Hammer Time:The Minivan Man
I remember it like it was today. We had a long line of trade-in’s going through the public auction and I was working the ring. When you’re down on the ground at the auction, your job is to hoot, holler, and help the auctioneer create the urgency to buy. In most states you are called a ‘ringman’ and for the next two hours, my job would be to use everything but jumbled auctioneer’s English. As a ringman my powers of persuasion are eyes, hands, body, and a fair bit of negotiating after the final bid falls short of the reserve. I read people. Just as I do when I’m on the block, and by 2002 I had already finished in the top 10 in the World Auctioneer’s Championship as a ringman. But forget about that lucky accolade. At the moment, I needed a minivan for my wife.
When you work hard at any auction, certain buyers will give you a tip. It can be as little as lunch or $20, or as much as a few hundred. At the impound auctions, I have even managed to get a car in exchange for my work. Nothing special. A decade old plus Volvo or domestic sedan. But that nets me a lot more than the typical auctioneer’s compensation once I retail it. On this particular day I shook hands on a nice discounted minivan. A 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan in white that I managed to buy for $2900. It had 100k, dual sliding doors, cruise, V6, and had been a dealer queen since day one. The perfect vehicle for a soon-to-be family of four in the pre-Katrina era.
My first memory of what would be known as the ‘fam-van’ was taking it to the Chrysler dealer for the ‘clockspring’ recall. An under-engineered $2 part would cost tens of millions for Chrysler as the driver’s airbag wouldn’t even budge without the clockspring operating. While we were waiting outside for service to open. My two year old daughter all of a sudden began jumping on top of the second row seat, laughing her head off. She loved the thing and while our car was parked, my daughter began putting her hands all over the windows in ecstatic glee. She was now the tall one and as the employees began to arrive, she waved to every single one.
That would be one of thousands of moments of happiness. Road trips, kiddie videos, games for the family on the road, and most of all… tons of commuting. My daughter was going to an expensive speech school along with a pre-k program. Within a couple years my son would be in pre-k as well. Seldom was there a day when the van didn’t travel at least 50 miles with a wife who had renamed herself ‘Madame Chauffer’ for all the journeys. .I kept it up like Monk would with the best parts I could find and enough nighttime reading to decipher most of the road blocks that would come our way.
The first was the transmission. Like all minivans of that era, the transmission wasn’t designed to go over 100k without a tranny cooler and annual fluid changes. All of them were terrible from this era with the possible exceptions of the rear wheel drive Previa, Aerostar, and the slow selling Villager/Quest. The one in mine was original and no amount of pixie dust would save it from the laws of physics. Thankfully there was a junkyard that had a low mileage one that I picked up for $400 and once the tranny blew, it was steadfastly parked at the nearby Blockbuster. One tow, $300 labor, a 20k mile tranny, and 48 hours got my wife back on the road.
Then within a week, someone nailed the minivan with a pickup truck from behind. The sleep deprived driver had woken up at the very last moment (thank God) and carved a mean crease on the side of the vehicle. After an endless game of telephone tag, the insurance agent got the ball rolling with the usual low ball estimate of the vehicle’s value.
“Mr. Lang, we have appraised the ‘Actual Cash Value’ of the van to be right at $3675, and the repairs will cost $2800. Since the repairs cost more than 3/4’s of the value of the vehicle we have to total this car.”
“Really, What book do you use?”
“Well, in order to appraise the value of this vehicle you need to use some type of database that uses real world values for the vehicles. I have the Manheim Market Report, NADA, and the Black Book. All of which value the vehicle between $4800 and $5800. By the way, I do this for a living.”
The conversation became a bit more friendly and within 48 hours I had a $2800 check for what turned out to be an $800 repair. I was a bit more than a thousand up given that check minus all the repairs for the first couple of years. Not bad at all. But not that great given all the opportunity and market changes that would take place during the easy credit era.
The opportunity came through the fact that I was making far more money retailing cars on the side than I was in my regular work. $1500 here. $2500 there. I was making some pretty good licks. The dirty secret of the car business (at the time) is that a good retailer can make far more money than a good auctioneer or ringman. After I cleared over 8 grand retailing a two year old Infiniti Q45 on Ebay I decided to concentrate my energies exclusively on the retail side.
Which meant one more thing. I couldn’t keep cars. By selling cars at a three vehicle a week clip in the beginning, having a ‘keeper’ minivan with nearly 150k made no sense. There were more fuel efficient rides that were also safer. Volvo wagons in particular were still under-priced at a time when SUV’s and minivans were the kings and queens of the road. I sold the still popular vehicle off three years after my initial entry into minivan land for $2800 to a very nice young couple. Nearly every van and wagon would grace our garage in the coming years. But when I think of a family minivan, my mind always wanders back to our original.
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