By on July 25, 2012


The best advice I ever received about cars came from a fellow named Charlie.

He sat me down. Looked right into my 22 year old face and told me,

“You know nothing!”

He was right.

This may shock more than a few of you who have been here since TTAC’s early days.

I grew up not knowing the difference between a V6 and a V8. Cars? Well, my parents and brothers drove them. As for me, the world as it related to cars only changed once I got my learner’s permit.

Cars equated to freedom, and freedom equated to an escape from my life in New Jersey. Two years later I was free as a bird. Four years after that, I found myself caged in an unpleasant conversation with Charlie.

Charlie’s advice that day had nothing to do with cars… not yet.

At that point it had only to do with selling seafood in New York’s Chinatown. My Dad had high blood pressure, 212/108 at one point, and I had been given the assignment of learning that side of the food business while he recovered.

To sell food you have never eaten, in a culture that you never experienced before, in a language you don’t quite know yet… all of it takes an awful lot of listening skills. My work would be humbling and an amazing turnabout from my prior years in school.

In a collegiate world where student participation could count as much as 50% of my grade, I had to learn to say nothing and listen to the implicit behaviors of his customers. I would walk eight miles a day, twice a week, in New York’s Chinatown along with Flushing and Elmhurst on alternating weeks. Lots of walking. Lots of time to think and examine my surroundings.

First, I would take a look at what products of ours were vacating the shelves. Second… what products of the competitors looked the slightest bit aged or dusty. Always without exception, I would wait for the elder Chinese proprietor to acknowledge my presence.  Even if that took twenty to thirty minutes.

They knew English. All of them had kids that graduated from college or well beyond that point. Many even had grandkids that were my age.  But my instructions were firm, “Only Cantonese!”. I would let the owner show me what needed to be restocked and whenever he (or she) would ask about my father, I would only reply in Cantonese. Then after we would go through the restocks, I would announce the names of some of the competitor’s products that were not quite selling.

“Tow-goo”, “Gin-cee-bow”, “Sha-din-gyu”. Mushrooms, pacfic clams, sardines. Hundreds of items would be drilled into me as well as a few dozen basic sentences in Cantonese.

I would point or walk to the shelf with the items that were still gathering that thin layer of dust that showed lack of movement. Sometimes I succeeded in getting a new product on the shelves. Other times not so much. But I always got them to smile and enjoy the experience.

Friendly, smart, reserved, respectful. It was a brilliant act of nuance for my father to force me out of my old habits.

Charlie’s advice that day helped me become a better listener. Eventually other mentors would help me in my work as an auctioneer, car dealer, and writer…. because I listened.

I would always start those experiences with a rock solid assumption… three simple words.

“You… know… nothing!”

It made learning that much easier to do.

So who gave you the best advice about cars? Even in a roundabout way?




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59 Comments on “Question Of The Day: Who Gave You The Best Advice… About Cars?...”

  • avatar

    The people who gave me the best advice? Unintentionally my family whom, love them pieces, are terrible at being helpful people. I learned to be REALLY CAREFUL about who you take to go car shopping after I found out they purposely “helped” me pick out a terribly unreliable car, to teach me a lesson about being patient. Still kinda wish I had that two grand and two years of saving up for it back.

  • avatar

    My father who bought and sold used cars most of his life (but knew alomost nothing about how a car works) told me two things.
    1) Don’t fall in love with a car until AFTER you own it
    2) When you are buying a used car, you are “buying” the owner as much as you are buying the car.

    He was pretty much right.

  • avatar
    Oren Weizman

    My grandpa when he said ‘ Don’t but a used Volkswagen’ I missed out on a sweet little 2002 GTi, which my cousin outbid me on ( still haven’t forgotten that POS ) the car had 30K Miles on it, engine blew up a week later while he was parking in an apple orchard, dodged that bullet hardcore

    • 0 avatar

      Im currently working at an Audi and Porsche specialty shop over the summer in metro Atlanta, and what I have learned is to never buy a vw unless you intend to drive it into the Chattahoochee river and to stay away from a 1.8T unless you really love vacuum hoses.

