How not to buy a car on Craigslist
The bubble burst as soon as I walked up to the battered Mazda RX-7. The paint, which the owner had described over the phone as “not bad,” in reality had a double-throwdown case of eczema—flaking off the rear bumper—and the roof was severely sun-faded. From 10 feet away, I could tell the interior was likewise a mess, with cracked trim and huge wear marks on the center console. In the listing, the owner had described the inside as “like new.”
The worst part? I had already paid $20,000 for it, sight unseen. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but the car in front of me was worse than even my nightmare scenario. Every car has a price, and I knew immediately I had vastly overpaid.
How could I have been so reckless? How could a 47-year-old with some two-dozen car deals under his belt, every resource at his disposal, and 20 years of tinkering with cars have made such a bad call? Here, I’m revealing my foolishness for your benefit. Let’s all learn from this.
The episode started innocently enough. In March last year, I had to be in Florida for business, which seemed the perfect excuse for a road trip. As a guy with three kids and a full-time job, the opportunities to hit the road are few. I thought I’d buy a car in Florida and spend two glorious days slicing up the Appalachians to my home in Michigan.
I’ve done this before, with reasonable success. In 2015, I bought a 1983 Mazda RX-7 in Arizona for six grand—again while there on business—and drove it home. I put new tires on the car and a few other tidbits and later sold it for $7000. Two other car purchases and later sales also resulted in either a push or a slight profit. I thought I knew what I was doing, and the fever for a new-to-me car was especially strong.
I’m not in this to make money. There are simply a bunch of cars I’d like to experience. And thanks to generally stable values, I’ve been able to indulge my passion without stealing from my kids’ college funds. Fun, after all, costs money. The less I spend, the more I can do.
With the Florida trip approaching, I scoured Craigslist and found a 1993 RX-7. Known as the FD version, the last of the company’s rotary-powered two-seaters was Mazda’s moonshot. It used two turbochargers plumbed in series—a small one to offset the engine’s natural weakness at low rpm and a larger one to supply volume at higher revs. Mazda also kept the weight low at just 2800 pounds to further enhance the effect of the engine’s 255 horsepower. I’d driven an RX-7 when they were new and was floored by its quickness and surgical steering. It felt like an extension of my brain, a purist’s sports car. One day, I thought back then, I will own one.
This particular car had 68,000 miles, no sunroof, a manual transmission, and working air conditioning. I called the owner, who said he had owned the car for 23 years but was regrettably selling because, since he was more than 70 years old, he was having trouble getting into it. The pictures were grainy and I asked for better ones, but he said he wasn’t very technologically astute and would see if he could get his daughter to help. He said the engine had been rebuilt and it was rust free and mechanically perfect. The listing price was $22,000.
A quick check of Hagerty valuation data revealed that the FD RX-7 is on the rise. Perfect examples go for well over 30 grand, and it’s a car that most experts agree will climb in value as people start to appreciate 1990s Japanese sports cars like the RX-7, Toyota Supra, and Nissan 300ZX. Many of those cars fell victim to the Fast and Furious trend and were modified. Clean stock ones are hard to find. I don’t buy perfect cars, because I like to drive them, and if they’re perfect, I fret about every stone chip.
When you’re buying a used car, you’re really buying the previous owner. A retired, longtime owner is generally a positive because, I think, they’re more likely to be straight about the car’s flaws. I did some sniffing around and learned that the RX-7 is a bit of a maintenance pig, and engine rebuilds at that mileage are not uncommon.
The fuse, in this case, was time. As my trip approached, not all of my questions were answered, nor did the owner provide better pictures. Also, the owner had listed the car on eBay and said he had an offer of 20 grand. I hadn’t found another car of interest, and I didn’t want to miss the road-trip opportunity. If I didn’t like it, I reasoned, I’d sell it, and if I lost a couple grand, well, that’s the price of fun. A week before I left, I wired the money.
As I stood in front of the car in his driveway, fuming, I noticed a late-model Jaguar XK convertible in the garage. The Jag, by the way, is just as low to the ground and hard to get into as the Mazda. The owner came out with the keys, eager, I thought, to meet his sucker.
Let me pause here and say that I knew I was fully at fault. I hadn’t done my homework and never considered asking for my money back. He had, in hindsight, exaggerated the car’s condition, but as Colin Comer, our marketplace expert who has bought and sold thousands of cars, told me later, “Selling a used car can turn even Mother Teresa into a crook.” We all try to present our cars in the best light, and as the owner walked around describing the car, I realized he genuinely loved it and only saw the positive. Whatever. For my part, I just wanted to leave and lick my wounds.
As I headed north to Atlanta, I took stock. The A/C worked fabulously. The seats had been recovered, a bright spot in the otherwise beaten and rattling interior. The engine pulled like a demon but groaned some loud, resonant vibration at high rpm. I pulled over and tried to rock the engine with my hands because I thought the motor mounts had collapsed. Was that normal? It didn’t idle steadily, hunting between 1000 and 1500 rpm, and it pulled to the right instead of going straight down the road. At the first gas stop, I realized the fuel-filler door release didn’t work. There was no rust, though, and the RX-7 felt reasonably tight. My hopeful side said I’d bought a mechanically sound but cosmetically challenged car. I started thinking about how I’d fix it.
After Atlanta, I headed to the mountains. I once did a story about a guy who was the local king of the Tail of the Dragon, an especially curvy stretch of road several hours outside Atlanta. The king drove an FD RX-7, calling it the perfect mountain car. On the curves inside North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest, I learned how right he was. The turbos kick in without delay, rocketing the car from corner to corner, and the controls are instinctive. The RX-7 seemingly interprets what your brain intends to happen, a rare hard-wired connection to the road. The thrill here isn’t outright speed but rather a man-and-machine bond that mortals of a certain type, like me, simply crave.
I eventually crossed into eastern Kentucky and headed north, the fading sun throwing long shadows on the empty road. As I rolled by forlorn coal mines and an occasional stray dog, the Mazda’s flaws disappeared. All that mattered was the joy of the drive, the feel of shifting the gearbox up and down, the delight of arcing into the corners fully aware of what the tires could hold, and trying to squeeze the last moments of sunlight. An hour and 40 miles later, with darkness falling, I stopped in Big Creek for gas, twitching from the adrenaline rush. The next day, I made it home.
After a particularly hectic summer, I realized I didn’t have the time or desire to address the Mazda’s flaws and make it something I’d like to keep. I listed it on the auction site BringATrailer.com and described every flaw I’d discovered as clearly as I could. I also measured the output on a chassis dynamometer; the result was 255 horsepower, which backed up my seat-of-the-pants impression. I wanted to make sure whoever bought the car didn’t experience what I did. I’d let the market decide its worth.
One of the eagle-eyed commenters at BringATrailer.com noticed that the tachometer listed the redline at 7000 rpm, which indicated the car was originally delivered with an automatic transmission. Cars with the manual gearbox had 8000-rpm redlines. A quick check of the VIN revealed that he was, of course, right. Yet another reminder of my shoddy homework. I’d optimistically set a $15,500 reserve price, but the best offer I got was $14,000, which I took. Sometimes a strong kick in the wallet is the best lesson.