Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Recent Goings-On

I realized about 10 days ago that I'm trashing my car. It's not really so much a new realization, but rather a refined impression of the general discontentedness I've felt recently over the noisy parts that were installed in February.

I don't want to trash my car, and I don't spend enough time competing in it to justify the uncomfortable ride. However, I do want to be genuinely competitive in autocrosses, and I really enjoyed my track day. What to do?

The answer, I realized, is to buy a used second car. A car with good sports car performance characteristics, but not something so wild that I would have to finance it. Something that could eventually be turned into a dedicated race car.

I started with looking at classing options and considering the cars that impress me the most on the autocross, which led me instantly to the Corvette. A mid-1980's C4 Corvette is a very strong competitor: they're super fast, there's virtually no suspension travel, and they're easy to steer using the gas pedal.

Unfortunately, they're the veritable symbol of rednecks everywhere, and finding a good used one for less than $10K is not easy.

So I moved on from the Corvette, and honed in on the Miata. The Miata competes in one of 2 stock classes, depending on the year. '90 - '97 run in E-Stock (still 2 classes higher than the Cooper S), and '99 - '06 run in C-Stock, 2 classes higher. The weight distribution is nearly perfect on these cars, they're rear-wheel-drive, and they have a world-renowned suspension. They're not super fast, but they don't need to be.

Assuming that '99 & up were out of my price range (sub $6K), I started looking at the '90 to '97 range. I did a bunch of research that led me to believe the '90 - '93 cars are worthless to me, and presto, I had a quest: find a '94 - '97 Miata with a manual transmission for less than $6000. Easy, right?

Actually, yes. What proves difficult is actually buying one. I found several in the DC area, one in Richmond, and a few at the beach. I was really excited about the DC cars, as they were all far less expensive and had lower mileage.

I made some calls, coordinated Monday meet-ups, and planned to take Monday off to buy my new used car.

Then came Thursday of last week. I did a quick search on cars.com and found a '96 red Miata in Chevy Chase, MD for $4500. I was dumbstruck. I called the phone number, and it turned out the listing wasn't even supposed to be available until Friday. I was sure it was my lucky day, as I was undoubtedly the very first responder to the ad. The lady said she'd have her husband call me back.

I got no response until late Friday, when I actually had to call again. He (Gordon Smith) told me that he had several apppointments lined up for Saturday. He sent me pictures showing the car in detail, and told me about recent service, which had included the replacement of the clutch master & slave cylinders, new brake pads, new plugs & wires, and told me that he wasn't sure if the roof was watertight, but that it had rained hard the night before, and the cockpit was dry. I asked if he could hold the car until Monday, as I was going to take the day to come up and see another Miata in the area.

He said no, that he couldn't do that without a non-refundable deposit. That seemed nuts to me: the car was in admittedly imperfect condition (etched-in bird-poop stains on the hood, dents from a walnut tree, non-functional horn, etc.), and I wasn't very excited about permanently handing over money on a car I had never seen, and that may well be junk. I offered to raise the sale-price to $4750, which he declined, saying an extra $250 wasn't worth it to him.

I sent a few e-mails throughout the day, and finally got him on the phone again late Saturday. He told me that he had not yet sold the car, but that he had a couple more folks coming on Sunday, and that if I was still unprepared to make that non-refundable deposit, the car would almost certainly sell before I could get to it.

So I capitulated: I offered that non-refundable deposit, but with a catch. I insisted on having a statement of the mechanical condition of the car, from the engine to the brakes to the suspension, and that if his representation of the car proved false, my deposit would be refunded.

Nothing. No word back for hours.

Then I get a message that there's a pending contract on the car, followed later by a phone call that the contract might well fall through. Now, here's where things get interesting: he told me that the guy purchasing the car had agreed to have all the funds for the purchase by 9 o'clock on Monday, and that if the guy failed to have all the funds by 9, he would call me. I told him that, since I was coming to DC, to call my cell phone.

My dad and I got in the car yesterday with maps in hand (we used infospace to get his address (4911 Dorset Ave, Chevy Chase, MD), and headed north. We got to MD at 11 o'clock, and turned onto his street a couple minutes later. There sat the Miata. I was in heaven.

We got out to do a quick once-over, and noticed that the bird-poop etching was far worse than the picture showed, the tires were bald (couldn't possibly pass inspection), and that the roof was NOT watertight. My dad set to taking pictures while I went and rang the doorbell.

His wife answered the door with a look of terror, like she thought I was the mad rapist. She told me that her husband never lets people come to the house, and did I have an appointment? I told her about the 9 o'clock contract thing, and she asked: "Did he say AM or PM?" Right there I knew I'd been screwed. Thank God I hadn't made any deposit on that car.

Turns out this guy is a sleeze-bag lawyer. He had a contract for the dude to pick up the car at 9PM, but didn't bother to mention that. Who does business at 9PM without failing to mention that whole PM part? I got him on the phone, and he assured me that he'd never mentioned a time. Not true, said I, but oh well. He made a half-hearted attempt at an apology, and dad and I left for a wonderful lunch at the District Chophouse.

Last night, after we got home, my dad sent me the pictures, along with a shocking discovery: the MD license plates had EXPIRED IN SEPTEMBER. This car sat rotting in their driveway from September until April, when they decided it was OK to illegally drive around and park on the street. Great lawyer, huh? The guy was so focused on making sure he got his money that he just didn't have time to obey the law.

Anyway, I'm just really grateful that I didn't put any money down on this clunker, and if you're looking for a good lawyer in Chevy Chase, MD, you know where NOT to go.

And so the quest continues...

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