  • avatar

    The BEST advice? As in, least worst?

    My father told me to get a new 97′ Neon as my 1st car. He even rented one for a week to try to convince me. My father is the only person I can remember giving me any car advice. Nobody would dare give me advice these days.

    He also pressured me to get a new Sebring convertable before the Neon. I ended up going with a 12 year old Z.

  • avatar
    Jean-Pierre Sarti

    Steve, I think you might have picked the wrong Hogan’s Hero character for the title picture. To me it would have been more fitting to put a picture of Col. Klink rather than Sargent Schultz. You see Klink thought he knew everything but knew nothing where as Schultz new everything but wanted everyone to think he knew nothing!

    Sorry to nit pick but I’m kind of a Hogan’s Heros nut….

  • avatar

    While attending Ohio State University my landlord drove a MB 240D and was a CPA taking care of one of the many rental properties in the family trust. Being property manager I had many of rides in the old 240D. That thing shook at idle like a carbureted Hog. Until one -20F degree morning he headed into work but only got 1/4 of a mile when the gelled diesel fuel in the tank failed to be pumped up through the lines. I ended up giving him a ride.

    We were talking philosophy on whim and he told me that what ever you do after college be behind increasing numbers for your business. You’ll be golden as it’s the heart of almost all businesses if they want to stay alive.

    Others have said similar since our business and automotive interest. And don’t sell your old cars close to home.

  • avatar

    From the owner of a Honda store; ‘Never buy a black car.’

    • 0 avatar

      I have a black Honda without AC. On a recent hot road trip I promised my buddies that my next car would have AC and would not be black.

      • 0 avatar

        My 03 Mazda P5 is black (on black) and it has WORKING AC and I’m fine, though our summers have been anything BUT hot, barely 80 at best so far.

        But I agree, black would not be my first choice, but when buying used, you gets what you gets.

        That said, I’d prefer black over white though. At least it won’t look like an appliance as white tends to make even the most sporty looking cars look rather ordinary.

    • 0 avatar

      I was told to NEVER buy a white car. Too easy to cover up any bad body repairs.

  • avatar

    A co-worker told me that I should not buy a car unless I could afford to purchase two of that same car.

  • avatar

    My father, for talking me out of trying to buy a rusty Alfa Romeo Alfetta that I found sitting unused in a lot. Or for talking me out of trying to buy a rusty old BMW 3.0CS E9 that I found sitting unused in another lot.

  • avatar

    My ex-father-in-law told me to check Consumer Reports before buying. Wise words from a man that hardly said anything. His advice was right and it has kept me happy and away from service departments. He also said ‘when you get to know the service advisers on a first name basis, it is time to buy another car or a different brand’. He was right on that one too.

  • avatar

    My pappy once told me to never trust anything with less than eight cylinders, and that there is no higher calling than to tell strangers on the internet what cars they shouldn’t buy.

  • avatar

    The Aston mechanic who looked over my very tired 1977 V8 Vantage and said, kindly, “That car is at least $150,000 worth of work away from being a $60,000 car.”

    I was young and stupid, but not that stupid: I put it on eBay and sold it for about what I had in it. I’d love to have it back, but not until my net worth hits eight figures.

  • avatar

    A wise airline pilot / mechanic always told me, “Fix the easy stuff first.”

    For instance, if a nasty vibration has cropped up, don’t immediately assume busted U-joints, driveshaft out of balance, broken suspension, etc. Check the wheel balance – you could have simply thrown a wheel weight.

    If a light/radio/switch, etc. stops working, don’t immediately assume a replacement is needed. Check the fuse first.

    And so on. Do the simple, cheap stuff first. If it checks out, move on the more complex, expensive fixes. You’ll save time and money.

  • avatar

    My friend Paul, who upon hearing about my excitement over the snow-conquering ability of my soon-to-be delivered Isuzu Trooper, said: “You know, four-wheel drive will make you go better, but it won’t make you stop any better.”

