What Happens To Crappy Old Trade-Ins?

Good evening, men and women of Jalopnik, and welcome to Letters to Doug, your favorite weekly Jalopnik column wherein you provide the Letters and I provide the Doug.


Do you want to participate in Letters to Doug? Too bad! I get dozens of letters each week, many of them from the Rick Santorum mailing list, and I will probably not select yours. However, you can always try, by emailing me at Letters2Doug@gmail.com. Remember that I promise to change the name of the letter-writer in case you want to admit something terribly embarrassing, like the fact that you recently paid full retail for a first-generation Volkswagen Touareg.

Anyway, on to today’s letter, which comes to us from a reader I’ve named Samuel. Samuel lives in New Jersey, and he writes:

Dear Doug,

I am writing to you from across the Delaware River in the Garden State. Before I bring up my question to you, I wanted to say that I always look forward to reading your columns (and the comments as well) when they get posted on weekday afternoons. They are great at helping me “pass the time” at work, and I’ve been inspired to pass even more time there by writing this email for you from my desk.

I wanted to ask you what happens to all the cars that get traded in to dealerships? I can see a dealership taking the ones in the best condition and lowest miles, “reconditioning” them, and putting them in their used car section with an asking price 30-40% more than what they gave to the previous owner. I can also see a 1995 Pontiac Transport with lots of sentimental value and Cheetos crumbs in the back going to a scrap or salvage yard. But how about the others in between those two examples? Near pristine vehicles over 12 years old or with over 100K of mileage? Low mileage, late model cars with a good number of dents, dings and scrapes sustained at parking lot speeds? Cars with major engine or transmission issues but otherwise in good shape? I know that these cars may go to an auction or through some wholesale process, but how does that work and where do they eventually end up?

I’ve traded a few well maintained cars, with mileage well north of 100K in good running condition that could be still be used by someone else for another couple of years. I’ve always wondered what happened to them, but my curiosity was never strong enough to pony up for CARFAX report to get a hint of where they were.

Given that you have insight as an auto industry insider and likely better research skills than I do, I was hoping that you could educate commoners of the automotive trade-in public like me. Maybe you can help us understand what happens to older cars like mine when they fall into the abyss of dealership trade-ins.



Samuel’s letter is the longest we’ve ever featured here on Letters to Doug, but it’s also a very good letter, largely because he spends the first 75 words complimenting me. Actually, he spends the first 75 words telling me I am a good distraction from his office job, which is about the best compliment you can get, when you’re an Internet writer.

But the remaining part of Samuel’s letter is a question I think we’ve all wondered about from time to time: what happens when you trade in your old car at a dealership and it’s not nice enough to re-sell, but not crappy enough to scrap? In other words: what happens when you trade in your 2004 Cadillac CTS with 164,237 miles, mismatched tires, and a bumper that appears to have been chewed on by an adult crocodile?

Here’s what happens, Samuel: these cars go to auction. The dealer gets the title from you or your bank, or from you, they take the car off your hands, and they send it directly to a dealer-only wholesale auction, where it will garner bids from people whose primary job is to reset check engine lights on vehicles at “buy here, pay here” used car lots.

But you probably already knew that. You’re wondering what happens after the auction.

Well, here’s the situation: in most cases, your crappy old used car goes to one of these lots, and the price is quoted in weekly installments. “Just give me $25 per week,” the salesman says, “and it’s yours.” He neglects to mention that this will continue for the next 6,439 weeks, or until the Kraken climbs out of the ocean and begins destroying the Virginia Beach area with ray guns.


(AUTHOR’S NOTE: These are the kind of ridiculous statements I can get away with when everyone is out for Thanksgiving.)

Of course, this fate does not befall every single crappy used car trade-in. In some cases, an entirely different fate takes hold: they get shipped overseas.


I know this because I frequently run Carfax reports on peoples’ old cars, when they ask me to, and I often find that older cars eventually get shipped to foreign countries that your average American would not be able to find on a map, even if the map was labeled. For instance: I once sold a 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser to CarMax, and it was exported to Togo. A friend of mine once traded in an old Land Rover Discovery, and it was exported to Mozambique. Such is life with this sort of old vehicle: they get sent to countries where people are more concerned about hitting a zebra than whether or not the check engine light is on.

If you don’t believe that this happens to old, crappy trade-ins, I want you to do something for me. Open a new tab. Direct it to Street View in Gaborone, Botswana. Type in “Tshange.” Go to the middle of the block. And what do you see, right there, on the north side of the street, about half way down? That’s right: a blue Chevy Cobalt sedan. I promise you that thing wasn’t Botswana Domestic Market.


And so, good people of Jalopnik, there is a good chance your old car is running around somewhere in Africa or Eastern Europe or South Asia, where it will likely provide solid, reliable transport for years to come. There is also a good chance your old car is currently on a weekly payment plan where the driver will own it in just 3,466 more payments of $38.75. There is very little chance of the Kraken emerging from the water with a ray gun. If anything, he will probably have a flamethrower.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars, which his mother says is “fairly decent.” He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer.