ON BUYING A USED CAR
OUR wives and girl-friends exasperate us at times by windowshopping, but no doubt we exasperate them just as much when we ” window-shop ” through the small advertisements on the arrival each month of MOTOR SPORT!
It is a fascinating pastime, this browsing through the “smalls.” It is only when the thing becomes reality that it is as well to take care and at least work to a definite plan.
I can usually tell when I’m about to acquire a new, used car. The malady begins with more concentrated browsing than usual and a tendency to make pencil marks against the more promising “smalls.” Sometimes the journey entailed to inspect the car which interests can be visualised, in other eases it is a pilgrimage enhanced by expectant map-reading. If a box number conceals the vendor’s identity a sense of frustration ensues.
One golden rule applies. It is, get going. Box-number frustration is nothing to that which i8 experienced when, the address achieved, you are confronted by a smiling vendor waving an exceedingly modest cheque’ who proceeds to tell you what a wonderful car he has just half an hour earlier disposed of for a song. So, if the bargain of your dreams appears before your eyes in cold, hard, rather small type, drop whatever you are doing—painting the stove, changing baby, courting or getting married—and proceed in all haste.
Which reminds me, I was once motoring in a test Velox (yes, a Vauxhall, but not that sort) with he who has since become .MOTOR SPORT’S Continental Correspondent. It was a Sunday afternoon, the second of the month. As we proceeded—through Harrow, I think it was—we became CODSOi0118 of more Austin Sevens than usual on the road—.Chummies with sagging lamps and daylight at the doors, mildly-rusty Rubies, and stark Specials with aluminium-painted wheels and smooth spare tyres. It was noticeable, too, that the drivers of these Longbridge babies were stopping every so often to accost passers-by, then surging forward after much pointing and gesticulating. This seemed a little odd, for no 750 M.G. fixture Was, to our memory, imminent. Then we turned a corner on our legitimate route and the solution was apparent. Outside a semi-detached house stood a rather startled-looking Austin Seven Special. Some six or seven Austins were converging on the scene, others were already parked at the kerb. It was then we remembered that a rather attractively-worded advertisement for .a special Austin had appeared the day before in MOTOR Sewer. The Advertisement Manager tells me the circulation is more than 67,000. From that day on I have believed him implicitly . . . Our OWD sallies into selling used cars have been less happy (although we were once called a “hack-door motor trader,” and by a friend too, merely because we’ tried to dispose of two unwanted
personal vehicles within a couple of months I) One of these was a clean, sound runner on good boots, as they say in the Trade. Its only disadvantage was that it was a mid-engined Trojan. the only Apollo sunshine saloon made, we believe. We had had our fun with it and wanted something else–shall we say a trifle faster. We duly inserted a “small.” No, not in Moro u SPORT, but as a matter of
professional etiquette in one of the august weeklies. The price asked was low but nothing happened. At least, not at first. The ‘phone rang once and a haughty voice inquired where the engine was. “In the middle,” we retorted hopefully. There was a prolonged silence, then, “Had it been at the back I’d have made a substantial offer, said the Voice, and rang off. ‘We did sell the thing in the end. Another Voice asked about it and we said, truthfully, that it was a Trojan. “Doesn’t matter,” replied this Voice. We explained that it was a two-stroke, that the engine was under the seat, that it was started by a handle inside. that it had only two speeds, that it was chain-driven, that it Made Noises. ” Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.” said the Voice, “I’m a fitter, you see,” it added finally. He came late one wintry Saturday afternoon with a vast metal box of tools and a small child. We demonstrated and he stayed to tea. The mist began to creep round the rose bushes. We had always’ wanted a Trojan and felt disinclined to part at this eleventh hour. But we were
beaten-down over price in the time-honoured manner, wrote a receipt, and gradually the whirring sound grew fainter and fainter until it could be heard no longer. The new owner was on his way, to Croydon, we gathered. A few days later the office telephone rang. “You don’t know me but I’ve been a reader for years,” it began. It usually does. ” I
know you like odd vehicles,” it continued (here we blush and hope the switchboard isn’t listening-in), “and thought you might be interested in a 1928 Trojan Apollo saloon. It’s in a yard near Croydon and appears to have hit a tram …” Oh, well ! However, we had set out to write about buying used cars, not selling them, and although on the latter subject our pen could race
ahead, let us take stern hold of ourselves and concentrate on serving up the usual serious, informative, witty and exceedingly helpful article to the clients (advert.). Some of you can go through your ” smalls ” carefree, knowing that all you need in life is an interesting motor car. Whether you fall for an un-Veloxed 30/98, a Blue Label you had hoped might be a Red Label (but couldn’t be at the price), or a partially-completed Ford Ten Special to unbuckle Buckler, matters hardly at all. Your
only arbitrations are price and distance ; but it can save a lot of trouble if you ask first whether the vehicle can be towed—a set of 820 by 120s may be awfully difficult to rustle up on a Sunday afternoon.