    Those words stayed in my head, and I think saved me from doing a lot of stupid things when I was young and, well, stupid.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    When I worked at a dealership owned by the father of a high school classmate, the advice he (the owner) gave me–whatever car you get, make sure you truly like it, and try not to “settle” for something else instead (obviously, within reasonable bounds).

    His reasoning? Because EVERY car, no matter how good it is, at some point in your ownership of it will be a PITA to own/fix. But if you like it, the pain will be mitigated and you can go back to enjoying it once the issues have been addressed.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Boy, always buy a Ford work truck and buy whatever car you like that goes fast – My grandpa

  • avatar

    I think it was a teacher who told me to keep my mouth shut and stay out of the break room. Sure enough, the teachers lounge or break room tended to be where the malcontents would spout off. I stayed in my classroom and kept my mouth shut. Worked out just fine.

  • avatar

    I like to buy cars.
    Have amany and looks like another one soon.
    I like reading what Karesh, Kriendler , Baruth or Mehta have to say as well as every reviewer on TTAC.
    I like a few writers at The Car Connection.
    I like a few other reviewers here and there as well.

    However…I do enjoy test driving.
    I drive my wife nuts because she knows I will often call her from somewhere and it is exactly what I have been doing….going to a dealer and test driving a new model I have yet to experience.

    A poster here on a previous posit said there is no such thing as having fun test driving, mostly because a salesperson is along for the ride.
    They don’t bother me at all…IF they even come at all.
    I am always surprised how often they just hand me the keys after copying my license.

    Everybody interested i a new purchase should do their homework.
    Check out your trusted reviewers and then test drive enough times to know exactly how you feel.

    My issue is not that I make a wrong purchase and suffer buyer’s remorse later.
    It’s just I fall in love with the next new issue and want to start all over again.

    Jay Leno…I hate you!!!!

  • avatar

    I’ve never met the woman, but I owe a thank you to Deanna Sclar for her book “Auto Repair for Dummies.”

    I grew up with a love of cars, but didn’t know anything about repairing them.

    Then I got one, and as it turns out, that first car was a complete POS. The joy of owning one quickly turned into frustration as it stranded me, time and time again.

    Ms. Sclar taught me to use it as a learning opportunity. I began to realize that the privilege of driving is accompanied by a responsibility to understand how the machine works.

    I don’t bother with my own repairs anymore, but just knowing something about the mechanical workings of cars has spared me quite a bit of money and frustration. At the very least, knowing about car repairs will prevent rip off artists from turning you into their own personal trust fund.

  • avatar

    From Pops:
    – Don’t buy European or pre-2008 American.
    – Don’t buy turbo.
    – Don’t buy a car with a sunroof.
    – Don’t buy a car with a black exterior.
    – At least learn to change your own oil and do it at least once in your life.

    Good advice or bad, I’ve never spent more than $400 for a repair / maintenance item on any car I’ve owned, or have had the car in a shop overnight.

    My newest acquisition has a sunroof, so we’ll see how that goes.

    On the other hand, my father has had the worst luck with cars – but only when he ignores his own advice. Despite diligent maintenance, almost every car he’s owned contrary to his own advice has required multiple $1500-$2000+ repairs before 60,000 miles (74 Fiat Spider, 89 Plymouth Reliant, 98 Passat, 99 Malibu, 02 Mazda Tribute).

  • avatar

    The movie Convoy “should’ve bought a black truck!”

  • avatar

    Nobody ever gave me any useful advice that I can remember. My late father-in-law had a very commodity based approach to cars which I admire but have failed to emulate. Since I don’t have any generic advice about cars I will relate some great specific advice about a car. Two weeks ago I ground the yellowed and pitted headlight lenses on my Jaguar S-type back to their former transparent glory and in the process I got abrasive compound all over the engine. After a prudent five minutes of trying to wipe it up with a rag and an imprudent but more productive five minutes hosing them off. I then parked the car in the garage and left for a weeks vacation in another vehicle.

