A Dealer’s Diary – GDR, here I come!
Never go shopping without a backup-plan
The man on the street hasn’t the slightest idea about what a used car dealer really does. They probably think we buy the car, clean it up inside-out, rewind the odometer, make a cool two grand selling it, and then enjoy la dolce vita counting the €500 notes in our back pocket. Now, would you care to know what a used car dealer really does? Here’s a true story from an average day of this – understandably – ill respected profession.
I may already have told you, just how much I love the Audi 80 Avant.
Made from 1991 to 1995, I wanted to get my hands on a more recent specimen, with the 1.9 TDI engine and air conditioning. I kept browsing the web for a promising car. Unfortunately these are getting hard to come by, even in Germany, you need to be patient and focus on the condition rather than the price. One day, I spotted this car on E-bay.de, a red one from 1994. The photograph was illustration only „but the car looks exactly like this”. One hour before the end of the auction the bidding was still at €500, so this was kind of a promising deal. I called the number, it answered. The young man spoke an almost perfect German, yes, the car is immaculate, the engine is in perfect condition, 240 000 km on the clock. Yes it comes with the servicing booklet. His camera is broken at the moment that's why he used stock photos but his car looks just like this one, even the wheels match. He sounded honest, so I gave it a shot. Woohoo I won! My highest bid was €786, an excellent deal actually, payment upon delivery.
The car was in Berlin, so I looked around to see if there was anything else in the area. I found a Honda FR-V 2.2 diesel from 2006, a banged-up Fabia 1.9 TDI from 2008, and a 2006 Mégane station wagon with the 1.5 dCi engine. I printed out a couple more searches, sort of a back-up plan if the first ones didn't work out for some reason.
I drove all night and was in Berlin the next morning. My satnav took me to a dealership run by Arabs. Thirty, maybe forty of them, actually! Conditions were – how should I put it – Arabian. I found my guy and as we shook hands it was obvious he was not the one I had talked to over the phone. My German was better than his, although I am not an expert myself. So, let's see the car. It was in the back – a real piece of turd.
It was a far throw from immaculate. The body was covered in dings and scratches. The seat upholstery was ripped around the lumbar area, the tailgate was repainted by an amateur, probably here at the yard, and they even failed to properly sand off the putty. The engine was not as much running as wobbling in the engine bay, there were different tyres on each corner and the whole car was just a stellar heap of mess. A zombie from the wrecking yard, literally. You call this immaculate? Oh no, he never said that. The person who answered the phone did. That was his son, not him. I was getting pissed at that point. I don't care if it was Angela Merkel herself that was the listed contact phone, whatever came through that line counts as official information. And that information does not match reality.
Now, Germans only say immaculate when something is immaculate, they don't use the word as a filler word. Give me the money and take the car, he said. Are you out of your mind, Ahmed? I wouldn't take it if you paid me. I called his son and told him my grievances. It's not his car, he said. Why did you say it was immaculate, I asked him in a raised voice. He must have had a recording of his excuse put on repeat, it's not his car, it's not his car, it's not... I couldn't care less, buddy, I came all the way from Hungary for this crap. I hung up on him. I don't think he'll ever help out his daddy again. I turned my attention back to Ahmed who, too, was on loop playback. You gotta pay, you bid, you won, you pay. This is E-bay you cannot just back out of a deal! I tried to explain to him that I only need to buy his goods if they match the description. He threatened to call the police. He shouldn't have. Go ahead, mofu, I have the ad printed out and I have recorded my conversation with your son. My bluff knocked him off balance. He started shouting, I started shouting. I could hardly understand what he was saying, he may have understood what I thought his mother did for a living. I was going to write him one hell of a feedback on E-bay but he cut me off with the usual sold-on-a-different-channel BS.
I didn't necessarily want to leave empty handed so I looked around what the others had to offer. Most of it was overpriced junk, with some decent cars in between priced way out of proportion. Nothing for me here!
I called the Škoda dealer, asking him to save the car for me until the following day. He couldn't do that, he said, there is a lot of interest, it would be sold at a first come, first served basis. Of course the Polish dealers got there before me. At least he made no promises.
On to the next car. Honda FR-V, advertised as an undamaged 2006 model with original paint job and 126 000 km under the belt. Comes complete with the servicing booklet. Photographs clearly showed that we would need to repaint the bottom of the left front wing and the left front door, there was just the slightest of scratch across these two panels. The car looks fine in the pictures, apart from the regular parking dings. I arrived at the dealership, the car was not there. They walked me over to the other site. The paint job was factory alright but it was covered in hairline scratches. These may or may not polish out, but you never know before you actually get down to it. I guesstimated I would need to repaint at least four or five body panels. Where's the service booklet? Right in the glove compartment. Locked. The guy was clueless. It must be there, it's not in the office. But what if it isn't? Have you actually seen it? Actually, no, but it's always there, it has to be there. Do you have the other key? Yes, it's either in the office or somewhere else. I see! Somewhere else. Could be down in the Mariana Trench: that's also somewhere else.
The seat was black with dirt, you couldn't see the pattern of the upholstery for the greasy muck. The interior was just dismal. The car itself was not particularly good, neither was the price, so I drove off.
What's next? Renault Mégane station wagon, 1.5 dCi diesel with 101 PS, service booklet, 145K on the odometer, and a scratch on the left rear quarter panel. The seller said the rear bumper could also use a repaint, although I couldn't tell from the pictures. Another Arab dealership! The description was almost perfect, except for a small detail. Three small details, actually: three holes on the roof drilled for aerials. This car used to be a taxi cab in sunny Italy. The door upholstery was completely worn and the armrest crushed. I thought some warm thoughts of this dealer and his family and moved on.
I was down to my back-up cars. Citroën C2, 1.4 HDI. Left front wing scratched; a 20 cm long scratch on the edge of the front door. 76 000 km; service booklet. No surprises this time, the car was as advertised. Flawless interior, no damage apart from the scuffs. The frames were intact, I would only need to unbolt and replace the panels. Let's fire her up. The engine started, ran a few seconds... then stopped. We tried again, same results. The fuel gauge showed a tank quarter full. Nothing. The dealer was genuinely surprised. He had personally driven the car to his lot; it was in perfect running order at that time. He had no idea what it could be. Me neither, but I was sure it was just something minor. The engine sounded excellent for the short while it was running. I was not disappointed though, things were looking up for me.
I called my buddy Sandi, an automotive electrician by trade and an expert on French cars. He said he'd just recently come across the same issue. The fuel hose runs on the top of the engine and will rub as you turn, causing it to puncture and get air in the fuel line. That could be the problem, remedied by a simple replacement. I haggled over the price and bought the car.
As soon as the Citroën got home I took it to Sandi. We removed the panels covering the fuel hose – nothing there. The wire mesh bandage around the hose was worn but the hose itself was intact. We re-wrapped the hose just to stay on the safe side and repacked everything. I didn't have time for this puzzle at that point, so I left the car at their place.
They called a short while later and asked me to bring some diesel fuel. The tank was completely dry. It was the dumbest mistake. It could happen to everyone but we ruled it out because the gauge showed a quarter full.
It was Sandi's dad – and old school car mechanic with a profound knowledge of his trade – who came up with the solution. He removed the fuel gauge transmitter and inserted a rubber hose. He wanted to pump out some fuel but there was nothing inside. What happened was embarrassingly simple: the gauge got stuck, and the German guy happened to reach his dealership on the last drops of fuel. I got off lucky this time. We filled her up, bled the system for air and the engine started up like a charm.
It was time to fix up the rest of the car. Mikey the body guy removed the body panels and we assessed the damaged. We needed a quarter panel, rivets for the installation (the French couldn't just simply bolt a quarter panel in place, could they?), a door and a wheel cap. The frame was undamaged: it was a simple bolting and riveting job. I picked up the needed parts in the wrecker's yard. I always prefer used factory parts to aftermarked ones as they fit better and are less prone to rust. I have seen aftermarket bonnets that started rotting after only two years.
So I took the car to Tibbs the painter guy and told him what I wanted. The French paint their hoods installed and closed down, so the inside flange of the quarter panel is just lightly sprinkled over, with the base coating showing through, and there is a gradually decreasing amount of paint as you move further out on the flange. That's how I wanted my quarter panel, with some paint dust over the rivets. Tibbs wasn't particularly happy. But they mixed the colour and covered over the flange to emulate the factory paint.
They stuck the rivets in a piece of cardboard and sprayed over the rivet heads. I asked Mikey to cover over the rivet heads when installing the quarter panel, so that the paint didn't rub off. It came out just perfect, exactly as the other side with the factory paintjob. If it wasn't for the difference in layer thickness I could not have told one side from the other. And in case you'd like to rain on my parade let me disappoint you: the guy who eventually bought the C2 saw all the photos you have seen. I didn't lie to him about the damages, I just wanted to fix them as properly as possible.
All's well that ends well. I came back with a single car but at least that was a good one, so my Berlin visit was not a complete waste of time and money after all. Unfortunately German used car dealers are not like they used to be. They will hack the odometer and generally lie to you, like it was a national sport of some sorts. You end up running too many futile rounds, seeing too many worthless cars. The gold rush is over, but feel free to give it a shot if you fancy the experience.