My Best and Worst Car Transactions

Rob Siegel

By my count, I’ve owned over 70 BMWs since I got bit by the bug back in 1982. Add in the Vanagons, the Suburbans, the onesies and twosies like the 911SC, Alfa Spider,  Lotus Europa, Winnebago Rialta, and (of course) the family vehicles, and it’s over 100 cars. That’s fewer than a pro or a diehard collector, but it’s a pretty good number. I’ve written previously about the best and worst vehicles that stand out, but I thought I’d concentrate for a moment on the purchases and sales, or near-purchases and near-sales, themselves. Some were classic time-wasters, but others were beautiful bits of humanity.

1973 BMW 2002

1971 BMW 2002 Malaga backpack
The BMW 2002 that saved vacation. Rob Siegel

This was my second 2002, purchased in Austin, Texas, in 1983. I’d just gotten my first one sorted out and repainted, but then I found this one and sold the other one. It had been sitting for years, the Malaga (burgundy) paint was faded, but it was rust-free and had air conditioning. I tried jump-starting it, even putting the battery from my car directly in it, and it clicked once but wouldn’t crank, indicating a dead starter. The seller lived on a hill with an unpaved driveway. I convinced him that the car would likely start if we rolled it down the hill and I popped the clutch to spin the engine. I did, and it didn’t. Now he had a dead car at the bottom of the hill. He was not pleased. I bought it anyway. With a new starter and fresh plugs, it fired right up. I hadn’t fully sorted it out yet when Maire Anne and I left for a scheduled hiking vacation in Colorado in her VW camper. Unfortunately the camper began running badly and we limped it back home. “Can we take the new 2002?” she asked. “That’s risky,” I said. “It burns oil, there’s no spare tire, and a hundred other things.” But with vacation at risk, I threw a case of oil and a can of Fix-o-flat in the truck, and we made the 2000-mile round trip without incident.

1978 BMW 323i

BMW 323i front three quarter lime green
The coveted “gray market” E21 BMW 323i. Wikimedia Commons

This was a “gray market” model (a car sold in Germany but not in America) that BMW enthusiasts craved because it had the small six-cylinder engine eight years before it was available in an American-issue car. Buying it was straightforward, but when I tried to sell it, it appeared to be cursed. To begin with, the car’s hot-rod nature attracted a callous testosterone-enhanced element. One guy test-drove it weaving dangerously through Boston traffic and cutting people off. “Ever hear of the Skip Barber driver’s school at Lime Rock? I went there,” he said, as if that justified his homicidal behavior. “Then you should know to confine these antics to the track,” I deadpanned. Another guy liked it and said he wanted to buy it, but when he came back with cash, it was less than we’d agreed on and he brought four of his friends to intimidate me. By utter coincidence, while this was playing out, my wife opened the third-floor window and called out “Someone else is calling about the car. Is it still available?” “Yes,” I told her, and went inside, leaving the guy and his muscle at the curb. (To the guy’s credit, 35 years later he found me online and apologized for his sophomoric behavior.)

The fellow who eventually bought it wanted it for his pregnant wife. I thought it was a terrible fit for that role, but he kept increasing his offer price and I relented. The small-six was BMW’s only engine with a timing belt instead of a chain, and I hadn’t replaced the belt yet, so I told the guy to make sure to get it done ASAP. He didn’t, the belt broke, the valves got bent, his mechanic rebuilt the head but couldn’t get the car running, and the guy came back to me threatening legal action. I could’ve told him to pound sand, but I figured that I was buying back a car with a rebuilt head. Turned out the only reason it wouldn’t run was that the distributor cap and plug wires are specific to this Euro model, and a new set of plug wires didn’t make electrical contact with the cap.

