Fifties-style dealer? Buyer beware

In the middle of the last century, used car salesmen and the tawdry businesses they fronted became icons of shady business practices. Every city had its used car sales lots, usually all clustered together like strings of blemished pearls lining roads in seedier districts.

I remember as a little kid that Toronto’s were on the Danforth. These lots were huddled into what to a small child appeared to be a carnival of some sort. Multi-coloured flags and banners flapped from wires and strings of lights flashed on and off while blaring signs painted on wooden back fences and on the faces of small sales huts proclaimed great deals and unerring honesty and integrity.

The clowns were there as well, tarnished clowns with the faint odour of a lesser evil. These were the polyester-clad used car salesmen who would say anything and promise anything to make a sale.

Like carnival barkers, they would stand at the front of their car lots and call out to the shills who wandered up and down the sidewalks, searching, often in vain, for a car that might last them longer than the trip home. In those days, almost every car was owned by as sweet, little old lady who had rarely used it. To support this supposition, the cars often had quick $40 paint jobs where Bondo-soaked rags and newspapers covered rust holes and dents. Their odometers were rolled back and black shoe polish was rubbed on to worn, blistered tires.

I remember a couple of cars bought by my father, not the most prudent car buyer. One was a Triumph Mayflower, a razor-edged British saloon that shouted class to a recent English immigrant but in truth was a troublesome, badly designed little tank unable to survive a Canadian winter. We made it about two blocks from the used car lot where he purchased it before it expired in a tiny puff of smoke and rolled to a stop. After a brief walk back to the lot, my father discovered that all of his friends of moments ago no longer had any clear recollection of who he was or what car he had bought.

Since that time, governments have passed volumes of acts and laws that protect the consumer from the tender ministrations of the used car lot and its attendants.

It is now a rather serious criminal offence to alter odometers or rig cars so that a really bad car can pass as a delightful family hauler to the naive buyer. There are laws that disallow rebuilding wrecked cars and offering them as unblemished and even titles proclaim these rebuilders as salvaged cars so that an interested party is under no illusions as to its origins. There are websites that trace car’s damage histories and every car that changes hands in Ontario is accompanied by a title report on its past owners, a mandatory paid service provided by licence offices.

So, where, you might ask, have all those shady used car salesmen gone? Oh, there are still some out there. Despite government licensing and a code of good behaviour, there are some who are not that evolved from their huckster forebears.

I rarely have truck with them, as the “used cars” I deal with are not usually found under the twinkling come-hither lights of the average used car lot. However, on rare occasions, I have been a buyer when a car of interest has popped up. What amazes me is that, on several occasions, I have wandered away shaking my head at the behaviour of some of these muzzled sharks whose pressure tactics and integrity are little changed from the 1950s. Show an interest in a particular car — especially a very expensive one — and stories abound, stories that can be reversed in the twinkle of an eye depending on what the salesman thinks the buyer wants to hear. Now, this, of course, does not refer to all used car lots or used car salesmen or women, not by a long shot. The used car lots run by new car dealerships usually offer the same service and integrity we are all used to at modern dealers.

However, there are some independent used car lots where the ethics and integrity are little changed from the 1950s and whose occupants are not covered by government regulations or consumer protection laws. Smaller used car lots often appeal to the first-time car buyer or those who cannot afford cars that are not as expensive as the used cars offered by the bigger dealers. These cars are, in fact, the detritus from the big dealerships. They are usually taken in as trades and then sent to auction and are often too old or not in good enough shape to sit in a new car dealer’s used lot.

It is these cars, bought cheaply, that the small lots thrive on. While there are many reputable dealers, it is at the independent used car lot that some of the used car salesmen of old have come to roost. Take note because it is here that the buyer must live by an adage even older than the lots on the Danforth: Buyer beware!

Used-car dealers aren’t quite what they used to be. Here, Dermot Mulroney plays salesman Gil Previck in the drama Flash of Genius.
Photograph by: National Post, file