HOW TO BUY A CAR
My dad didn’t set out to be in the car-selling business, but when the steel industry in western Pennsylvania died, that’s where he found himself at thirty-four years old. He’d been working as a machinist, a job that supported the steel industry, which in turn supported the car manufacturing industry.
To prepare for the other end of the American car pipeline, he attended some classes in Chicago. There, he’d learn how to work as the finance and insurance guy at a car dealership. He brought me back a yellow tee-shirt with the word “Chicago” in rainbow lettering. The band Chicago was popular at the time. I played it off like I’d been to a concert.
Dad’s job put food in my mouth, a roof over my head, clothes on my back.
When I hear car salesman jokes, I think: Fuck you.
If you have a toddler available, go ahead and bring him with you to buy a new car.
When our child was a toddler, our car broke down on vacation. We’d been planning to get another, so we abandoned the stupid Jeep Cherokee that gave us so much trouble and went to a Honda Dealership. Caleb ran around like a two-year-old madman, and Brandon and I took turns wrangling him.
When we, exhausted and irritable, finally got to the F&I guy, he explained how we could actually make money by financing the car instead of buying it outright.
F&I guy: “Do you know how I know this?”
Brandon: “Because you’re the F&I guy?”
My dad cracked up when he heard this story.
In the end, we transferred Caleb’s car seat into the new Honda and drove back to the vacation rental.
The dealership called the next day. They messed up the paperwork to the tune of thousands of dollars. They wanted to know if we’d bring a check in.
We could have just said, See ya, suckers and thanked Caleb for jangling some nerves. But Brandon is a fundamentally honest person, and I was thinking of some middle-schooler whose life would be upended if her dad got fired, so we drove the check to the dealership.
Dad bought me a series of cars.
I was fifteen when I got the first one, a powder-blue Mustang. Technically, it was for all four of us sisters. Practically, though, the Mustang sat in front of the house, awaiting the time I got my license and could drive myself to work. I left it behind when I got to college. But my sister Erin was a wild-ish child. She ran away my first semester of college, but in typical Erin style, ran away to me. Our mom and aunt came to retrieve her, but the Mustang stayed with me. I packed myself up at the end of the second semester, mini-fridge and all, and drove myself home.
Erin got pregnant at the end of the summer. When I came back the next year, they’d traded in the Mustang for a smooth-driving boat of an Oldsmobile, more practical for ferrying my nephew to and fro.
My third year of college, Dad bought me a compact car—make, model, forgotten—that I sunk too much money into before we called uncle. Lesson: Treasure your honest mechanics. At Dad’s dealership, a mechanic figured out the problem. Spark plugs.
The last one was a $500 1983 Chevy Citation. The lining on the ceiling hung one inch above my head. I replaced a headlight but I got it all cattywampus, as Dad would say, so when I drove at night, I illuminated the tops of the trees on the country road where we lived then. I sold it for $450.
Don’t buy a luxury vehicle. I bought a Volvo station wagon, and I had problem after problem with it, mostly to do with the electrical system. The sunroof opened on its own; the alarm system blared for no reason. Dad calls them “grand cars” because they cost a grand to fix every time you take them in.
Sales techniques to be aware of:
• You’re An Idiot. Dad was the general manager of a Cadillac dealership, but a former co-worker of his managed a Jeep dealership. I got a custom Jeep Wrangler just a little above cost. I called Dad before I went to pick it up and asked him what the going rate on financing was.
When I got the F&I guy, he quoted rates that were two points above what Dad quoted me. I told him that I knew what the best rate was. He told me Dad was wrong. “Oh,” I said. “Can I leave the car here and come back with private financing?” He suddenly realized he forgot about a deal he could offer me.
• Let Me Ask the Manager. It’s just a power play. Brandon and I were looking for a cheap and reliable car for Caleb and we’d taken a test drive. After we made our offer, the salesman went to “check with the manager.” After sitting five minutes too long, I got up and found the manager’s office where they were shooting the shit. “Well?” The manager tried the You’re An Idiot technique on us and we left.
• Dad’s Mad. This one really cracks me up. We went in, test-drove a car advertised online at a certain price. We offered that price. The manager slid a piece of paper across the table with his “best offer” written on it. It was three thousand above the advertised price. “That’s not what you advertised,” I said.
“That price is only to get people in the door,” he explained huffily. “I never sell cars at internet prices.”
I didn’t tell him that’s actually illegal.
The manager looked angry after being such a nice guy. “I’m trying to give you a deal here. I want to help you.”
I’m guilt-proof, motherfucker.
We wound up buying Caleb’s Subaru off of Craigslist from a couple honest about the car’s problems. We sunk maybe $1500 dollars into it to make it reliable.
For years and years, I refused to buy foreign cars. In my mind, foreign cars ended my Pennsylvania childhood. In my apartment parking lots, in my driveways, a parade of Fords and Chevys and Jeeps. My loyalty to American-made cars was a lingering aspect my membership to the Steel Belt diaspora, along with my residual accent that pops out with certain words. (“Really?” Rilly.)
At some point it sunk in that car components are built all over the world and assembled in the countries where they’re sold. Poof! went the nativism.
Look up some Blue Book values. Get a Carfax on the vehicle. Look up the website that tells you what people actually paid for the same car in your area.
Forget about the middle-schooler that you were.
Remember that your family, after stumbling, landed on their feet.
Continue to be haunted by Steel Belt families whose stumbles turn into tumbles, whose tumbles turn into crashes. Acknowledge that everyone in your own family was young enough to reinvent yourselves. Acknowledge the same can’t be said for everyone else.
Acknowledge those jobs aren’t ever coming back, then or now.
Do you know how I know this?
Because I’m the F&I guy’s daughter.
Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She has edited two FGP anthologies, co-founded Brain, Child magazine, and authored one memoir. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is at work on a second book.