1985 Alfa Spider

Alfa Spider front three quarter
The Spider before I had the nose fixed. Rob Siegel

In 1991, I had my first wave of roadster cravings and bought an ’85 Alfa Spider. Due to needing a head gasket and the nose being dented due to a pickup track backing into it, it was cheap. I fixed it and drove it around for one glorious summer until my wife and I began house shopping and I had to shed some cars. I sold it to a guy about my age who seemed to be a good buyer as, like me, he owned a BMW 2002, but the sale soon went south. First he complained that it was leaking differential fluid out the solid rear axle’s wheel seals, something I was unaware of. To smooth things over, I kicked him back some money to help with the repair. But a month later I received a certified letter containing allegations of odometer tampering and threat of lawsuit if I didn’t refund his money. A lawyer friend advised that, if the allegations were true (and I had no idea if they were or not), I could be hit with treble damages. It worked out OK, as I had the car for the summer at our new home, then sold it to someone who was moving to California.

1987 BMW 325ic

BMW 325i convertible front three quarter
An E30 3 Series convertible just like mine. Wikimedia Commons

I missed the Alfa, so a few years later I bought a BMW E30 3 Series convertible. I didn’t really have room for it, so the deal with myself was that it had to be my daily driver, even in the winter. Of course this was a stupid idea, so the following summer I put it up for sale. A gentleman who lived on the north shore of Boston called me and made me a very fair offer, but I explained that I don’t really put much stock in sight-unseen offers because when people come and see the car, they usually try to bargain down further (“Oh, I didn’t know about the cracked tail light, the dings on the trim,” etc). The fellow said that that wasn’t going to happen and there was something in his demeanor that made me believe him. So I agreed. And then he upped the ante—he said that he’d pay me $150 to deliver the car to him that weekend. This had all the hallmarks of a fool’s errand, but he said without flash or bravado that he was simply a really busy guy living in a nice beach community and wanted to begin enjoying the car. So that weekend my wife and I drove up there in two cars, he handed me the money, I handed him the title and keys, boom, done. Every sale should go like this.

1991 VW Vanagon Carat

VW Vanagon front three quarter red rob siegel
A Vanagon Carat like the one that got sold out from under me. Wikimedia Commons

I had six Vanagons back in the day. They were wonderful vehicles when my wife and I had our band, as they swallowed more equipment than any other minivan. However, the air-cooled four-cylinder engines were anemic like the VW busses of yore, and the later water-boxer engines suffered from coolant leakage at the cylinder-to-head interface. I became entranced by the idea of installing a 230-horsepower engine from a Subaru SVX. I found a desirable ’91 Vanagon Carat with the slightly lowered suspension, the front air dam, the Weekender package (the fold-out bed but not the stove or pop-top), and a blown engine for a good price down in Rhode Island. I spoke on the phone with the seller, said I’d be down in an hour with cash, and joked, “Please don’t sell it out from under me before I get there,” never thinking that that would actually happen.

I arrived in the parking lot, found the Vanagon, but the seller was nowhere. I called the number I had for him, and there was no answer. I noticed that the “for sale” sign on the car had a different phone number on it. I called it, and the seller answered. I said, “Hey, this is Rob, I’m here in the parking lot next to the Vanagon.” To my stunned surprise, he said, “I sold it.” I was dumbfounded. The guy was going to ghost me. “I just spoke with you an hour ago.” “Sorry, man” was the best he could muster. Looking at seller reviews on Facebook Marketplace, I see that this happens all the time. As a seller, I would never do that to someone.

1973 VW Bus

This is the humorous companion to the Vanagon story. I really hadn’t been looking for another old-school VW bus, as they’re rust-prone vehicles that must be garaged, but a nice-looking bus showed up on Craigslist about 12 years ago up in New Hampshire for a surprisingly low price. I called the guy and asked if I could come right now. “Yes,” he said, “but someone else is on the way, so it might be sold by the time you get here.” “Warned and understood,” I said, “I’ll risk it,” and drove the 90 miles up to NH. As the GPS had me turning onto the seller’s street, my cell rang. The seller said to me “I just sold it.” Incredibly, just as he told me the news, I arrived at his house and saw him talking on his cell (to me) as the buyer was handing him cash. I swung a continuous-motion 180-degree turn across the top of the driveway, made eye contact with both the seller and the buyer, exchanged waves, laughed, and headed home.

