Hammer Time: Learning From Failure

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Every car at an auto auction is a failure. Well, maybe not the 4Runner that Bertel and Ed saw with me that had 459,000 miles (it sold for $1800 by the way). But there always comes a time or a point where an owner will say, “Enough!” and proceed to accept a wholesale price for a retail vehicle.

There are many reasons for failure… and here are some of the most common ones I find at the auctions…

Demographic Failure: Once upon a time the United States sold over a million minivans every single year. They were the quintessential American vehicle for nearly two decades. Space. Comfort. Wonderful real world hauling capability. The baby boomers quickly found that minivans could take care of 90+% of their needs in modern day suburbia.

But then the kids moved off to college… and mom and dad found something else. Anything BUT a minivan in most cases. In the meantime the auctions became absolutely loaded with these models.

So if you are looking for a cheap hauler these days you can forget pickups or SUV’s. Even tree hauling companies are now using minivans thanks to the aging baby boomers and the former big three dumping their unloved models to the rental fleets for years on end.

Mechanical Failure: Sometimes automakers create utter crap… and then hide behind an army of lawyers once the warranty expires. Is it a fair thing? Well, one thing I can tell you is that these vehicles will spend years on end at the auctions seeking another idealist who is willing to machine 32 valves or rebuild a CVT.

The rebuilding process for the nastiest stuff rarely works. However I have seen a lot of vehicles get the automotive equivalent of a sex change. The Jaguar that gets a 350 V8 under the hood. A Saturn Vue whose automatic gets replaced with a manual. The Dodge Intrepid with the 2.7 Liter that gets recycled into Chinese beer cans. You get the idea.

Overproduction Failure: It could have been GM’s need to make surplus Metros and Cobalts to satisfy CAFE requirements. Honda may have found irrational exuberance when it came to producing the Insight and CR-Z, not to mention Chrysler’s maniacal stocking of Crossfires, Stratuses or Sebrings during the mid-2000’s.

Sometimes it’s not even a channel stuffing game… but a finance game. Mitsubishi’s decision to offer 0 down and 0 payments until the next year for every crack whore that found one of their dealerships was a legendary example of this.

I won’t name any names (except for the Aveo, Sentra, and Caliber) but some automakers still find themselves pressing the production circuit a few too many times for reasons other than popularity. Those models wind up selling for lower prices at the auctions.

There are dozens of ‘failures’ out there at the auctions. Substandard repairs. Electrical issues. A bad owner. A car that simply got lost in the shuffle due to a lack of market awareness.

But before I go to my fifth auction this week, I have to ask you, the Best & Brightest a quick question. At what point did you consider your once prized ride a ‘failure’? The last failure I had was a daily driver that I simply didn’t have time to drive anymore. It was a Camry… a boring two door refrigerator… and now someone is still driving it with over 300k miles. Minus a 200,000 mile rollback. No doubt courtesy of the ‘exporter’ who bought that 4Runner.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Treedom Treedom on Nov 10, 2011

    Had an '81 VW Jetta coupe -- very rare car. And fun, once I replaced the suspension & drivetrain with GTI parts. Unfortunately VW had designed the car so that the rain gutters essentially drained directly onto the fuse panel! Result: a thick sheaf of fix-it tickets for non-op taillights. The judge offered to throw them all out if I'd just sell the car to the junkyard. Done. Had a '73 Porsche 914 and did a ton of engine upgrades. Fun on an on-ramp! -- until 4000 rpm, when the fuel injection computer decided it couldn't possibly be seeing THAT much air and fuel going through, and FROZE to ponder...meanwhile oh god, here comes an 18-wheeler!...until regaining composure and rocketing into the rev limiter. Sold it to a boy racer, since the only apparent easy fix -- carbs -- weren't legal on a street car in CA. Two months later, CA changed the rules and I could have put carbs on it. Killed me. Had an '82 VW Scirocco. Caught fire. (In fact, all three of these cars caught fire at one point or another.) Took it as a sign from the gods that I should...that's right...put a bigger motor in it. But eventually I was done with German engineering. Got a featherweight little '98 Saturn SL2 16-valve stick, then a punchy little '06 Mazda 3 2.3L stick, both semi-fun to drive and rock-solid reliable. Then, having learned nothing, I got a 2002 VW Passat V6 wagon with impossibly low miles. So far I've paid the book value for it twice: once to buy it, and a second time in repairs over the following year. Thing is, it looks good, it now runs like new, and it still has low miles...who could justify dumping it now? And so it continues.

  • User1265 User1265 on Aug 28, 2015

    I disagree with "Sometimes automakers create utter crap…" because technically every conveyor-built vehicle is crap until you reconstruct it properly. There's only one way to Rolls.

  • Tassos Jong-iL The Peninsula of One Korea.
  • Eric No, I just share my opinions. I have no use nor time for rhetoric from any side.
  • Redapple2 Jeez. This is simple. I 75 and 696 area. 1 nobody -NOBODY wants to work in downtown Detritus. 2 close to the tech ctr. Design and Engineering HQ. 20 miles closer to Milford.3 lower taxes for the employees. Lower taxes for Evil GM Vampire.4 2 major expressways give users more options to suburbs. Faster transport.Jeez.
  • Clark The Ring (Nürburgring) is the only race track I've driven on. That was 1985 or 1986 with my '73 Fiat Spider (and my not-so-happy girlfriend). So I made the Karussell (today: Caracciola Karussell, which I believe the author meant; there is another one: Kleines Karussell).
  • AZFelix This article takes me back to racing electric slot cars with friends on tracks laid out in the basement. Periodically your car would stop due to lost connections or from flying off the track and you would have to dash over to it and set it right. In the mean time your competitor would race ahead until faced with a similar problem. It seemed like you were struggling harder to keep from losing than trying to win. Fun times.“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Mark Twain