It was called The Automobile Information Disclosure Act of 1958 and it was sponsored by Almer Stillwell Monroney, the Senator from Oklahoma who preferred the colloquial nickname “Mike” and whose other legislative priority in 1958 was to create the FAA.
We owe Mike Monroney a lot. He was from that long-discredited and long-forgotten breed of old privileged men who believed there was such a thing as the public interest and that they had a genuine duty to act in that public interest. As with Rudolf Diesel, history has paid him the supreme compliment of omitting capitalization — it’s common for “monroney” to be used in correspondence or business as a mere noun denoting the window sticker in a new car.
We take the monroney for granted nowadays. There are few of us left alive who can remember the days when a car did not have its price and equipment fully and forthrightly glued to the inside of its rear passenger window. In fact, very few of us take the window sticker at all seriously. Everybody knows that in the modern car market the dealer invoice is the “real” sticker, unless you’re talking about a Ferrari or something where the MSRP is just a starting point for further discussions based on one’s history with the marque, the dealership, and/or Goldman Sachs. But the protection and information offered by that label in the window is real, it is meaningful, and it is absolutely critical to any remotely ethical business transaction between the dealer and the consumer.
Would you be surprised, therefore, to find out that there is a massive motor vehicle retail chain in this country where Almer Stillwell’s second-greatest idea simply does not exist? And would you be not particularly surprised to find that the absence of the monroney leads to consumer abuses ranging from misleading pricing to deliberate mislabeling of a vehicle’s model year?
Some of you doubtless already know the answer to this. Motorcycles are specifically exempted from the provisions of the Automobile Information Disclosure Act of 1958, and virtually every new piece of state-level legislation since then has also specifically exempted motorcycles. Before we get into what this means for the prospective motorcycle purchaser, we should ask why this should be a matter of concern for someone who doesn’t ride a bike and has no plans to ride a bike. The simplest answer is this: Not everything that fits the legal definition of a “motorcycle” is really a “motorcycle” as we know it.
Take, for example, the Morgan 3-Wheeler: it’s a motorcycle as far as the law is concerned. The Elio? Also a trike. The Polaris Slingshot? As my son noted, in his outdoor voice, when he saw a line of Slingshots with their owners at a Quaker State Bike Night… “those aren’t motorcycles, Dad, so why are they here?” But in the eyes of Justice, a Slingshot is a motorcycle. So even if you don’t think motorcycle laws are important now, you might find that our post-abundance future will offer you a few opportunities to see how the law applies to you. It’s also interesting to see a sort of root cause for how the relationship between auto dealer and auto buyer became so strained; after all, the problems facing a new-bike buyer are very similar to what a new-car buyer faced in 1955, prior to the current laws.
I can tell you how it applies to me: I’ve been rather idly shopping this year for a Kawasaki ZX-14R motorcycle. The retail price of a 2016 ZX-14R is $14,999, plus a destination charge of $360. That much seems simple, but what’s this little cross mark at the end of the price on the Kawasaki website?
“Dealer sets the actual destination charge, your price may vary.” With that single sentence, we are truly well clear of the boundaries set by Senator Monroney. In the car business, the destination charge is listed on the sticker, and it is fixed. In the motorcycle business? It’s all up for grabs.
Yet even this is an improvement over the situation in the pre-Internet era. Back then, the MSRP of a bike wasn’t available online — and you sure as hell wouldn’t find it in most dealerships. Instead, you had to ask a salesperson. There are no window stickers on motorcycles. I’ve written before about how as a teenager I was terrified of motorcycle salesmen, but even as an adult I was annoyed by them. Some salespeople would quote you the MSRP, some would start asking you questions instead of providing information; others would engage in the time-honored powersports sales technique of “disqualifying the customer” and/or suggesting that the motorcycle in question was a bad choice.