But if you have to consider practicability and economy, mark your “smalls” more thoughtfully. A scarcely-soiled Minerva could be a very tine motor car indeed and an open sesame to the V.S.C.C., but if you have to go to and from business in it the fuel consumption could be prohibitive and, even if you have got a large and increasing family, your wife may not be too pleased should the “commodious body” turn out to be a hearse.
Far better to decide first on top price and what fuel consumption is sought and search for a car complying under both headings. If you are a married man avoid a car advertised “. . . because marriage forces sale,” and if you are a sporting gay young thing don’t bother with a vehicle described as ” good stolid tourer, suit family man.” Here I might digress to outline the seven stages of motoring, but willingly refrain.
Seriously, it is very difficult indeed to advise which makes an d types of used cars should be satisfactory, although we frequently receive such inquiries. An Alvis is a thoroughly good car, so is a Bentley, but a 12/50 or a 3-litre in bad condition is little better, very likely far worse, than a poor car in almost new order. It all depends. as our friend Joad would have said, on what you mean by “bad condition,” or, conversely, what you mean by “almost new.”
Mere observation indicates that some of the older cars survive better than others—the Austins are proverbial in this respect, Arinstrong-Siddeleys seem to last,: and have you noticed how many of the worm-drive Standard Eights which set the Standard Company on its feet from 1927-1929 keep on going even if their body fabric hangs forlornly about the framework ? Inevitably, I’m afraid, sports models are a less sure bet than such staid family conveyances.
Lots of people just have no faith in vintage cars and flounder along trying to get serviceable motoring from ears of the 1932-38 era at vintage prices. I have bought some exceedingly low-priced vintage Cars in my time and have had very little trouble from them. Perhaps because I have faith. The speetre of spares being unobtainable. like the Loch Ness Monster, rears its ugly head, but I rather feel that if you cannot get them for cars of the vintage years you will be equally unfortunate in respect of many 1932/30 models. Admittedly breaker’s yards are not what they were, being full these days of rusty Service vehicles instead of harbouring thoroughbred chassis beneath piles of rain-filled down-to-the-canvas covet* and wet sacks.
This reminds me. When I am too old to edit I intend to become a car-breaker. I shall then enjoy the twilight of my life standing outside a small wooden shack in the corner of a field, My thumbs resting in my braces, calling to avid enthusiasts who were once my readers, ” Five bob, Guy, if yer takes it off yerself.” And, after all, two fiverbobs make ‘alf a quid. To return. Whether you should buy from a dealer or from a private individual is a moot question (it’s all right, I’ve just looked op” moot ” in my dictionary). The dealer Will have a good stock for you to examine, and those so-desirable red-and-white plates so that you can go for a trial run. The private owner will probably give you tea anti talk motoring for hours—he is usually honest about his own car—hut may explain that the licence and insurance have lapsed and you cannot have a trial run. The dealers’ prices may be higher, because he has overheads and can afford to wait until he gets
a good price for a car. But, remember that he is free to pick and choose his stock and for his own sake is unlikely to surround himself with a lot of duds, whereas the private owner has, if you see my meaning, only the one car to sell.
A dealer who Specialises in sporting ears should be expected to know his subject pretty intimately, and if he tries to interest you in a 38/90 Vauxhall, a 36/250 Mercedes-Benz, or a 2LSD Ballot, I Suggest you go elsewhere.
