Ever seen “will trade” in a used car ad? I know I have, and I wondered: does anybody seriously swap cars with total strangers? Turns out they do. I did, and rolled away with my dream car. (And possibly tetanus.) Here’s how I traded my Toyota pickup truck for a rare old 1975 International Scout.
Now we’re not talking about the kind of “trade” a dealership might offer you, where you get a pittance for your car and they liquidate it at a wholesale auction as part of a deal to sell you something else. This was a straight up you-take-my-car-I-take-yours handoff with no cash on the table whatsoever.
Bartering’s fun. And it’s a great way to delude yourself into thinking you’re getting a free car.
As regular readers will know, I’ve wanted an International Scout since I was a kid. A running one, thank you. But I knew it wouldn’t add anything to my life besides amusement and inconvenience, so the spend has been hard to justify. But trading something I already had? Somehow that was a lot easier to sell my inner accountant on.
I’d already decided to sell the Toyota Tundra I’d been screwing around with when this old heap of iron popped up on my daily local Craigslist search for “International.” (We never completely stop shopping, do we?)
The ad was terse: “International Scout V8 runs good cash or trade considered.” But it had a picture, a list price that looked reasonable, and it was within half a day trip’s driving distance.
At first my emails and calls to the seller went unanswered, but after a few days he texted me with a response to the photos and specs I’d sent him on my Toyota as an appeal to the trade offer. He only had one question:
“Does your truck have A/C?”
I don’t know who’s lucky day it really was, but I was happy to respond earnestly that the air conditioning was probably the 330,000 mile truck’s best-functioning feature.
Trading Tip: Don’t forget you’re buying and selling simultaneously. Expect the other person to scrutinize your vehicle as closely as you look at theirs.
Our man lived in Lancaster, California, a modest outpost some 60 miles from Los Angeles. Typical desert town. You probably won’t get into a high-noon duel—that’s more of a Texas thing—but you may see tumbleweeds.
The place is hot and dusty and I was sure to remind this anonymous Craigslister that my truck’s white paint and presidential window tint would help make him even more comfortable in the 100 degree summer.
Immediately: “When can you come over.”
That Sunday, with a fellow car fanatic friend in the passenger seat and two fresh coffees in the cup holders I gassed up the Toyota and we struck east.
Now for those of you who haven’t spent a lot of time in Southern California, 60 miles down here can take a long time to cover. Especially if 15 of those miles are through the center of Los Angeles. With a couple hours in the car to kill, my friend and I discussed tactics for the transaction.
“I mean, we know it’s going to be leaky,” he said. This wouldn’t be the first ancient American V8 he’d inspected. “So how bad is ‘walk-away’ bad?”
“Assuming it runs and drives with some semblance of integrity,” I replied, “the only real deal breakers will be frame damage, funky tranny issues like missing gears or dead four-wheel-drive, catastrophic electrical gremlins, and, I don’t know, the guy turns out to be a murderous Nazi?”
“What about rust?” my friend replied. It was a glaring omission from my list, as anybody who’s ever owned a Scout will already know.
“If the frame’s okay, and the rest of the truck is good, I’m not going to bail over body rust. I don’t care if the truck doesn’t last forever. I just want a Scout, man.”
And that right there is probably the most dangerous attitude to walk into a serious transaction with. Which is exactly why I brought a third-party decision helper friend to pour water on me if I got too hot and bothered to see obvious fatal flaws in this 41-year-old farm truck.
Trading Tip: Bring a friend. Their presence will make you safer, more confident, and give you a second opinion on the situation.
So we rolled into Lancaster and found the house easily enough. It was the one with the pretend army truck making a puddle of transmission fluid on a driveway.
Finally, I was going to meet the character who raised my future truck.
We street parked in front of the house and a sturdy man with a goatee and vape pen hanging off his face emerged from behind a half-disassembled Harley-Davidson. A colorful gallery of tattoos decorated his arms.
“Andrew! Right?” The handshake was heavy but his demeanor was pleasant.
I let myself enjoy the relief of his apparent friendliness. You never really know what you’re walking into in these situations.
Trading Tip: If something looks shady, trust your instincts and bail. There’s always another car for sale.
Our seller chatted us up amicably while we crawled all over his Scout looking for damage and leaks. He talked about having owned the truck for decades, making good memories in it, making a winch bumper, and (unfortunately) spray-painting it with his buddies.
“It was this awful seventies orange,” he laughed. I laughed too. Had the original color been preserved, the truck would have been worth thousands more than his asking price and probably already have been sold.
“She runs great! Barely had any issues with her.” A long crack vertically bisected the truck’s windshield. Before I could ask about it, the seller offered: “Windshield breaks once in awhile on account of the body twisting off-road, but, it’s a pretty basic piece of glass you can get anywhere.”
Huh. Hadn’t read about that on the forums or Facebook groups.
The body did look straight though, frame appeared to be intact and remarkably not rusty. Of course there were little puddles of oil and water and gasoline at various parts of the ground below the truck.
“Yeah, gas leaks if you fill it over half. Some hose somewhere.”
The thing about Scouts is, yes, owners pretty much ubiquitously subscribe to the “if it ain’t leaking it’s empty” school of maintenance, so little bleeding didn’t scare me. That and I was completely blinded by emotion and irrational love for the truck’s whole vibe. Anyway, the dipstick showed decent-looking full oil, so we were ready to take a test drive.
Trading Tip: Stay on the same page as the other seller. Don’t get ahead of yourself and say “I’ll take it” before they’ve seen what you’re offering.
