Here’s Why It’s Really, Really Hard to Buy a Rare Car

Illustration for article titled Here’s Why It’s Really, Really Hard to Buy a Rare Car

Recently, I've been getting a number of messages from readers inquiring about my next car. Dear Doug, these messages say. When are you going to get your head out of your ass and realize that the Lincoln Mark V is the car for you? Then they send me several grainy 1970s press photos of the Lincoln Mark V, which – for those of you who don't know – is essentially an aircraft carrier with wire wheels.


It seems that these people want me to get a new car immediately. Now that the Ferrari is gone, they're tired of waiting for what comes next. They want me to find a new car right now so that I can go on YouTube and discuss it while wearing a wireless microphone the size of a pickle jar.

But it isn't quite that easy, and today I'm going to explain exactly why.

To begin, let's talk about what happens when you buy a normal car. I consider myself an expert on this topic because I've purchased many normal cars over the years, including a 2001 Toyota Prius from my friend Simon for two grand. Later, when I went to sell this Prius, I coasted it down a hill and posted a photo of the resulting "99.9 mpg" digital readout in my Craigslist ad, but that's another story for another time, when the statute of limitations for fraud has expired.

Anyway: here's what happens when you buy a normal car. First, you go down to the normal car dealer, where they have dozens of normal cars lined up in a row, in typical normal car colors, such as Ice Blaze Metallic and Stormy Desert Mica and Space Vortex Pearl, all of which are approximately the same shade of light gray.

When you pull in, you're greeted by a normal car salesman, who needs this sale more than you need the car, because his alimony payments are due and he just bet his work laptop that the Jets will cover the spread. He offers you a normal car dealer beverage, such as day-old coffee. Eventually, you go for a normal test drive, which lasts for seven minutes – ample time to get acquainted with a vehicle you will own for the next eight years of your life.


When you get back to the dealer, you return to the normal showroom with the normal salesman, where you get into a normal negotiation over the price. Inevitably, the salesman leaves to "talk to his manager," which really involves the two discussing whether or not they would bang your wife. After a while, you think maybe you're interested in an entirely different normal car altogether. So you crack open a normal car guidebook, such as Consumer Reports, where every car is evaluated for crucial automotive issues, such as headlight brightness and speedometer font. After a while, you plunk down your money, and you buy your normal car, and three weeks later you lose it in a parking garage.

This is not what happens when you want to buy an unusual car.

When you want to buy an unusual car, as I want to, you start with the forums. This is because forums for unusual cars are a gold mine: they know every issue, every problem, and every fix. Spend enough time on the forums, and you won't do something stupid, like end up with a 2001 Prius from a Craigslist seller who says it gets 99.9 miles per gallon.


Now, I don't mean to say that you can't consult the forums when you're thinking about a normal car. For example: believe it or not, there actually is a Toyota Highlander forum, and it's reasonably active. But the issues are more like: "Check out how funny my Golden Retriever looks in the driver seat of my Highlander!" Whereas the forums for unusual cars are typically a little more technical. "Oh," the unusual car forum people say. "Your VIN is J37467. That means you'll suffer the head gasket problem in the fall. Here's a handy guide that tells you how to deal with it, and also how to spay your cat."

So you spend a couple of days on the forums, and you learn all the ins and outs of the car you're considering, and eventually you head over to AutoTrader to find a good example. And this is where you learn: virtually every single car currently on the market is absolute crap.


A reader alerted me to this phenomenon a few months ago, via e-mail. He was searching for a 911 GT3, so he spent a lot of time on the forums, doing the usual: reading about all GT3 issues. Meeting GT3 owners. Getting acquainted with the GT3. Trying to find a table cloth that fits the GT3 spoiler.

After a while, he moved over to the classifieds and started looking for a GT3 to buy. And that's when he realized something: virtually every GT3 sitting online for sale is sitting online for sale for a reason. Some have mechanical problems. Some are overpriced. Some have accident history. But whatever the reason, the cars that sit on dealer sites, month in and month out, aren't there for lack of demand. They're there because the educated swarm of interested GT3 buyers has seen the car, examined the particulars, and dismissed it like an Upper East Side co-op board with an applicant named Gutierrez.


Meanwhile, the good cars – the ones you'd actually want – trade hands privately, offline, among two friends. If an ad for an excellent example of an unusual used car does reach the Internet, a cadre of interested buyers immediately calls the seller and a deal is struck that afternoon. It's a cutthroat place, the world of unusual used cars.

And even when you think you've found the right unusual used car, it doesn't always work out. Take yesterday, for example. I thought I found the perfect Ferrari replacement: the right color. The right options. The right model year. Perfect in every single way, I thought. So I took it to a trusted shop for an expensive pre-purchase inspection, and after an hour the mechanic came by with the results. His exact words?


"Nothing ten grand can't fix."

And folks, that isn't even the worst part. The worst part is that it wasn't what he said, but rather the way he said it. From the sound of his voice, it seems like he sees a lot of ten grand repairs. It seems like he's seen a lot of customers cry in his presence. It seems like his house is filled with plasma televisions the size of a giant squid.


So I'm still searching for the right car, and someday soon, I'll get it. But it might take a little while, because buying a bizarre used car isn't anything like buying a normal one. For example: I don't even care about speedometer font.

Photo: eBay Motors

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.


Patrick George

Were/are you really considering a Jensen Interceptor? I endorse that plan.