1973 BMW Bavaria

BMW Bavaria rear three quarter on post lift
The Bavaria on the lift awaiting inspection. Rob Siegel

During the winter 10 years ago I answered a Craigslist ad in southern Maine for a Bavaria that the seller claimed was rust-free. “Don’t kid a kidder,” I said when I spoke with him. “There is no such thing as a rust-free Bavaria.” He said that it was a former California car that the previous owner only drove to summer events. “The car is in my warehouse on a lift while I’m doing the brakes,” he said. “You can walk under it and see for yourself.” I had nowhere to store the car, and my engineering job was starting to become unstable, so a car purchase was risky, but you never know unless you look, so I drove up there.

The guy handed me a droplight, and sure enough, there was only the most minor surface oxidation on the floor pans. “I know who you are,” the seller said, “and I’d love the car to go to you.” He named a price well under the one in the ad. I said that I was quite interested, but explained about my precarious professional and space issues. “Tell you what,” he said. “Give me a hundred bucks and I’ll hold it for you here ’til spring.” How are you not supposed to take someone up on that? Come spring, however, my job situation became even worse, and I thought that I should do the right thing and bail out of the car. Then I decided that, no, I should go see it again. When I drove back up, the car was down off the lift, outside in the sun, running, and drivable. One spin around the parking lot and I thought, “Yeah, I’m totally buying this car.” I still own it.

2000 Toyota Tacoma

Hack Mechanic Rob Siegel Car Transactions Toyota Tacoma pickup full of scrap metal
Rob Siegel

In 2014, my middle son Kyle graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, got his first job in South Carolina, and needed a vehicle. He was interested in a small pickup. My wife, my mother, and I went in together on a graduation present. After having a 2004 Tacoma pickup at a used car lot fall through, I found a 2000 two-door RWD Tacoma as a private Craigslist sale. I told the seller I’d meet his asking price if he helped my son register and insure it, as neither of us had a clue what the procedure was in South Carolina. The gentleman was true to his word—the sale, registration, and insurance went off without a hitch. Kyle’s now a metalworker in Santa Fe, New Mexico, still owns the truck, hauls all manner of sculptures and metal stock in it, and frequently finds notes on the windshield that say  “Call me if you ever want to sell this.”



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    I’ve owned about 70 cars, so I’m behind you a bit, but I’ve bought and sold a lot of cars. Most of my sales have gone without a hitch, and I’ve never had anyone come back at me to complain after a sale, but I make it abundantly clear that the cars are sold as-is, where-is. I explain it and ask them to sign a bill of sale with that clause, which folks have always done.
    My only bad sale experience was when I make a deal to sell my 2009 Cayman S track car to another PCA member. We agreed on a price, and I agreed to deliver the car to have a pre-purchase inspection done at a local Porsche shop. He agreed to pick up the $165 inspection fee, and the report came back fine. When I called to discuss the inspection report with him, the buyer told e he had never agreed to pay for the inspection and backed out of the deal entirely, leaving me to have to pay the shop.

    I always enjoy Rob’s articles too.

    And the Toyota at the top initially made me think Rob had finally settled on a good truck purchase for himself!

    Two things
    1. My head is spinning, just thinking about all the misfit transactions you have yet to share.
    2. No matter what you get your wife for Valentine’s Day this year – it’s not nearly enough.

    Our lives do have some interesting parallels. Lots of cars and (for me) motorcycles and scooters, with good and not so good outcomes. And then in 1998 my daughter needed a better vehicle and found a person who had just bought a new Tacoma, stick shift 4WD, manual hubs, crank windows, bigger 4 cylinder engine with only AC, cruise and a power rear differential lock-up, and hated it. He wanted an automatic. She bought that truck and she still has it and it gets used every day. 210,000 miles, no rust (California and Colorado all its life). I’m still buying and selling projects and she buys one truck and still has it and uses it 25 years later. I guess we all know who’s the smart one.

