Anything with Acorns Stashed in the Glove Box
Park any car long enough, and nature will start having its way with it. First, the tires will deflate; then, inevitably, one of the windows will crack, and surely then some woodland creatures will find that it makes wonderful prefabricated housing. Eventually, there’s more nature than car left.
A telltale sign of nature’s encroachment is a stash of foodstuffs found in the glove box or other cubbies. A couple hundred acorns may not dissuade you from undertaking the restoration of a classic, but do you really want to risk the wrath of a family of rabid ground squirrels just to get a good deal on a ’95 Intrepid? Remember, if an animal stashed it there, that animal is coming back for it.
Any Car That Wants to Drive Back to the Hertz Lot
Not everyone who rents a car abuses it, just people with even the smallest streak of rebelliousness, those under the age of 60, or people whose meeting this morning went really, really badly. Parking-brake slides and burnouts, neutral slams, the occasional purposeful curbing just to maliciously screw up the alignment—in many cases, rentals aren’t cars at all. They’re whipping boys.
Any Car from a Lot Covered in Oil
One of the clearest indications that something isn’t right with a car is a spreading puddle under it. The simple way for a used-car vendor to get around these telltale pools is to ensure that the lot itself is so covered in oil that you can’t tell it’s coming from any particular car. Or, failing that, to have a gravel lot that can be raked regularly to spread the goo around.
Leakage can mean anything from a cracked block to a slightly loose drain plug, but it never means anything good. Cars, it seems, can’t make use of fluids that aren’t contained within them.
It’s always best to wait at least one night before signing a purchase contract for any used car. It’s even better if you know where the car is parked that night—and you put a clean piece of cardboard under it.
Manufacturer Press Fleet Refugees
The role of a press vehicle is to demonstrate maximum performance for numerous outlets and journalists and to educate them on the limits of the car’s abilities. That can leave a vehicle a bit, well, tired.
Tires can be changed, bearings repacked, and bushings replaced—those are no problem. But there’s no knowing what the effect of a few hundred laps on various skidpads can mean if that sloshed all the oil away from the cylinder walls. And a couple thousand burnouts aren’t going to have a positive effect on the life span of a clutch or differential. It’s simple fact that test cars—like rentals—are born into a life of abuse. To a slightly lesser extent, the same applies to dealer demo cars, and be wary of cars sold as “executive demos,” as that is often spin-speak for “press car.”
By the way, if you’d like a nice used 2007 Audi S8, be on the lookout for C/D’s former long-termer. After $29,969 in repairs from a collision with a minivan, it’s as good as new! Sort of.
It doesn’t take much to turn a daily driver into a race car—just some number stickers and a roll cage, really, and we’ve seen those applied to everything from Miatas to Ferraris to Toyota Tundras. But once a car becomes a race car, it’s tough to retame it for the street.
Rock-stiff shocks, bushings harder than petrified eucalyptuses, and spine-snapping springs are among the more benign modifications made when preparing a vehicle for competition. Beyond that are the sound-deadening material that’s ripped out, the power accessories that are dumped to drop weight, and engines recammed to concentrate the power band within 100 rpm of redline. Race cars aren’t supposed to be tame or comfortable; they’re supposed to win.
That doesn’t mean you can’t gently modify your Civic Si for weekend gymkhana duty without destroying its utility. But don’t fool yourself into believing it’s easy to recivilize an animal that’s gone feral.
Any Camaro Wearing Death Metal Stickers
Caution: Beyond the band-loyalty stickers, look out for crumpled parole reports, old visitor’s passes from prominent penal institutions, and abandoned toothless children in the hatchback area. And if it smells like meth, it’s meth.
There’s a lot of good to be said about old Camaros: They were available with small-block V-8s, massaged right they handle well, and they’re dirt-cheap. But it’s also true that these cars attract the sort of buyer who saves his greatest loyalty for death metal legends like Slayer, Necrophagia, and Morbid Angel. Vehicle care isn’t a top priority when you have three kids by four different women and a serious meth addiction.
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I am a professional woman who has always bought used vehicles since 1973 and only have been burned 1x, by a car dealership. I do the basic maintainance on my cars plus some (replace brakes, alternators, etc). I learned basic mechanics at the age of 20 and it has served me well. My best story was the $200 '78 Volvo that was being used as a blackberry arbor that I bought in '89. I threw in a new battery and drove it out, covered in mildew, flushed the fluids, tune up and belts, new tires and a good wax and I put 175k on it over the next ten years. Sold it for 1,500.
If you have common sense and basic car knowledge you can get a great used car. My current car, bought used, is a '85 300ZX with 180k original miles and runs like a champ. Drove it RT from WA to FL last year.