Articles

So You’re Buying A Used Car

Let an expert tell you what to look for behind that smoke screen of sales chatter and exhaust fumes

ROWLAND PEPPER,JOHN BENSON April 1 1949
Articles

So You’re Buying A Used Car

Let an expert tell you what to look for behind that smoke screen of sales chatter and exhaust fumes

ROWLAND PEPPER,JOHN BENSON April 1 1949

So You’re Buying A Used Car

Let an expert tell you what to look for behind that smoke screen of sales chatter and exhaust fumes

By ROWLAND PEPPER and JOHN BENSON

SOME of the 300,000 Canadians who are due to buy used cars in 1949 will get real bargains. No matter what anyone tells you, it can happen. If you’re going to buy a used car this year, it can happen to you. The trouble is that, unless you know at least some of the angles, the chances are it won’t.

That doesn’t mean used-car dealers are nothing but a bunch of crooks, or that private individuals with a car to sell are little better than pirates. The majority of dealers do business in a reputable way. So does the average owner who sells his car direct. There are tricks in every trade, though, many of them tolerated by ancient custom. And it’s just possible that the trade in used cars, a lineal descendant of horse trading, has a few of its own.

Anyhow, it’s a wise precaution to keep your eyes and ears open for them when you go bargain-hunting yourself. Assuming that’s what you have in mind, let’s run through a list of pitfalls which are easy to avoid if you know they’re there, and even easier to stumble into if you don’t.

To start with we’ll suppose you’ve been to a dealer’s, turned down the cars that looked shabby and beatup, and bought yourself a gleaming sedan which had been expensive in 1939 when it was new and still looks wonderful. Right there you’ve made one of the commonest mistakes of all, because it doesn’t follow that dingy mudguards and a dull hood cover a clanking wreck. And it doesn’t follow that shine and glitter are infallible guides to quality. Quite often it’s the other way round —and that’s what you’re going to find out.

At this point the prospective buyer is likely to be introduced to one of the trade’s most touching legends. It has to do with an old couple, the previous owners of the car, who used it sparingly, tenderly as their Crown Derby tea service. In fact, they rarely used the car for anything but making Sunday calls.

The day after you paid your $500

down and fixed up to finance the balance at 15%, you and the family pile proudly into your impressive purchase and head for a happy week end. You hear a funny scraping noise when you let the clutch in, but that doesn’t worry you much. The dealer told you the car had been reconditioned by his own expert mechanic, didn’t he?

Thirty miles later, the funny scraping noise turns out to be something that should have worried you a lot. Plumb in the middle of a steep hill your shining chariot stops dead. The clutch is no longer merely making noises. It has burnt out. It will cost around $30 to put it in shape, and the job will take two days. If you’d recognized the danger signal when you heard it first, a simple adjustment would have fixed the thing in five minutes.

Ten Expensive Miles

You get the car back from the repair shop, figuring you’re all set now, and for the next couple of hundred miles you drive everything is indeed ginger peachy. And then somewhere a banging and tapping starts. It isn’t awfully loud and you don’t see the percentage in phoning for a tow when there’s a garage only 10 miles away.

You have now made a second common mistake. Ten miles isn’t far, but by the time you reach the garage the damage is well and truly done. That scored crankshaft journal will never be the same again—and that, since the crankshaft is one of the most important, parts of the engine, isn’t going to be good.

It is, in fact, going to be downright bad. First aid alone, which will show up on the bill as regrinding the shaft and installing new rod inserts, can cost about $175. That isn’t necessarily the whole story, either, because pretty often the first aid doesn’t last long. You stand a good chance of having to get second aid, and that could easily cost you another $275. As far as that goes it could cost you more. If you aren’t too flush with money, essential

and expensive major repairs may well mean selling the car before you’ve had any real good out of it.