When I went to a big-box multi-brand dealer a few weeks ago, I was hoping to find a 2015 ZX-14R in stock. The 2015 ZX-R differs from the current 2016 model in two important respects. To begin with, it has an extra ten horsepower, thanks to Kawasaki’s decision to fit improved Euro-compliant catalyst hardware on the new model which chokes it from a stunning 208 horsepower to a merely acceptable 197 horsepower. The second is that there is a $2,500 rebate on the 2015 model compared to the $2,000 rebate on the 2016. Visually, however, the bikes are almost identical.
I was dismayed to see that both of the green ZX-14Rs on the floor were 2016 models. Each of them sported a “2016” tag and a “$2,000 OFF” tag. Note that “$2,000 off” is fairly meaningless if there is no other price information on the bike, which was the case. Yet the Aspie in me thought that there was definitely something off about the situation. One of the bikes had green-anodized shock adjusters and the other one didn’t. So I checked the frames. Yup, the bike with the green adjusters was a 2015, not a 2016.
Mislabeling a 2015 bike as a 2016? That’s go-directly-to-jail territory for auto dealers. But in the motorcycle game it’s just another day at the office. I started checking the other bikes around it. Sure enough, it wasn’t the only one to be promoted to 2016-model-year status through the flick of a Sharpie on an inventory tag. I alerted the dealer to the “mistake”, and we started to talk price.
At this point, I’ll mention that I was in near-simultaneous communication with another Kawasaki dealer, this one in Bloomfield Hills. They were much cheaper on the ZX-14R. Or were they? Here’s the final pricing breakdown from both dealer:
Ohio dealer: $13,499 transaction price. $2,500 rebate. $249 doc fee. $360 destination. Prep waived. $18 tag fee: $11,626.
Michigan dealer: $12,499 transaction price. $2,500 rebate. $625 destination. $334 prep. $190 doc fee. $70 tag fee: $11,218.
It’s worth noting that the Michigan dealer would not disclose the precise amounts of those fees to me until I stated that I was only willing to buy the bike via faxed purchase order. They spent a considerable amount of time trying to get me to “just come on up.” One salesperson at another dealer I called said, “We can waive all the fees, but we can only do it for people who have already put a deposit down.” Think about that.
I was pretty annoyed by the whole process, so I called time on it for a while. Little did I know that Mrs. Baruth was making the same calls, and with slightly more effectiveness. She was able to get the destination waived at the Ohio dealer, effectively matching the Michigan dealer’s price. And it was thus that I became a ZX-14R owner, to the immense and everlasting satisfaction of my inner 12-year-old.
It’s worth noting that Danger Girl and I held pretty much all the cards in this transaction. A 186-mph motorcycle is a tough sell in the Midwest when winter is perhaps thirty days distant. The ZX-14R, like all of the sub-$20,000 superbikes, is suffering from low demand as the economy fractures. The young men who used to buy these bikes don’t have jobs; the one-percenters ride Ducatis, MV Agustas, or Beemers. We had no plans to finance the vehicle, so we couldn’t be pressured into a deal that we didn’t like just because a dealer had crippled our credit ratings while looking for financing.
(That, incidentally, is exactly what happened to me in 1995. I wanted a new FZR600 for $4,999. My dealer ran my credit to thirty different banks, making it impossible for any of them to approve me. Then he told me that his “buddy” at the “LoanZone” could approve me at 23.99% over 36 month. Needless to say, I never became an FZR600 owner.)
Most importantly, however, we didn’t need the ZX-14R. Nobody needs a ZX-14R. It has no practical value whatsoever. My worst-case scenario regarding this purchase was that I’d forget about it, continue to ride my other bikes until the spring and then think about the whole process again. That’s rarely the case for lower-income families who absolutely need something like a minivan to get them to work and school.
So in the end, I didn’t suffer very much because Senator Monroney didn’t extend the protections of his Act to the two-wheel set. But it was a sobering reminder of the predatory manner in which dealers will behave if the rules are taken away. And it’s also a worrisome look into a future where our candidates for major office are typically either businessmen themselves or entirely the servile creatures of Goldman Sachs and the like. Not to contradict Charles Dickens, but sometimes the law is not an ass. Sometimes, the law is rather astounding.