Buying Used Cars

If you know what damage or problems to look for and are handy enough to do some of your own maintenance, buying used cars can save you a ton of money.

| April/May 1994

My truck was in the shop and they'd loaned me a little '90s-era "world" car. I don't recall whether it was a Nissan, Ford, or whatever. With their squinty headlights and wedgie shapes, the new cars all look alike to me. Their computer-managed engines run alike as well: competent, fuel-stingy... and dull. But this one handled crisply, the stereo was "awesome" as the kids say, and I was getting used to the "ergonomic" cockpit.

Then, halfway up a lonely hill road, the idiot lights went on, the engine died, and a whole chorus of beepers and buzzers piped up. I got out to look under the hood, expecting to wire a broken choke pull-off or attach a loose hose and be on my way. But nothing in the engine compartment was familiar to my '50s-trained auto-eye. There wasn't even a carburetor, but a squat gray box labeled "Electronic Fuel Injection" surrounded by a snarl of tubes, pipes, wires, and hoses.

After hiking to a phone, I found myself bouncing down the mountain in the cab of Ben Perkins' old Dodge tow truck. After driving the claustrophobic little car—now trailing along behind—I relished spreading out on the roomy bench seat, able to spread my elbows and cross my legs. The truck was as friendly as an old dog. Its engine growled, the muffler rumbled, gears whined, and I luxuriated in the faint odors of gasoline, engine oil, and gear grease. The truck may have been homely and a little rough in places, but it was sturdy, practical, and straightforward. An honest-Abe Lincoln of a truck.

"Sure runs good, Ben," I said. "How long you had it?"

"Got it war-surplus in '62," he said. "Fer $275."

"Not too shabby a deal," I said. "How many miles?"

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