V&R Stories: Passed Up Dreams at The Used Car Lot

There's a car on any given lot that gets your attention every time you pass by it. It may have been for sale for weeks – even months. Yet, when you see that particular car, you always think "why hasn't anyone bought it?"

There could any set of reasons. Recent reminders of things past opened up the memory banks to attempt to address this scenario.

On two occasions, I saw a wonderful car just sit on a lot being passed up for more popular or reliable models. On both occasions, I wished I had the money to bring it home and take good care of them. Sadly, I passed up on a special chance to give some love for something left behind on a car lot.

One occasion was a private used car lot in Reseda next to the Taco Bell that a few friends of mine worked at. It was about 1984 or 1985 when I saw a deeply discounted 1981 Saab 900 Turbo 4-door. It was gray with a deep red interior, from what I recalled. Upon closer examination, it had the three-speed automatic. If I remember, the lot was asking around $6,000 for that Saab.

At the time, I loved Saabs – along with practically everything else. Yet, Saabs were different than the rest of the automotive world – at least they were to me. A family friend drove a Saab, in which the feedback was both odd, but intriguing. Still, this gray 900 Turbo was desirable to a guy who was making minimum wage.

Still, in my mind, that Saab was a ticket to coolness. It was not without its traps. At that time, Saabs were among the most expensive cars to maintain and repair. Under that long, forward-sliding hood was a solid four-cylinder engine. However, turbochargers of that vintage did not enjoy the high reliability they do today – and lacked intercooling. At 60,000 miles, you would expect the turbo to fail. You would also expect a few minor problems to start popping up. At the repair shop, those minor problems start adding up in labor and parts cost. A few will start to become many. That was life with a Saab turbo from the early years.

Would you let someone with a minimum wage job own a Saab that is sitting on a lot next to a fast food joint? No thanks…

About a dozen years later – and clear across the country – I saw something that danced in my eye every time I would take the bus home from work in Northern Virginia. On a lot at Seven Corners near Falls Church was a Maserati Quattroporte – maybe it was a 1979 or 1980. It had that really nice shade of deep medium blue with either a tan or saddle leather interior. The car looked immaculate.

I did stop at the lot and was met with a look of disinterest. That spurned me away, not knowing how much the Maserati cost and its condition under the hood. I wondered if I had the look of "sorry, pal, but you cannot afford this piece of Italian luxury!"

Again, my interest in the car stemmed from a love for the brand. However, the brand’s reputation was not as sterling as it is today. Under Citroen, the company almost failed before Peugeot swallowed its French rival. Maserati ended up in the hands of DeTomaso. From a distance, it sounded like a great idea. In execution, there were concerns over quality that was leftover from Citroen’s ownership. Though the Quattroporte was handcrafted and well done, the image of the brand left a few hesitant customers wandering elsewhere.

My main concern over the Quattroporte was not just the spurning away from the car. There was the question of where one would get service for it – and the cost of servicing a big luxurious Italian sedan. It would not have mattered how much the car would cost, but the investment after the sale into what could be a wonderful car to own.

And, people ask why I do not currently own a car.

I blame my own tastes in different kinds of cars. They seem like traps – you buy it with the heart without consulting the hard numbers of ownership. Saabs and Maseratis are not Toyotas, Mopars or Volkswagens. They are special vehicles requiring special handling and love.

Why did these two come up out of the blue? First, it was remembering the Maserati back in Northern Virginia. That was prompted after doing some work with a new Quattroporte for another publication. To drive something extraordinary, modern and well executed should not provoke the memory of one built 35 years ago from an Italdesign-shaped body and soft Italian soft leather. It did. Personally, the newer Quattroporte would make better sense than one from 35 years ago.

Then, the Saab came back into view. Not sure how that came about. Maybe because I recently saw an old 900 somewhere and pondered what ever happened to the one sitting on that lot in Reseda.

It took months in each case for them to stay on their respective lots, but both cars did move. I never asked what happened in either case. They are really distant memories prompted by curiosity and letting go.

Have you ever seen a car on a lot that you wished you would have bought? If you still do, it only helps at least inquire about it. Who knows, if you do the math right – it could be yours!

Then you will never say that you passed up on owning something real special.

Photo by Randy Stern

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