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Buying a car not like it used to be

on Tuesday, 18 June 2019. Posted in Columns, Opinions

Like a predator circling its prey, the old codger ever so slowly made his way around the vehicle. Sliding his hand slowly across the fender, he looked and felt for the slightest scratch or dent. He’d give each tire a swift kick before pulling out a penny to measure the tread.

With a half-burned cigar protruding from his lips, the man would bend down and slide underneath the car or truck to inspect what could not be seen from above – drive train, chasis, and axle. Any sign of an oil leak meant trouble.

Once the lower inspection was complete, his trip around the car continued. From bumper to bumper every inch was given the once-over with an eagle eye.

If by that point everything seemed up to snuff, it was time to pop the hood. He knew exactly what to look for. With the engine running, he listened to the hum of the motor with the care of a master musician tuning his instrument. A knock or rattle would instantly garner attention and a clear explanation was expected.

He cared little for what was inside the car. The interior and accessories, some refer to them as the bells and whistles, were insignificant and unimportant.

“What matters is how it runs,” he would say. “You want to make sure it’s mechanically sound and that it ain’t gonna break down on you any time soon. All the other stuff, that’s just a bunch of fluff.”

“Son, these guys will try and take you for a ride, and I don’t mean a test drive,” he would say referring to the car salesman. “He’s looking for a sucker and you don’t want to be it.”

The old man was Hal, my step-dad, and he was accompanying me on a trip to the dealership to buy my first car. It was a 1974 Plymouth Satellite. I can’t remember the price, but I’m sure it was fair or better. The old tire-kicker made sure of that.

Buying a car has changed quite a bit since that Saturday afternoon nearly 40 years ago. Hal, who is no longer with us, would not know what to think. He wouldn’t care for it, of that I’m certain.

I can just imagine explaining to Hal how many people now buy cars and trucks online, purchasing them sight unseen (not personally, anyway) and having them delivered straight to their driveway. No haggling with a salesman over price or squabbling over interest rates with a finance officer. No test drive. Press a few buttons and in less than 24 hours you could be cruising in your new fly whip.

I would then need to explain to Hal that “fly whip” means a cool car or slick ride.

No one, not even Hal, looks forward to spending a long day at the dealership purchasing a car. No less than 99 percent of the time it’s a royal pain in the trunk, if you know what I mean.

Carvana.com, an online used car retailer, is hoping to convince consumers that buying a car online can be easy, safe, and yes, even painless. The company, based out of Phoenix, Az., expanded its distribution area to include Florence and Spartanburg last week. They join Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Charleston, Columbia and Greenville as cities where vehicles can be delivered as soon as the next day.

Carvana's press release stated that the process of buying a new car online could be completed in as little as 15 minutes. My initial reaction was to chuckle and shake my head. No way, I thought. Not quite ready to buy what they were selling, I decided to check it out. Here’s what I found:

_ First, a 360-degree virtual tour of any vehicle of your choosing from its inventory. No stock photos.

_ Once given the financial information, a detailed financing packaging can be offered in a matter of minutes. There are options, of course, for payments and loan length.

_ Step three is forking over your hard-earned cash in the form of a credit card number or bank account number. All forms are signed electronically.

_ Now, to actually see and drive what you just purchased. They can bring it to you if you live in a distribution area, or you can pick up your new ride from what Carvana calls a “car vending machine.” Not just an unusual, catchy name, the glass buildings literally work like vending machines.

Here’s how it works. You arrive to pick up your car at the car vending machine location. The closest to here is in Charlotte. When you arrive you are given a giant coin about the size of a dinner plate. You drop it into a slot and your new car or truck slowly moves downward on an elevator-like contraption.

Think of that bag of chips or candy bar you bought in the break room at work. Not exactly like that, but close.

You then get to personally inspect your purchase before driving it home.

According to the web site and to Carvana Associate Director Of Communications Amy O’ Hara, you can return the vehicle for any reason within seven days and get a full refund. There is also a 100-day/4,189 mile “worry-free guarantee.”

“More people are buying cars completely online,” said O’Hara. “We simply want to make the process and easy and transparent.”

Am I completely sold on what Carvana or other online “dealerships” offer? Nope. Would Hal be? Most definitely not.

I’m not telling you not to or suggesting that it is unwise or unsafe, mind you. I’m just saying it’s not for me. I, for one, want to see, hear and feel, inspect and drive a car or truck before I buy.

I suspect some of the old tire-kicker rubbed off on me.

Contact editor Bob Sloan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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