If they called, would you bail?


Photo by TJ Sullivan
Why don't Americans want to bail out the auto industry?

Remember the first time you drove a new car off the lot?

I do. I was in my 20s in New Mexico, unworldly in all kinds of ways, but alert enough to realize the portent of my first new-car purchase. I spent weeks preparing for it, read three books about the typical car-salesmen cons, and, in the process, eeked out what last few miles were left in my Chevrolet Chevette, which was already a well-used vehicle when I purchased it as a college student.

Despite all that, the deal still went horribly wrong.

Before I even stepped on the car lot, the Detroit voices in my head were castigating me. Hell, I wasn't even buying a car, but a pickup -- a cherry-red, four-cylinder with neither air conditioning, nor a radio -- the kind of two-seater that those imaginary voices said were for "hicks and farmers." But that was hardly the most heinous aspect of the transaction. What really upset the assembly-line philistines in my psyche was that I was about to buy a rice burner, which in Detroit was only slightly more vile than ransacking your best friend's house, shooting his favorite dog, then bragging about it by having "I shot the bitch" tattooed on your forehead.

But that was Detroit, and I had no intention of ever going back. I worked hard for my money and I wanted quality in return, which I doubted Detroit could provide. I learned first hand from the mothers and fathers of friends and girlfriends who toiled in the plants of the Big Three to always be wary of those sour rides that rolled off the line in the late afternoon, when weary workers were less attentive to detail. Imperfections that became "the dealer's problem" inevitably became the source of some sorry buyer's regret (and no doubt the inspiration for so-called "lemon" laws). As for buying a pickup, I needed a vehicle with clearance enough to traverse the worst of high-desert dirt roads, both for recreational and journalistic purposes.

Too many times had that dying Chevette of mine bottomed out en route to report on some back-road standoff with a drug-crazed unfortunate holed up in his grandmother's clapboard house, putting holes in the dirt and sky with a .45-caliber ACP while begging the deputies to do what he was too scared to do himself.

I bought a foreign pickup assembled in America from a typical American car dealership and, try as I did to get a fair deal, my hopes ended up shot full of holes.

The way I figured afterward, I probably paid about $1,000 too much for what was then a truck with a $10,000 sticker in the window. I did everything those books had said, negotiated the trade-in before bargaining for the new vehicle, then spent five hours dickering down 15 percent from the price tag. But, in those pre-Internet days, I had far less information than the dealer did. When the suit brought out a piece of paper labeled "Invoice Cost," I had nothing with which to fire back.

Later on, it stung a little more. The vehicle I'd been told had "tens" of miles on it actually had hundreds. The odometer had no tenths column.

Intent on embarrassing myself professionally as well as personally, I had to ask why such swindling wasn't worth reporting. A friend drew my attention to the obvious answer -- all those full-page ads in every mid-sized daily newspaper. These guys were big advertisers. What newspaper would want to piss them off? I expect a few took on their local dealerships over the years, but it doesn't appear to have made any difference.

Getting ripped off by the local car dealer has been a part of American life since ... forever.

Just business, they say.

That's how life is.

Which brings us to 2008 with US taxpayers being begged to bail out the very industry that's primary connection to the end user is the lying, cheating, swindling salesperson.

We all know it. We can buy books about it. Movie plots have focused on it. Stand-up comics have put legions of kids through college telling jokes about it. Indeed, it's the very reason that manufacturers began promoting what-you-see-is-what-you-get pricing just as the Internet began providing consumers with access to more information.

I grew up in Detroit, in the city itself. Some of my closest friends and immediate family work in the industry, on the noisy assembly lines, in the partitioned offices, and in the coat-and-dagger coat-and-tie dealerships. Their stake in this is bigger than mine, though there's no doubt in my mind that if their jobs go away, many more of our jobs will go away too.

Those who have taken the time to look at the data and the implications can't help but see the need for pre-emptive financial assistance. But a bail-out?

Bail?

If the salesperson who sold you your car were to call from jail, weeping and begging for you to please, God, please come bail them out, would you? Or would you remember that line they fed you as they handed you the keys, the one about how they usually don't let cars as good as this go for such a low, low price ... or what a great deal you got ... or what a shrewd negotiator you are ...

Why don't Americans want to bail out the auto industry?

Remember the first time you drove a new car off the lot?

-- TJ Sullivan


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