Don’t get the idea that this sort of experience is extremely rare, or that it was just dreamed up as a horrible example to make your flesh creep. It happens to too many people, too often. It’s especially likely to happen these days because, on account of the war and consequent shortages and dislocations, used cars now on the market have an average age of 10 years. In normal times many of them would have gone to the wrecker’s yard long ago. In these still abnormal times they’re offered for sale instead, not infrequently for as much as 80% of their original price. And not infrequently it would be cheaper to hand the dealer $50 or so and walk away without buying one at all.

If you want to steer clear of grief, the first rule is to take it easy. Don t rush into a buy unless it’s a case of snapping up a clear-cut and unmistakable bargain before someone else beats you to it. Even then it’s better not to hurry. A few minutes spent on checking up may save whole weeks in the repair shop after you’ve signed the papers, and it’s too late.

Mohair Tells the Mileage

Take the matter of appearance. Used cars, which can be as temperamental as any actress who ever sulked in a dressing room, are like actresses in another way too. They’re apt to look prettier by artificial light. The floodlights on a dealer’s lot can hide things like straightened body tops, outof-line doors, and little holes where the sheet metal has rusted through. It may not be convenient for you to get away from work during broad daylight, but it’s worth the inconvenience. Daylight, and the broader the better, is the best illumination you can have when you look over a prospective purchase.

While you’re looking, don’t forget to keep an eye open for wear and tear

on the upholstery. Sometimes it’s a more reliable guide to mileage than the speedometer. Speedometers can be set back a lot more easily than upholstery can be replaced. So look at what’s under the slipcovers, with particular attention to the cushion and back of the driver’s seat.

Look at the pads on the clutch, accelerator and brake pedals, too. If the rubber is worn through on any or all of them, it’s a fairly safe bet the car has been driven at least 70,000 miles, even though the speedometer may only show half that many.

This advice goes double if you’re considering buying a former taxi— which, as a general rule, isn’t an awfully wise thing to consider. Most of them don’t get to the dealer’s until they’ve gone a good 100,000 miles and are pretty close to their last gasp.

Worn cushions and pedal pads are only superficial symptoms, though.

They don’t always signify real trouble, any more than a rash always signifies that the child has measles. Where sickness in a car really counts is in big things like the engine.

Almost every used car sold nowadays either has what is called an exchange engine, meaning an engine other than the one it had when it was new, or its original engine reconditioned. Since the exchange engine is apt to have been

reconditioned too, the precise name isn’t strikingly important.

Most dealers, when they get around to talking about a reconditioned engine, will tell you the job was done only a few weeks ago. Maybe it was, and then again maybe it wasn’t. A simple check is to look at it and see whether the outside is clean or freshly painted, or whether it’s dirty. If it’s dirty you can be reasonably sure the dealer has an elastic notion of the number of days in ‘‘a few weeks.” Virtually all good mechanics clean an engine up when they’ve finished putting it in condition.

Dealers have also been known to have an adjustable notion of the word reconditioning itself, so you’d be well advised to make a few tests. Pull out the oil-level gauge, or dipstick (that’s the thing you use to see whether you need oil or not). If the oil level is low and the oil is black, you can safely assume the engine isn’t giving an economical 500 miles to the quart. And if there is rust on the dipstick, either in the oil-level markings or above, watch out. It may mean anything from a leaking head gasket to a cracked or porous cylinder block, and that in turn means trouble.

Listen for Danger Signals

If you want to make really sure of engine condition you’ll have to do more than look at the dipstick, instructive though that look may well prove to be. Drive the car for at least 10 miles, or for at least half an hour, until the engine is good and hot. Watch the oil gauge. If the pressure is low when you’re tooling along at 30 m.p.h. with the engine heated up, it almost certainly means the bearings are loose or worn. If the bearings were not worn, there would be little or no difference between the oil gauge reading at that speed when the engine was cold and the reading now that it’s hot.

After you’ve warmed up the engine for at least 10 minutes, raise the hood and lift the oil breather or filler cap. Get someone to accelerate the engine, and watch to see how much smoke is blown out of the oil hole you’ve uncovered. The amount is a fine indication of what shape the pistons, piston rings and cylinder walls are in. If it’s more than a little, look out.