    The Jag ran terrible the following week but I remembered the water treatment. I looked all over for compromised electrical connections and finally called my repair guy for an appointment.

    Rather than give me an appointment he said “you’ve got water in the spark plug wells. Idle the engine for half an hour and it will evaporate. You might have to do it a few times.” Then he hung up.

    It took more than a few times, but it worked. Now I can see at night and the engine runs fine. Thanks for the great advice.

  • avatar

    Best advice from my dad: If you can’t afford to crash your car then you have no business owning it.

    Worst advice from dad (in the 80s): Those Japanese overhead cam engines will never be reliable.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s classic (the part about Japanese OHC motors never being reliable).

      In an ironic twist, I remember a mechanically oriented friend talking about the pressure GM was feeling to go all overhead cam in the 80s (this was the advent of that original, silky smooth, NVH jewel of a motor designated Quad Four /s that debuted in the Pontiac Grand Am, IIRC) and how they were screwing it up then, and now looking back, GM has ‘pushrodded’ their pushrod motors to levels of fuel economy, power and in some cases, reliability (the 3.8 stands out as relatively bullet proof) that no one anticipated back then.

      And the 2012 Corvette Z06 is still rockin’ a pushrod and smoking many more “modern” competitors.

  • avatar

    My father always said, when trying to sell a used car, try to show it at night, in the rain.
    When buying a used car, never buy one at night or in the rain.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    I am a United Methodist Minister. When I was fresh out of seminary on older, more experienced pastor told me, “before you buy a car, think about how it’s going to look in a funeral procession.”

    Here in the south the pastor usually leads the funeral procession, so you don’t want to be driving something too flashy or tasteless.

  • avatar

    When I first moved to Colorado with a 2 wheel drive F150 a coworker and former ambulance driver gave me advice about driving in snow: It it OK to brake and OK to steer so long as you don’t try to do both at the same time. This turned out to be solid advice that saved my vehicle and possibly my ass on many occasions.

  • avatar

    The finest advice I ever received on driving was from dad. When learning to drive, he always counseled me to always know the width of your car and where the front and rear bumpers are when parking. That’s advice I passed on to my kids.

    Besides that, I received through the years all kinds of car advice, I processed the information, but did my own checking and still wound up with junk or near-junk several times.

    I find a car I like and my mind zeroes in on it. Fortunately, I’ve been correct in my perception more often than not.

    The few I’ve been wrong about? Wellllll…we won’t discuss that right now, but I did tell the account of the 1970 Duster on here and over on “Curbside Classic”. The single worst used-car buy ever.

  • avatar

    My Grandfather.
    “The more complicated it is, the more time and money you’re going to spend fixing it.”
    He was absolutely right. In my long history of beat up old cars the ones that have given me the most grief are those which have had electronic extras built in.

    • 0 avatar

      Much like the words of Howard, my best friend’s father when I was in high school. “Never buy an old luxury car. There are too many things to break that are not on a regular car, and even the stuff that is on regular cars costs lots more to fix.” He was right.

  • avatar

    (Steve, off topic, that was a great story. You’re an excellent story teller.)

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Thanks! You’re an excellent audience. Always a pleasure.

      • 0 avatar

        Steve I live in the city, are there any good massage parlors in Chinatown you can recommend? OK how about a good restuarant?

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        Tom, there are two restaurants in Chinatown and they are both across the street from each other.

        One is called Hop Ling, and the other is called Hop Sing.

        So if you want a nice lunch, you can either hop to one or the other.

      • 0 avatar

        Thank you Steve I will check them out for sure and get back to you.
        Thanks for the article, I picture you walking down Doyers, work the Bloody Angle in and keep the Chinatown stories coming.