“Do you want to check out my truck before I drive yours?” I offered. I hadn’t brought a cent of cash, my mentality was straight-swap-or-walk. So I wanted to make sure the guy was still willing to go forward with the deal before we spent any more of each other’s time.
“I don’t want to get all excited about yours and have you not take this one,” he responded. So, huh. His mind was pretty made up apparently. Must be really tired of frying under that fiberglass roof.
With that, my friend, the seller, his son and I all piled into the Scout to cruise around the block. The seller walked me through the starting process—hilariously complex, and little did I know a future source of relentless anguish for me. (More on that next time.)
“Couple pumps of the gas, this down, this switch in the middle, this up, now turn the key.”
Oh, the truck had a regular-ass key like every other car. But when part of the ignition system broke, apparently, our seller decided to bypass it with this home-brewed rat’s nest of a replacement/theft deterrent wiring.
“Weird electrics, walk away,” said the spirit of my friend and former Scout owner Zach Bowman in the back of my mind. I ignored him.
Trading Tip: Try to manage your emotions throughout the process. Reserve the right to bail at any time leading up to the handshake and title transfer if something’s off.
We took to the streets. The truck was far worse than I’d anticipated.
This was really only the second Scout I’d ever driven, and of course these heaps would have been pretty basic even in their heyday. I knew it’d be rough but, to be honest with you, I’d forgotten what forty-year-old-tractor-truck really felt like.
First there was the power. Well actually, there wasn’t. This Scout’s 304-cubic inch engine was rated to a meager 130-odd horsepower in 1975. Almost all of that had escaped through various leaks and cracks.
Then I had to steer. It’s tough to describe the steering when regular words like “loose” and “sloppy” are so hopelessly inadequate. Imagine the front wheels are your teenage kid in a goth phase. You ask him to get out of bed and play Barbie dolls with his little sister. You get about the same response from the front end of this truck as you would from that kid: “What? No.”
But eventually even the weakest drag-link and most tenuously connected steering shafts convey a message from the helm to the front wheels eventually, and the truck will set a new course. My friend made no attempt to hide his laughter when he saw my face as I made mock a slalom-gesture down the side road. All the while the vehicle tracked straight.
But I couldn’t fault the seller’s jovial attitude. It was indefatigable, and he was human enough to dispense with the slick salesman routine. As we drove I asked the usual questions about service, what works, what doesn’t and was pretty clear that his knowledge of the truck’s shortcomings was deep.
I learned about all the little leak spots, the time his son got it stuck, the questionable integrity of the homemade winch mount. “But it does always start eventually,” said the seller.
Back at the house, I was about 90 percent sure this was happening, so I insisted the seller inspect and test drive my truck. We took the same route, and I disclosed everything I knew about my own vehicle as I felt he’d done for me. He was into it.
At this point a smarter version of me would have made up his mind and made the deal. But man, I knew I’d be a lot happier with whatever choice I made if I took just a little more time to think about it.
So that’s what I did. I told our seller my friend and I were going to grab lunch in town, think about it, and hit him back within an hour or so. Now if we had been in one of the busy beach cities I might have felt a stronger sense of urgency, but there was no way anybody else was coming out to the Mojave to snipe this rattle-canned clatter bucket within the next 90 minutes.
We ended up at a brewery, where we laid out the pros and cons of each vehicle.
Pros, Toyota: Keeping it would mean I wouldn’t have to go to the DMV. And we were pretty sure it would get us back to LA safely. Cons: I was over it.
Pros, Scout: I have always wanted one. And this particular one was a delightfully rare combination of being emissions-regulations exempt, having a manual transmission and a V8, factory disc brakes and virtually no visible rust.
“Let’s do this,” was the decided course of action. And that was also exactly what the Scout seller texted me as I was on my way back to his house.
The legal part of the process was as easy as the Scout seller and I writing each other’s details down and transferring our respective titles.
The drive home was exciting, loud, slow, and uneventful. As we hit the 101 freeway above Los Angeles I started to sweat a little, and insisted my buddy keep a hawk’s eye on the aftermarket temperature gauge. But it sat on a healthy 190 degrees. Even though I would soon learn just how quickly the truck was leaking coolant.
Still, I was irrationally proud to be a Scout owner again. And unlike the last time, this thing can actually be driven!
Trading Tip: Find out if there are any specific legal rules about private-sale car trading in your state. You may not have to pay sales tax.
“Even if it never starts again, I can finally say I drove my own Scout one time,” I thought to myself. (This of course was foreshadowing the truck immediately being out of commission for a month, but that’s a story for another time.)
The DMV processed my paperwork without raising an eyebrow, accepted my release-of-liability on my old truck, and eventually mailed me my very own title. Now all that’s left to do is enjoy the truck, do something about its ghastly paint job, and find some other folks in town with vintage 4x4s to hang with!
A few weeks of learning the quirks later, I’m still stoked that I made the trade for my Scout. As for our man back in Lancaster, well, I haven’t heard from him so I assume he’s alright with the way things shook out too.
So I can tell you now to remember that when you’re trading for a car, it’s like you’re buying one and selling another at the same time. Be extra cautious that you’re not overlooking anything, set yourself some standards and bring a friend. It’ll help you stay honest and on the same page as the other trader. Other than that, check all your paperwork, know your state’s laws, and never be afraid to bail if something’s off.
The toughest part of trading a car is finding somebody who happens to both have a car you want and want the car you have. Thanks to forums and groups and the zillions of Craigslist regions on the internet, that’s never been easier.