Friday, February 6, 2015

The one that got away....thankfully...

The actual car in this article

When I had to sell my 2008 Mustang I was in the market for another car.  Obviously it had to be cheaper mostly due to the reason I sold the Mustang in the first place...I was broke....

However, I don't drive boring cars and preferably that includes the additional requirement of not being junk.  So after a few weeks of diving through car ads from private owners and dealerships I had finally settled on a year range, mileage and model.

My criteria was more focused than most.  I wanted a 4th generation Camaro but it had to be in good mechanical order, have no major body damage ( meaning door dings and scratches I could buff out were fine) and have "relatively" low mileage.

This was late 2013 meaning I had to limit my choices to nothing older than a 99 model year.  Considering the Camaro went out of production in 2002 this could be a tough haul.

Availability was limited and many of the examples I found were either too beat, too expensive or came from shady operators known for pulling a fast one.

I didn't need to buy a car that was going to spend most of its life on the back of a flatbed. 

That said, I knew I had to be reasonable.  To find a decade old car with less than 100K miles and minimal wear and tear was a fantasy where I lived.  Maybe back east or in Florida somewhere but here in Arizona people drive their cars everywhere.   That's mostly because the major Phoenix metropolitan areas are stretched out to the horizon in all directions and public transit is a continuing joke among the populace. 

Still, I knew what I was after and having had experience with 4th Gen Camaros and Firebirds, I knew what I was in for with a used example.

After pages of Carfax and Autocheck reports ( Autocheck is the better option BTW ) I finally settled on what appeared to be a very nice 2001 V6 Camaro.  The price was a bit high but the Carfax (and Autocheck ) reports were clean and the mileage was a relatively low 107K.  Before you ask, 107K is less than 10K per year and I already knew this drivetrain could go 200K with good maintenance.

So after a few phone calls with reports in hand I made my way down to the dealership.  Which was an adventure in itself since I lived about 60 miles away. 

It was an across town gauntlet that took me through the worst parts of Phoenix midweek traffic  but I got there.

On arrival, I found what at least appeared to be a well maintained Camaro with just about every available feature except leather seats.  It was Light Pewter Metallic in color, had the 3800 Series 2 V6, Automatic Overdrive transmission, power windows, locks and mirrors not to mention T-tops and a premium sound system. The interior showed almost no signs of the normal wear a life lived in Phoenix would inflict upon it. 

That was primarily because the car spent most of its life in Salt Lake City, Utah according to my vehicle history reports.  A region far less severe on interiors and plastics but more prone to the scourge of rust.

As such the first check was the underbody of the car for rust since that part of the country gets a good bit of snow and with it all that great Salt Lake Brine spewing from the plows. 

In the past, I'd looked at other vehicles from that area that suffered everything from minor surface rust to outright Swiss cheese.

And I wanted none of it. 

The nice thing about a 12 year old car is that If there was a problem, it would have shown up by now.
The car passed my initial inspection but I was somewhat dismayed at the condition of the underhood compartment.  

I realize that many mechanics advise owners to "just leave it alone" under there but I do my own work on my cars and having thick cakes of grunge all over the engine compartment makes it harder to trace down problems when they happen.  It also makes me wonder why there's "cakes" at all.

But hey, it's a 12 year old car so you know something's going to happen....

I soldiered past the grunge and went off a little checklist I keep in my head comprised of years of experiences with this exact model of vehicle.  I've listed it below..

·         Leaks - oil pan, timing cover, valve covers, manifold (especially at the back of the engine), water pump, power steering, transmission, rear axle, drive axle at the transmission and differential.

·         Wiring - condition, DIY hacks, missing, obvious shorts, leaky battery, etc.

·         Noises - weird squeaks, rattles?  This particular engine usually needs the serpentine belt idler pulleys replaced at around 100K.  When they go it sounds like a bad power steering pump or alternator bearing rattling around.

·         Components - Is it all there?  This car was missing the battery hold down for example.

·         Rubber - Just like it sounds, check the condition of all the soft parts including belts, weatherstrip (especially with T-tops like this car had) gaskets etc.

·         Tires - A tire depth gauge is your friend.  This car had new tires which was suspicious.  Tires with more use will show problems with suspension and steering problems.

·         Brakes - I visual check of the rotors and calipers showed that the car was about due for a brake job which likely meant rebuilding the calipers and new rotors.  It had 4 wheel disks so everything X4.

