Why is it so insanely difficult to buy a car? And especially if you are a woman? Part of the trouble is that car salesmen are a particularly unreconstructed breed of men who think ‘lady’ customers will be more interested in the size of the vanity mirror than the fuel consumption. But it’s not just that — it’s the fact that they treat the transaction with all the pomp and gravitas of applying for a half-million-pound mortgage.
This started back in February when I left a party (remember those?), got into my Volkswagen and set off into St James’s. Somehow I pressed the accelerator instead of the brake and drove smartly into the side of a taxi, making a serious dent. It was quite clearly my fault but, surreally, two very smartly dressed men who’d been walking along arm in arm rushed to my side and said: ‘Dear lady. Are you hurt? We will be your witnesses! We saw everything that happened!’ The taxi driver was understandably furious, but I assured him it was all my fault and gave him my name and phone number. I noticed that my car was a bit bashed at the front and thought I’d better take it to the garage but then lockdown descended and I forgot about it.
When lockdown lifted, I drove to and from the shops in my battered car until one fine day I had the bright idea of taking it to the car wash. Big mistake. When I emerged the whole front bumper had fallen off and the side light was dangling by a wire. Clearly it couldn’t carry on.
My friend Jean said why didn’t I buy a little Peugeot like hers? ‘Where did you get it?’ ‘Car Giant,’ she said. ‘It’s brilliant. You drive your old car in and drive a new car out.’ She would get her daughter Abby to take me. Abby is normally the highly sought-after DJ Philly but DJing is one of those careers killed by Covid so she was sitting around with time on her hands. She said she would love to take me to Car Giant. She asked what sort of car I wanted and I said a small automatic like Jean’s. Abby clicked on to the Car Giant website and came up with a two-year-old Peugeot for £9,000, and made an appointment for me to see it.
Have you ever been to Car Giant? It’s the size of Heathrow’s long-term car park in one of those strange wastelands off the North Circular Road. The salesman took us to a hangar to inspect the car. It looked OK. ‘I’ll take it,’ I said, producing my debit card, but of course it wasn’t so simple.
We had to plod over to the part-exchange centre while a man went to inspect my Volkswagen. Abby had asked me beforehand how much I hoped to get for it and I’d said: ‘Maybe a thousand?’ But when the man came back, shaking his head, and asked the same question, Abby said ‘£500’. ‘No!’ I exclaimed furiously, ‘I told you a thousand.’ The man said: ‘Oh no, we can’t offer you £5,000 but we can do £2,000.’ It was a bizarre negotiation but a brilliant result.
So then it was back to the sales centre to do the paperwork, which took for ever. At one point I was asked if I had some utility bills as proof of my address. But why? My address was on my driving licence and on the Volkswagen logbook. I was soon fuming with impatience, but then I remembered my lockdown resolution to stop being so grouchy and cultivate a Zen-like calm and think Nice Thoughts. So I told myself that the car salesman was being kind because he wanted to make the car-buying as ceremonious and memorable as possible.
I was doing quite well with the Nice Thoughts till he asked: ‘How long do you intend to keep this car?’ ‘For chrissake,’ I snapped. ‘It’s not like I’m buying a puppy!’ Luckily he didn’t hear me, but after that I couldn’t retrieve Zen-mode and realised that actually what he was doing was trying to keep me at his desk as long as possible so that his manager would believe he was attempting to sell me warranties.
He said my car would be ‘ready for collection’ in two hours and meanwhile we could get refreshments in the Giant Diner opposite. This was another circle of hell with a vast queuing area designed for maybe 100 customers. But in fact there were no customers and very little food. Thus we whiled away the hours till I was finally able to collect my car. The whole transaction took four hours. Why? If in a fit of madness I decided I wanted to buy a £7,000 handbag I could whisk down to Selfridges, hand over my debit card and be out of the shop in 30 minutes.
But car-buying seems to be wrapped in this almost masonic mystique. I suppose buying a car was a big event when I was young and poor but half a century later it is hard to pretend that I care. And I couldn’t have got through it without Abby.
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