By Bob Dorn
When a criminal maniac forced me off the road last December, and then rammed my 1996 Saturn on the drivers’ side with his Toyo 4-Runner he couldn’t have known that his craziness was going to make one thing clear: I have to make a choice between having a car or having a place to live.
I can’t have both.
It’s the first time this white guy born during WWII has had to face this reality since he was in his early twenties, in college. I’ve paid the rent or the mortgage and driven mostly beaters since the early 60s. In the mid-70s I even paid cash for a new Fiat 128. Its body rusted, and valves repeatedly burned, so I walked away from it less than four years later. But I was living in Cardiff, by the sea, where the life was made of privilege and entertainment was just outside the front door.
See, I can’t complain. It’s been a good run to this point, except for that maniacal blow to the Saturn. My insurance company said the damage would cost more to repair than the car was worth on the used market. They gave me $2800, plus change.
Go to Auto Trader, or The Reader Classifieds, or Craigslist and see what comes up for the price a poor person can digest. There’s Camaro muscle with 250,000 miles (exactly that number?) on the odometer, a 1995 Lincoln Mark VIII, a giant Dodge Ram with 199,926 on the odometer; at least half the vehicles at this price level drink gas as if it were $2.50 per gallon.
Two years ago my wife bought a ‘98 Civic for $2600. Today, at Auto Trader, the ’97 or ’98 or ’99 Civics range from one at $2,990 (a good deal if it hasn’t sold or you weren’t mugged by the seller) on up to $5,995, with the great majority offered at $4,000 to $4,500.
Hmmm…. why not see what’s out there at the insurance company’s replacement price of $2,800? At The Reader, there are just 26 vehicles advertised at that rate and no ad is newer than five days old. At that one the phone is answered by a woman who says the car sold right away.
“Pancho,” my trusted auto mechanic, Enrique, says to me, “you won’t get what you’re looking for (compact to mid-sized, 4 to 6 cylinder, manual transmission something or other) for less than $4,000. Everybody’s looking for them.”
That’s because those oldies, cars like my Saturn, had m.p.g. figures around 25 city and 30 highway, pretty close to what’s considered good in a new car these days. Bare minimum, you have to wonder what the engineers have been doing the last 15 or 20 years. And why, with gasoline prices having climbed, are the companies advertising troop-carrying trucks flying across chasms in the earth, or sexy Euro salon cars purring outside the opera?
But, hey, here’s a ’99 Civic sedan for $2,800 with only a little more than 180,000 miles on it (those Japanese cars, they always exceed 200K and act like fresh maidens at that, right?) but it’s up in San Marcos, and there’s no picture. It’s curious how many of the deals you’ll see in the ads are down in San Ysidro, or up in Escondido, Vista, San Marcos, even Temecula, where everything’s for sale.
I can’t do those deals without arranging for my wife to leave me the car, or renting a car, so I can get to those places and consider the ride. (It’s a little like not being able to find your glasses because you can’t see them.) And even if I manage to get to the car am I really going to drive up to northernmost San Diego County, jump in the sale car and take it 30 miles down to Enrique for him to tell me, “oh brother, this one’s leaking fluids everywhere, Pancho; you going to pay off my mortgage to keep it on the road?” You know how it feels to drive a car 60 miles round trip and accomplish nothing, don’t you? Like you’ve just spent close to $10 and the tank’s near empty on her car.
What’s pretty fascinating is, the upward creep of prices on old beaters is a very recent event. I bought the now-condemned ’96 Saturn in 2010 from a young couple who were also having a garage sale for – believe this — $1,000. Today, when I typed “Saturn” into the search field of Auto Trader, for the years ranging from 1995 to 1997, two popped up and they were both in Orange County; one for $2,300, the other for $3,300.
So, what’s happening is, the cars poor people can afford to drive appear to have gone up in price by something approaching or exceeding 200% in the last three years, a rate so intense that only a month or so after the insurance companies move their compensation numbers upwards for total wrecks, the numbers become outdated.
Inflation isn’t a problem for the rich.