Is it fair to demand a trial run ? Yes, if your nerves are good. I think it is. Obviously, if the price is £20 or thereabouts you may have to be content with trying for compression on the handle (there is not likely to be very much) and seeing if you can locate all the cogs. But in the case of a really expensive car you are entitled to quite a long drive, far enough for the oil to get really warm, the slow-puncture to let itself down and the fumes to find the easiest way out. Listen carefully during your trial run, my friends. Years ago unscrupulous dealers were known to put sawdust in a noisy axle to quieten it and to stick a little pin in the dial of the oil gauge to hold the needle up.
You can be rightly suspicious of a vendor who possesses ” general ” trade plates but who will not allow you to drive, of he who makes excuses for not taking you for a run or moving an IneXPeasive vehicle out into the open, Of an engine which was already nicely warm when you arrived and inquired, ” Does it start easily? “
A lot of used cars can be very sound propositions, others can be to say the least, distressing. The engine which requires a rebore and its bearings remetalling is a pretty sick thing, yet a keen engineer might care nothing for visible signs of these troubles, intending to strip and rebuild at his leisure. A tap can be a hi-metal piston legitimately expanding (” Fitted ’em in the ’28 models only, Old Boy.”) or a small:end that has already expanded far too much. Gears can whine because the car is a blue-blood thoroughbred or because they are about to strip their teeth. Oil pressure can be a few lb./sq. in. because the engine has tmughotud-dipper feed or because it is due to be thrown away.
On paper, advice about “what to look for” and “how to tell ” is not very helpful. but a friend can usually be found with the requisite knowledge to help thenovice in the exciting business of choosing his first (used) car—after which the novice is likely to learn rapidly !
My own “bane Of the smalls” is that which says “body rough ” or words to that effect, not because I read anything personal in this but beeause I am absolutely no hand at all at repairing and refurbishing dilapidated bodywork. It isn’t that I make a habit of owning cars which cause the neighbours to tear their curtains aside wheuever I draw up, but a body with dropping head lining, discoloured glass, doors which won’t shut and a leaking roof is a pretty worthless object—personally, I’d rather take it off and go about. on the bare chassis. Yet there must exist those who can repair motorcar coachwork in their back gardens and who would be quite glad to buy a cheap car on account of its dilapidation but sound mechanically. And we should be grateful to honest advertisers who state that their cars look a bit sorry and AO save people like me a wasted journey. In these days when safety on the road is important, the condition of the chassis should be of equal, or greater, concern than the condition of the engine. Fortunately, worn steering connections, collapsed
springs, and brakes which require new linings are usually fairly easy to cope with; but remember that replacement of a gearbox or back axle can be about as costly as overhauling an engine. Moreover, transmission parts for some makes, such as the Morgan 4/4 and certain B.M.W. models, are, I understand, exceedingly difficult to obtain, and Bugatti cylinder blocks are worth their weight in titanium. On the other hand, with flourishing registers and one-make clubs, owners of Alvis, Bentley, Humber, Sunbeam, Lancia and similar makes should have a happier time.
In the delicate matter of price, used ears are a lot cheaper than they were a few years ago, thank St. Christopher. Today, if you had to have a sound car for your business and only had £150 or so to spend, I think you would get by—if not past the motor-coach in front. Even £100 could suffice if careful selection were made. And for £70—£100 you can now buys good-looking and going vintage car on which Tim Carson will not frown too harshly if you venture to a V.S.C.C. Rally in it. Not long ago the figures would have been more like £350 and £250, respectively.
But prices have risen again this summer, in some cases to absurd levels. The Old Masters should, and do, command high figures, but there are not so many Old Masters left and slapping green and aluminium paint over the less exciting near-vintage thoroughbreds and making the garage lad polish them does not produce such. A Rolls-Royce, for example, proclaims itself the World’s Best Car, but unless you have space in which to garage it, can keep it looking and running decently, and can meet its thirst for petrol, oil and tyres, do not be tempted by a “Silver Ghost” (“stored for years, wants a few simple jobs done on it”), even at what is known as a song. The fiat-rate tax encourages us, but remember that petrol still bears a half-dollar tax on every gallon.