·         Paint and body - Condition of the paint, obvious repairs, scratches or dents.  On this generation of Camaro/Firebird paint is more likely to be an issue than bodywork since the clearcoat used during the run of these cars was notorious for premature failure.  The only metal body panels on the car are the hood and rear quarters (behind the door) which is where the dents will be.  I also check the rear hatch for alignment issues and cracking in the area just above the trunk lock.

·         Interior - Condition, cleanliness, parts missing ( knobs etc) do all the power accessories work, Heating/AC system work?

So with minor exceptions noted and deemed acceptable, I consented to take the car for a test drive.  I already knew if I bought the car I was looking at least $500 in brake work but that wasn't a deal breaker.

That leads me to a little rule I have about buying used cars...

If you buy a used car expect to have to fix it within the first year (more likely the first 6 months) of ownership. 

It's a fact of life that nobody is going to sell you a 12 year old car that has no issues.  You are always buying someone else's troubles.  Budget $1500 and stick to it.  Unless the car is free take a pass on anything that's going to cost you more.  We're talking about a daily driver here, not a collector car BTW.  

I need to get to work with this thing not treat it like a trailer queen on some concourse show.

So on our test drive I took the car out on some back roads and gave it a bit of the "lead foot" to see how it would react.  The car performed acceptably but the engine seemed to be running a bit rougher than it should have been.  The Transmission shifted well enough but I discovered a new concern. 

The Steering....

Having owned almost this exact car before I knew what the steering should feel like and this car was all wrong.  It had almost no power assistance and felt much heavier than it should have.  I currently own a 1995 Firebird Formula with a 5.7 Liter V8 that weighs about 200 pounds more than this car on the front end and the steering with a performance ratio isn't nearly as heavy as this car was.

That meant at a minimum I had an issue with the power steering pump or worse a problem with the rack.  Either way that equaled anywhere from $60 pump to an $800 rebuilt rack and a car out of commission for 2 days.

At this point I'm having my doubts but we're still within my $1500 repair budget...

Truth be told, there isn't much about the car I didn't have experience repairing myself or having someone else do, so none of this was all that frightening.

I chose the title of this post carefully.  Note the "thankfully" part of the "One that got away."

Nothing I'd seen or experienced to this point made me want to pass on this car especially since it's flaws gave me more ammunition for the negotiations.  I also had cash on hand so I was in no need of financing and the headaches that come with it.

I knew it would last at least long enough to get it home and drive a few weeks before I started turning wrenches.

Except that "thankfully" part kept coming up....

I was ready to make the deal, got the price knocked down to an acceptable level and was waiting for the salesman to come back while I looked the car over one last time before I handed over the cash.
Something nagged at me.  I hadn't checked the fluids yet...

So I did. 

Engine oil was new, obviously, an oil change an tire pressure check is all you get out of a dealership for maintenance...

Brake fluid was at level and clean...good..

Power Steering fluid was bright red, clean and full with a good consistency ( Which actually made me worry more that the heavy steering was a problem with the rack assembly )

Automatic transmission fluid....

Burnt, Black and sticky...


That was it, the needle that broke the camel's back.

Even though the tranny shifted fine in the test drive, black fluid was a big no-no...

Did they pull the old sawdust trick?  Whatever it was I was having none of it.  A transmission rebuild in this car was potentially $1000 or more.

Budget broken, we're done.

I found the salesman, grabbed the sales contract out of his hand and promptly tore it up.

I'll leave out the dramatics that ensued afterward with the salesman and the general manager chasing after me as I went for my car and just tell you that 2 days later I got a phone call offering to sell me the Camaro for $4000 out the door, taxes and all.

From a car that would have cost me $7400 with tax and license to $4000 in two days.
I still took a pass. 

I don't buy junk and hopefully after my cautionary tale, neither will you.  Yeah, it was a 12 year old car but the mileage was only 107K.  When I sold a similar Camaro with 155K miles it had none of these issues and I never had to invest in a new transmission.  In other words, I knew better.
So what do we take from all of this?

Do your homework!  Get a vehicle history report on any car you plan to buy.  I found some great deals that turned out to be not so great when the reports showed structural damage on one and a salvaged title on another.

Get educated!  Don't assume a shiny coat of paint and a test drive is the end all be all.  Learn what to look for and get involved with communities that own that model.  Did you know there's even forums for Chrysler minivans?  The info is out there, go find it!

Finally, budget for repairs, they're going to happen.  You are buying a used car meaning it's up to you to keep it running.  Don't count on the dealer or the seller to have taken care of all the issues.  

BTW, below is some video I took of the car on the day in question.  Another good idea and since you probably have a smartphone, no reason not to!