Used-car dealers as a group have not, historically, had the squeakiest of squeaky-clean reputations. Far from it. So we wanted to hear from them about what the industry is really like, how its image affects them and how the business is changing.
What likely comes to mind when you imagine used-car dealers is the Hollywood version: Salesmen – and they are almost always men in movies – who run the gamut from deceptive to downright crooked. In the 1996 movie Matilda, a salesman puts wrecks back together with glue, fills gearboxes with sand and slaps an extra zero on the price tag. Then there’s the dealer played by Kurt Russell in the 1980 film Used Cars who lures customers onto the lot with a $10 bill on a fishing line.
Such pop-culture portrayals were not for nothing. Repeated investigations of new- and used-car dealers from 2001 to 2018 by the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a Canadian consumer-advocacy group, found some dealers charging surprising fees and making false or misleading claims about a vehicle’s condition and history. Those investigations often led to charges against the dealers in question by industry regulators. But nobody was luring customers with a fishing line.
John Raymond, who is on the board of the APA and runs a consulting firm for automotive retailers, said the stereotype is outdated. “The internet, itʼs been a big equalizer for every retail environment,” he said. “Consumers now, at their fingertips, can find out whoʼs naughty and whoʼs nice.
“Like in any environment, you could have good operators and bad operators. But in truth, to be in business, thereʼs more of a pull to be honest, reputable and customer-focused if you want to be successful,” Raymond said.
Here’s what the used-car business is like from the other side of the lot.
Dealer principal of Vantage Motors in Truro, N.S.
In the business for 38 years
“I actually worked my way through university selling used cars,” Lugar said. “When I started, [customers] would walk in and take a look around and say, ‘Well, what’ve you got?’ Now they usually donʼt even walk in; they come with an e-mail that says, ‘Hereʼs what I want, this is on your lot and I’m prepared to pay this for it.’
“We canʼt be a bad used car dealer. All our cars are brought right up to standard and inspected and warrantied. Whereas 30 years ago, there was guys out there that would literally polish it up and park it out front. There’s still elements of that around, but they donʼt survive too long.
“One bad move and somebody can crucify you online. […] Itʼs usually when something goes wrong, and then theyʼll throw that back up in your face – that dirty-old-used-car-salesman type of thing – but we try not to let it get there.”
Israel ‘Izzy’ Hutman
Owner of Wheels for Lease in Montreal
In the business for 23 years
“I have usually anywhere between 20 and 30 cars in stock,” Hutman said. “I’ve always had a passion, even as a child, for cars. Slowly but surely, I would start to buy one car, drive it for a couple of months, sell that car, go buy another car.
“Itʼs always been that a used-car dealer is not perceived by the public as a prestigious position. But over the years, I’ve built myself a name.
“Donʼt forget, social media today is your biggest tool, in any industry. People like to read up on social media if they’re going to a restaurant, or going to a dentist, or going to a hair salon and even going to buy our cars.”
Sales manager at Edwards Garage in Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
In the business for 10 years
“People, automatically, any time theyʼre looking at a car, they have their guard up,” Kennedy said. “If I put myself in a category just from the title of my job, people would think I would be just as bad as a lawyer, you know what I mean? You get put in that category just based off of what Hollywoodʼs done, and based off of peoples’ perceptions from any sort of media, whether itʼs movies, TV shows, reading the newspaper. You read articles online all the time like, ‘What to do [when] buying cars: Donʼt trust this guy, donʼt do that, never give this.’
“The rules and guidelines we have to adhere to now, because weʼre such a large operation, thereʼs large fines if we donʼt follow the rules. So, the governmentʼs put lots of regulation in place.
“Where you used to have to talk to a person face-to-face, that isnʼt there any more. Now, all of a sudden, we’re moreso like a product adviser. Hereʼs the vehicle youʼre interested in; take it for a drive – and maybe let me show you how the radio works because you didn’t see how that worked online – and hereʼs the price. Do you want to go with it? … Our industry and our jobs have changed drastically from a process standpoint.”
Co-owner of the Auto Gallery in Winnipeg
In the business for more than 30 years
“I donʼt know if you recall the movie Used Cars,” Pedersen said, “but everybody loved watching it because it was so absolutely insane. That was a little bit of a Hollywood spoof, but when that took place [in the 1970s] the car industry really had shot itself in the foot, because that’s kind of what was happening. … There was definitely solid reasoning behind people disliking used-car salesmen. Itʼs taken a long time, and itʼs been a long while, but the used-car industry has been working very hard to turn that attitude around. And I believe itʼs made huge strides.
“When we do get a nasty review up [online], we try to understand what happened. … One of the things I do is to try and figure out: What was their thinking? What led them to this one-star-out-of-five [review]? It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I kind of have a mini-coronary.”
Sales manager and partner at Autolinks in Vaughan, Ont.
In the business for 33 years
“It’s not an easy business,” Wallischek said. “Believe it or not, [some sales]people try and shortcut a lot of things, but thereʼs a lot of good dealers out there. And consumers are funny, too, because when we get a trade-in, sometimes they give you [just] part of the story. The customer says, ‘Oh, no, thereʼs no issues, no problem.’ And then you take a second look at it later, a little bit too late, and then thereʼs a whole bunch of problems with it.
“When I met my father-in-law for the first time, he asked, ‘What do you do. You’re in car sales?’ He’s an electrical engineer and itʼs like, ‘Oh my god, used cars.’ He thinks Herb Tarlek and the guys [from the TV sitcom] WKRP in Cincinnati.
“[The used-car business] has gotten a lot more professional. Even if you look at the larger dealerships, everything has gone very corporate. … People are much, much more educated [about] the vehicle. They can find information in seconds, and they’re fact-checking. So, making stuff up and throwing stuff out there, anyone who does that still wonʼt last very long, for sure.”
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up today.