I foresee prices dropping to an all-time low level this winter. If they do not, how can the dealers face the competition from noweasily-available new cars, which enjoy the impetus of Earls Court and range down to comparatively inexpensive things like 2CV Citrans ? I am a staunch vintage man myself (By gad, sir !) yet every year at the Motor Show I almost fall for the argument that a new car is sound all through and has a guarantee, whereas a used car may fall to bits tomorrow, when there will be no come-back (literally) and no spares. Perhaps it’s the fuggy atmosphere. Or it may be the sight of so many P.R.O.s slaving so hard to explain their companies’ wares.
The fact is that every year, at a decidedly conservative estimate, over 70,000 different used cars are advertised for sale in the motor journals. Besides these, many thousands stand in showrooms in palatial thoroughfares and back streets, from Park Lane to Brixton Hill, and hundreds more wait forlornly on waste patches of ground for someone to pay the price painted in bold whitewash on their windscreens.
What are the dealers’ prospects of selling such a vast number of cars, the newest of them something like five years old ? Before the war the number of motorists increased annually and purchasers of ears fell into two categories, those who bought new and those who bought secondhand vehicles. After a year or so many new-car people sought a change and passed good, readily-saleable cars into the secondhand market, whose only embarrassment was the proximity of new-car to slightly-used-car prices. During the last decade new cars have been in short supply and prohibitively expensive, but more and more vehicles have been flooding the roads—the majority purchased in the secondhand market, where good business has been done, attracting new dealers to the game. But recently there have been signs of a money shortage in this country, due to Service gratuities and war-time profits having been spent while the cost of day-to-day existence goes on rising. This suggests a slackening in the number of new motorists while, with new cars now reduced in price and in ready supply, more secondhand cars will go on the market with fewer people to absorb them. The higher priced ones will have to compete with new cars and only the older, modestlypriced ones will sell. It is at times like this that the enthusiast, frequently changing his cars and interested in the older vehicles apart from their low price, constitutes the mainstay of those not forced by circumstance out of the used-car business, hence the value of advertising in the sporting Press. But to attract buyers, prices, whether whitewashed or printed, must come tumbling down. Mark you, I sometimes think we have only ourselves to blame for the high prices asked by the Trade for used cars. As soon as a paper publishes an article, or a club is formed, to enthuse over a particular cult, the objects of that new cult go up in price. It is so with ears. When I was a schoolboy, and therefore a Bentley fan, you could buy a Red Label for about €200. Today, although these cars have been used (or stored, which can he worse) for more than a further twenty years, you still have to pay much the same prices. People pay, so prices are maintained. When the
Light-Car-Section of the V.S.C.C. was formed I foresaw this snag to the fostering of inexpensive vintage motoring and decreed that £50 should be regarded as about ” tops ” for a really nice circa-1928 small car in good order on decent tyres, lesser examples to be priced accordingly. Yet already prices of such cars have risen ten and twenty pounds, and more, above this limit, and not only at the dealers’, either.
Only by refusing to pay fancy prices for old cars will you force them down to near pre-war values. Already I’m informed that offers seldom exceed £150 for cars chalked up at £300. That, maybe, is a straw in the wind.
A final word of advice to you before you sort your “smalls.” Decide first on the sort of car you really require. If you are a novice take an expert with you. Insist on a trial run, driving yourself the more expensive ears. (This is not only to check for mechanical deficiencies but to ensure that you like the vehicle concerned.) Unless you are looking for a purely historic piece, do not take too much Stock of tales of a car’s past prowess—the condition of its bores is far more important. (Any car can be restored to ” as-new ” order if you are really determined—I believe Mr. Stanley Sears has had a new cylinder block cast for his 1914 G.P. Opel at a cost of about £200—but few of us can count on obtaining full “original performance” after our restricted efforts in this direction.) When you embark on the enthralling (and I mean that) pastime of searching through the used-car advertisements, your millennium will arrive, maybe, when you spot that £80 Red Label in mint condition; to subside, perhaps, when you find it is viewable at the Butt of Lewis. All I can do now is to advise you to keep your wallet hidden and place your trust in no man.—W. B.