    It must be something to do with the sort of guys that try to pick up BMWs! I’ve been buying and selling English cars for 30 years and have never had an issue with a sale. I have bought a few that were not at all as advertised and probably could (and should) have gone back on the seller to renegotiate, but I always figure that is part of the risk in 40 – 60 year old cars.

    I always love Rob’s articles! Every time, I look up from the screen and feel happy, even if the tale was about a disaster. The writing is just so good, and the stories SO much from the heart. Thank you!

    Unlike my obsession with shopping for and buying cars, I loathe selling them.

    From ghosting to no-shows to low ballers, I rarely have the patience for them.

    One that sticks out was trying to offload a 2011 crown vic interceptor for a whopping $1500 (I was expecting 1000-1200 for it).

    After someone who literally lived 10 minutes away flip-flopping on coming to view it, and someone saying “if it doesn’t sell, I’ll buy it for $500.” (I replied saying I’d light it on fire in my driveway before selling for that), a buyer finally came through.

    He offered $1200 drove 3.5hrs to come see it. He showed, asked to see it run. I popped the hood and re-connected the battery I’d unhooked 3 months prior, and it started immediately.
    He handed me an envelope with $1200 and asked me to write up a bill of sale while he loaded it on the trailer he brought.

    If every sale could go like that, I’d sell used cars full time.

    Yep, agreed, Rob is one heck of a writer/storyteller. Best words ever told me on dealing with cars – you went there without one &you can always leave without one, which I’ve done more than once in the past few years!

    My two worst purchases were when I was transitioning from a clunky old car driver to a collector. Unlike most prior purchases, they were wants instead of needs, but they taught me which direction I needed to go with things.

    The first was a 66 Caprice that was bought 100% on impulse. It was red, it was loud, and it was also relatively cheap. It wasn’t until I drove away from my impulse buy that I realized that the driver window wasn’t rolled down… it wasn’t there. In daylight, I realized it had more surface area of bondo than steel. The carb was horribly untuned and I had not adopted that skill yet, and someone had ripped one of the rear link bars out of the crossmember leaving a hole. I sold it quickly at a loss

    The second was a 68 Coupe de Ville that had been sitting and ran rough. I assumed it was in need of some fresh fuel and a tuneup. I later discovered that this was a leaded car that had been running on unleaded and had two horribly burned valves. My valiant attempt to convert it to an unleaded motor at the work shop educated me that I need my own garage and layout space. Again sold at a loss

    The best was my 944. The previous owner brought it over and asked me to check it out. I looked it over and concluded that aside from some cosmetic issues, everything was in order. He then asked me if I wanted it, which was apparently the plan all along. Best sales tactic I have ever seen. Hard to haggle on something you already gave a clean bill of health. I retired that car after 14 years with an estimated 250K on it – not something you expect out of a German sports car

    I’ve had plenty of cars bought and sold over the years But the worst transaction/ burn on me was an engine. Military guy had a 390 cu in AMC engine sitting in his driveway. Paid $250 and said I’d pick it up within next week or two. Went back and engine was gone. No answer at door. Came back with about six of my buddies on motorcycles a few weeks later to settle it. His wife was there pooping bricks. Week later he must’ve been transferred to a different base. Gone. Probably knew he wasn’t going to be around long so he decided to screw someone over. Yours truly. Lesson learned

    Your story makes me feel I should be aware of bogus buyers on facebook. My 76 T Bird gets a lot of messages but no buyers. One fellow said he would buy it and pick it up on Sunday. I pulled it out and waited over an hour. Finally I sent him a message and he told me he changed his mind. Would have been nice if he told me that before I wasted my time. Solid two owner T bird that runs and drives for little money, but everybody it seems wants something restored for free. Go figure?

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