  • avatar

    A few from my dad:
    Brand loyalty is nothing but voluntary brainwashing.
    Never buy the first of anything. Yeah a 64½ Mustang may have collectors value, but I also remember our neighbor who preordered his Dodge Aspen. I’ve mentioned before, he invented new cuss words to describe it.
    Change oil filters between oil changes. It costs a few bucks more, but no car ever failed because the oil was too clean.
    Brake, not downshift. Pads cost less than clutches or transmissions.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll second the notion that this is one finely crafted story. A very good piece of writing. Kudos to you Steven.
      And thanks. You have such a insightful, genuine and understated approach. You’re a nice counter-point to my other favorite TTAC writer—Baruth.

  • avatar

    I’ve never received any verbal advice, but I’ve watched some good examples.

    My dad: spend infrequently, and always below my means.

    Relatives: $$$German cars are a repair bill waiting to happen. Ditto for complex domestics like a loaded Caddy.

    Friends and associates: buying a special car will not make me special, and the buzz doesn’t last.

    On that last point, I’m reminded of a guy who splurged on an A4 specifically because he wanted a status boost, and very soon reported that he’s “just another A4 in a sea of A4’s.” Someone else who bought a hot car and felt like Superman found out he couldn’t drive it to its potential, and that there a lots of way hotter cars. (You should have seen his face as he told me that story. What a let-down.) A third who delighted in his BMW discovered that, at the new office, everyone and his dog had one.

  • avatar

    Don’t go looking for trouble because trouble will find you first…..

  • avatar

    My father the Ford Credit guy was the ultimate a car is an appliance kind of man. He did not give me any specific advice but I did learn how important it is for a working stiff to calculate the true cents per mile driven a car will cost you.

  • avatar

    My first boss told me that your engine will last indefinitely if you change the oil every 3000 miles and never let it overheat. I have followed this for 25 years since and it has held true.

    • 0 avatar

      True with one exception: 2000ish Mopar 2.7L V6. In some cases, these engines were REPLACED after 10-25k miles for sludge issues. WITH reg maintenance.

  • avatar

    Me through painful trial & error. Attacking by math first. What did I end up with @50? The TTAC worst new buy.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    A friend’ s father : Never buy an Australian wine , never buy an English car , and never eat at a place called “Moms ” .
    Stupid car advice from mother- in – law : ” Always buy a black car because black never goes out of style . ” Maybe good advice for some place , not so good if , like her , you live in Dallas with those typical summertime 100 degree temperatures .

  • avatar

    This one was from my dad-

    Here’s some context; he tosses me the keys to my first car, a very used and abused ’88 Nissan Maxima that was the former family car. He told me, “son, if your brakes go out, you can use the parking brake to stop.”

    Fortunately, I never had to use that nugget, but it kept the Maxima’s leaking brake master cylinder firmly in mind and I deligently kept a bottle of brake fluid in car should the pedal feel mushy. The car didn’t leak too bad, but it was my dad’s intent to keep me from getting complacent. It worked.

  • avatar

    My father: “We don’t buy German cars. Ever”
    Soon after, my mother started buying German cars. She never understands why she continually has warnings flashing on the dash, but never accepts they’re simply bad cars. All have been Audi and BMW.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    Being a service manager, but not ALWAYS having been one, I have heard advice from everybody about probably every car out there.

    Don’t buy Honda’s, they break their timing belts. (Not untrue).

    Don’t touch ‘dem Chevrolets, they catch fire.(Dateline NBC).

    Stay away from Vee-Dubs, they will leave you stranded.

    With as many cars as I have seen over the past 26 years in the repair business, I can tell you what recently produced used cars not to buy just by how many of them I see come in to my shop on a hook. YMMV.

    PT Cruiser-all of them. I see so many of these bastards come in for broken timing belts it is absolutely insane. NOBODY takes care of theirs it seems.

    Chevrolet Impala-3.5 V6. Head gaskets all the time. Last one was last Friday, had 76000 miles on it.

    Any vehicle with the 2.0-2.2L ecoTec engine (Cavalier-Saturn) and good gawd ANY Saturn Ion.

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