The first car I bought was a total lemon. I was young, eager, and stubbornly oblivious to the great advice I had been given, before forking over my hard earned cash to a gentleman who sold second hand cars through the classified section of the Christchurch Press.
Looking back I don’t remember asking anyone anything about the type of car I decided to buy, or to delve any deeper into the reputation of the seller. I was woefully ignorant and I trusted him because he sold cars. 18 year olds may think they know all about it but, as it turned out, I sure didn’t.
“I took it for a drive, and it seemed to make all the right noises – even for a Volkswagen.”
I asked the guy if I could take the car to the AA and have it checked out. He said something like, “well you could, but you can take my word for it, it’s solid, and I have two other blokes interested in it as well. If you want it, you should just buy it, cos they definitely will.” He had a few other cars around the place that he was selling as well, he said. He seemed totally legitimate, I didn’t want to miss out, and the car? It was a 1971 Volkswagen Variant fastback. It didn’t look anything like any of the other cars in my price range. In my mind it oozed style and originality.
I took it for a drive, and it seemed to make all the right noises – even for a Volkswagen. I stopped the car and popped the hood – in the back – had a bit of a look around. Everything appeared like it should (it’s important to note that I wasn’t, and am still not, mechanically minded, unfortunately), and when I looked on the road underneath the engine – there was no oil leaking. That had to be good, I thought. So I bought it – $1100 dollars in 1991 – it wasn’t expensive and it wasn’t cheap.
‘“Cars aren’t meant to have oil pouring out of them,” my Dad sagely told me.”
It was my first car and a first car is a fantastic thing. Or, should I say, it should be. The true nature of the lemon I had made my own revealed itself the next morning. My father woke me to complain about the massive oil spill ruining our driveway. “Did you take it to the AA,” he asked. “I didn’t need to, the guy said it was in really great condition,” I said. “Cars aren’t meant to have oil pouring out of them,” my Dad sagely told me.
Driving the car wasn’t as easy as it had been on the test drive. It made banging noises that I knew even Volkswagens shouldn’t make. Whatever hope I held onto that all of this was merely teething issues, were dashed when a family friend, who was a mechanic, spent five minutes driving the car and told me I would have been better off flushing my money down the toilet.
I called the guy I had bought the car off and told him I wanted my money back, that the car was leaking oil and that I had been reliably informed that not all of its four cylinders, were actually working. “Are you threatening me, mate?” he enquired. I assured him I wasn’t, I just wanted to return the car and get my money back. In the most direct way he told me that wasn’t going to happen and I should “eff off”.
“They wouldn’t investigate it, he told me, but he did wish me luck.”
Well, I didn’t get my money back but I didn’t “eff off” either. I called whichever regulatory body was in charge of selling vehicles and was informed that the guy in question wasn’t a registered dealer and even though he sold cars, he had to sell a certain amount of them in a year, to need to become licensed. They wouldn’t investigate it, he told me, but he did wish me luck.
The amateur sleuth in me took that advice seriously and I trotted off to the Christchurch Press offices in the Square. I poured through the cars for sale section of the newspaper for the past year. It took hours, and hours, and hours. I found over 50 for sale notices that my lemon distributor had listed. I photocopied them all, took my smoking gun evidence home, and called the helpful man I had spoken to earlier that day. Justice was at my fingertips – a rogue dealer would be exposed and shut down. I would get my money back, and he would learn the errors of his unscrupulous ways.
“Do the research, and check it out before handing over the cash.”
Nope, nothing of the sort. “I’m sorry, those are for sale notices, they don’t prove that vehicles were actually sold,” the man from the regulatory organisation told me. My fantasy of redemption was quickly replaced by cold hard acceptance, and a lesson that I swore I would take heed of in the years to come. Do the research, and check it out before handing over the cash. I’ve bought lots of cars since, and they’ve all been checked out by the AA, or mechanics that I trust.
“Even though it was a complete, and utter lemon, I loved it. It was my first car.”
There’s definitely a handful of clichés about how valuable harsh lessons are. They’re all true – as are most clichés. I held onto that car for two years. I got the engine fixed up and I found a wonderful German mechanic, who had worked at a Volkswagen factory and knew them inside out. It caught fire once (that’s a another story), and it finally gave up the ghost on the Killmog hill before Dunedin. I had it towed back to Christchurch and sold it to a surfer who wanted to get it all fixed up.I spent far more on it than I ever intended when I first bought it. Even though it was a complete, and utter lemon, I loved it. It was my first car.
Years later I told a guy, sitting next to me on the bus all, about that car. He laughed. “You know what people do to make sure the oil doesn’t leak when you take it for a test drive?” he asked me. I sure didn’t. “They stick a Moro bar where you put the oil in the engine. Keeps it all solid, so the oil doesn’t leak,” he said.
To this day I am still not sure if that’s true, but I hope it is. It makes me feel a little bit better about being taken for a ride.
I saw the car years later, in a bizarre coincidence. I was visiting my brother in his first flat, in central Christchurch. As I parked, I noticed a Volkswagen Variant in the drive next door. Same license plate, same car as the one I had owned years before, with one noticeable difference – it had been repainted bright yellow.