The next thing to watch for is the smoke that comes from the exhaust pipe at the back of the car. If a lot of blue smoke appears when your helper accelerates, the engine is using Continued on page 63

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not less than a quart of oil every 200 miles, and the more smoke that shows the more it’s using. So check this point carefully, and for reliable results don’t do it until the engine is well-heated. Failure to spot this warning sign can easily cost you $100, even if it isn’t any more serious than piston-ring trouble.

Listen for noises in the transmission (the gear box, that is), and at the rear end where the drive shaft meets the back axle. They may be due to badly worn or broken gears, and a reconditioning at either end can run to $100. And if the clutch chatters, or slips on a hard uphill pull, adjustment probably won’t fix it. Reconditioning is the answer, at a cost that begins around $20 and goes from there on up.

Also watch for bucking — a series of surges, as if the car were trying to make like a mustang to throw you. Engine bucking shows up most plainly when you’re doing about 8 or 10 m.p.h. in high gear, or going even more slowly than that. It is the tip-off that the car needs anything from a slight tuneup to a carbon-and-valve job, which will cost anything from $6 to $40.

When you get back from your road test, switch off the engine and run your hand over the radiator—not the chromium part but the real works, right in front of the fan on the inside. It should be hot throughout, and if there are cool spots here and there it’s a sign the radiator either needs cleaning or replacement, at a cost ranging from $10 to $50.

While you’re about it, check the cylinder block and cylinder head for cracks due to freezing or overheating. You’re most apt to notice them at the top and bottom, along the length of the engine block. Trickles of water or rust spots on the sides are a big help in identifying them, and they’re points you’d better not miss. They may indicate a terrific future repair bill, or even a new block costing up to $500.

Jump up and down on the front and back bumpers. If either end of the car keeps bouncing, it probably means the need of new shock absorbers at $5 to $10 for each of the four, plus the cost of installation. And while you’re at it, look to see if the front

tires are abnormally worn and whether the front suspension is out of line. Fortunes are being made out of reconditioning front ends and setting alignment, at $10 to $75 a throw.

Jack up the front of the car and feel each wheel for side-ways play. If you detect it, you have also detected another upcoming expense. And look for gouges or waviness on the front tire treads—signs that the wheels are a spot out of whack. Wheels should be almost exactly straight up and down, and should by no means lean in at the top.

A small lean out at the top is all right, as long as both wheels lean to the same extent.

More than an inch of play in the steering wheel or steering gear when the front wheels are pointing straight ahead will likely cost at least $20 to correct. You’d better make an extra special point of checking this if the car you’re thinking of buying is a prewar model. If it were only a question of adjustment, the previous owner would probably have had it made long ago in the interests of his own safety.

Watch for play in the hydraulic brakes, too. If the brake pedal goes gradually down to the floor board whether you step on it hard or gently, it’s a sign of trouble in either the master cylinder (the main part), or the cylinders at the wheels, or even in both places. Putting it right will cost from $10 to $40. Don’t forget to check the hand brake too. If you ever need it, chances are you’ll need it suddenly and a test of it should never be skipped or skimped. You’ll also do well to have a wheel taken off so you can look at the brake lining, even if you’re (old it has just been renewed. It only takes a couple of minutes, and it can save you $20.

Those are just some of the things to watch for when you’re after a usedcar bargain.

But if you’re like many drivers whose knowledge of what makes a car go ends with the ignition key and the starter button, your best bet is to get hold of a really good professional mechanic, who knows all the angles and j isn’t connected with any dealer. If you’re buying from a private individual, pick an expert who isn’t a relative of that individual, and isn’t somebody who ow'es him a lot of money or maybe wants to marry his daughter.

Take this disinterested mechanic along with you, listen carefully to what he says, and be guided accordingly. Pay him well for his advice—not less than $10. It will he worth it. -fc