Buying a second-hand car is always tricky but in London it becomes more taxing. Evasive salemen, convoluted payment plans and difficulty in actually ascertaining a price all make it an unpleasant experience.
Second-hand car dealers in London can drive you mad
Last week, my sister and I were poking around the car lot of a dealership selling pre-owned VWs in West London, opening boots, checking glove compartments (why do we do that?) and gripping steering wheels. A cheery man in a shiny suit invited us in to a showroom filled with aggresive young men on the phone. Would we like coffee, he asked. In the meantime, he would see if a colleague was free. We got the youthful Sean.
"Have you got a while," Sean asked. We had, but sensing he would go for the high ground, I seized the initiative. I explained that my sister wanted a little runaround. She liked the VW Up. But then again, there was the Polo. What was the price difference? We wanted peace of mind, warranty and so on but didn't want the depreciation of a new car. What could he offer?
But Sean, who would have made a good funeral director, had a script and was not going to be diverted. He formally welcomed us to the dealership, explained the integrity behind all the pre-owned cars then took down details. "Do you drive sir? Yes? What car? Oh, a VW." He looked me straight in the eye. "We thank you for your loyalty."
Yes, but could we see a car and get an idea of prices? Sean scanned his screen, clearly his comfort zone when buying valuable seconds. "I'm not sure we have exactly what you are looking for."
I told him that car 16 outside in the lot was just the ticket. "You're sharp, sir," he giggled, "but that's not for sale." OK, how much did that cost? "I'll have to check sir." Ballpark? "Like I said, I'll have to check. In the meantime, I'm going to arrange a test drive. Would you like another coffee?"
This was turning into a masterclass in evasion.
"Preparing" the car allowed Sean time to run through the payment plans and insurance packages on offer. "How much would you feel comfortable paying each month?"
Weren't we getting ahead of ourselves? We hadn't even driven the car. "Yes, of course, but while we are out, my boss," he ever so slightly motioned with his head to a back office, "will prepare two payment plans. Would that be OK?"
I was beginning to get impatient. It had been 40 minutes. "Yes but if we could speed it up a bit," I asked motioning to my watch. Sean affected a look of mild hurt. "I did ask if you had time, sir."
Test drive over, my sister decided that, while she liked the car, Sean's serenity was getting on her nerves and she just wanted to leave. But back at Sean's desk, the quotes from his mysterious "boss" had not arrived. No problem, we chimed. "Just email them."
Sean exhaled. He was a man now clearly in a quandary. "I could but I am bound by the financial services authority to outline all the products we offer." These included insurance and, bizarrely enough, a fabric protector, the qualities of which he demonstrated with the remnants of my second espresso.
But Sean had still not told us how much the car cost. "I just need to talk to my boss and he …" Sean's attention was caught by what appeared to be activity on his screen. "OK, I have the instalment quotes." More tapping. "Ah. The printer appears not to be working. Can I get you another coffee?"
I snapped. Could he please just email a quote? He had our details. "Why don't I come round tomorrow and pick you up and I can explain them because, as I said, I am bound by the FSA to explain."
No thanks. We would be in touch. And with one final leap, we were free, once again breathing in the bracing Battersea traffic fumes. It was like escaping from the clutches of a sect. Even Hare Krishna were never this determined. At least they gave you a curry before sending you on your way.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut