How To Buy A Car…And Retain Your Dignity

Years ago I had an office in the old library building in Wayne, PA. The guy in the next office, Ben, worked for the Ford Motor Company as coordinator between dealerships in the area. He had worked for Ford since getting out of the Navy after the Korean War. He had great stories about Ford, including Allentown’s Lee Iacocca and the origin of the Mustang (according to Ben, Iacocco needed a quick answer to Chevy’s Corvette, so he told his designers to put a sporty new body on the Ford Falcon and – Presto! – an American icon).

Ben also told me why people don’t trust car dealers. 

During WWII, American automobile plants became war machine plants – making tanks, Jeeps, airplanes, etc., instead of cars. After the war, there was pent up demand for new cars. According to Ben, until supply began to catch up to demand, a buyer might go into a dealership and make a deal for a car for delivery several weeks or months later. When it came time to pick up the new car, the dealer would have either sold the car to someone else for a higher price or simply demand more money. 

Haggling over the price of a car continues to this day, with a few exceptions. Saturn (before GM and unions throttled it) offered a fixed price for new cars, as did the original Prius and now Tesla. CarMax and others do the same with used cars. But haggling is still the rule.

If you like combat, buying a new car is nirvana. If you don’t, it’s like getting a tooth pulled in slow motion. Last week, it was my tooth… uh, turn.

Here’s what I learned:

Don’t read Consumer Reportsor Motor Trendor Car And Driveror any of the other magazines that review cars. They get very detailed about everything from mileage to interior space to engine details. Too much detail can kill the fun. I read one article on Honda CRV’s that compared something called a CVT to a normal transmission. 

CVT, CVS, CBS …who cares?  

If you want to actually drive several cars before deciding on which one to buy, don’t tell anyone. Especially the sales manager. 

I test-drove a Hyundai in Downingtown, PA. When I asked the salesman for a brochure, he said he’d ask his manager.  About ten minutes later a somewhat annoyed guy sat down in front of me, said he was the manager and, instead of giving me a brochure, said,  “What do I have to do to sell you a car today!?” 

I decided to be honest: “Actually, I’m not buying a car today. I just wanted to drive one.” 

That’s when one of us decided I should leave. Without a brochure.

Do join Costco or AAA. They have negotiated bottom line prices with a variety of dealerships, so you just have to tell the dealer you’re a member to skip several days of negotiations.

Do compare prices with nearby dealerships, but don’t confuse Wilmington DE with Wilmington, NC.  That would be very stupid. 

Don’t get upset when you agree on a price with the salesman and he takes you to the “Finance Manager”, who is really just another salesman, who says he’s videoing you and spends the next hour trying to sell you a whole bunch of extras, from warrantees to floor mats. Then, when you decline, he refuses to close on the car until you sign a legal document saying you don’t want any extras.  

Remember, he’s just trying to be helpful, kind of like high school, when your teacher described the benefits of memorizing the periodic table.

Don’t read the manual before you start driving your new car. Americans are known for not reading directions until all else fails, so you have a legacy to uphold. If the new car is more computer than car, just ask your kids how to turn on the engine, radio, navigation system, and parking break. Everything else can wait until you’ve mastered your smart TV.

And most important, don’t tell anyone how much you paid for your car. Ever. They’ll just laugh at you.

(If you like this, pass it on. If you don't, pass it on anyway. Why should you suffer alone?)