper classifieds. Now it's Auto Trader online, or Craigslist. The medium might be different, but the game is the same: You call the seller, talk about the car, and decide if you want to go see it.
Maybe you buy the car, maybe you don't. Either way, you learn something. I looked at a Volvo 544 that was being sold by a rendering-plant worker who offered me shots of vodka the moment I arrived. I soon realized that he was trying to blunt my sense of smell - the car reeked of decomposing animal fats. I passed.
Then there was the time I bought a car from an insurance company for parts. It was a brand-new, buttercup-yellow Beetle that had been destroyed in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer, killing the Beetle's driver and her dog. As I disassembled the ruined car and harvested the engine and transmission, I felt like an archeologist excavating a lost civilization. Each detail added a tragic brushstroke - I found broken dog's teeth, a makeup case and an acceptance letter from the University of British Columbia.
Another time, I answered a hand-written ad taped to the door of a grocery store. It was a hard-looking young woman who was selling a Pontiac Laurentian for $200. She needed to sell it fast, because her boyfriend had just been charged with armed robbery, and she didn't have rent money. I gave her $300 instead, still a bargain. She offered me dinner, but I passed. When I cleaned the Pontiac, I found a roach clip and a bullet casing under the seat.
As the years went on, I was able to buy new cars. At first I liked it. Then I realized that I was having a lot less fun. No more bullet casings. No vodka shots. Classic car buffs like to talk about what's known as provenance, which is a fancy word for history. That's how it is with used cars - whether you buy one from a drunken hillbilly or a member of the British royal family, there are ghosts in the machine. Someone's been there before.
Every used car comes with a story. You've got to like that.
For more from Peter Cheney, go to www.facebook.com/cheneydrive
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