By on September 7, 2016

Montu Pao

Some cars seem to excite a primordial part of our lizard brain, prompting us into ill-advised purchases.

A brother of mine once bought a Pantera sight-unseen, based on eBay thumbnail photos and boundless faith in his fellow man to Do The Right Thing. The De Tomaso rust bucket that arrived on a flatbed a month later might as well have been the trash can that Mookie heaved through Sal’s window in a fit of pique.

Hard-headedness must be genetic. I also stepped on the same metaphorical rake in the shape of an engine swapped Honda Insight, its K20a drivetrain from a JDM Acura RSX-R being the siren song that lured my ship onto the rocks … but that’s a tale I’ll save for another day. As a result, I’ve resolved to stop being a ready-fire-aim kinda guy: from now on, when buying distant cars, I’m getting a pre-purchase inspection.

Now my eccentric fiancée has her heart set on a 1989-91 Nissan Pao, a car that has graced these hallowed pages before.

It’s one of the quirkiest cars ever conceived, having left Nissan’s Pike factory in Japan a quarter century ago as a limited edition boutique exercise in design that’s now eligible to emigrate to America. It’s a great compromise for anyone looking for modern amenities like air conditioning, three-point safety belts, and Japanese reliability, but with the polarizing aesthetics of a Citroën 2CV or Austin Mini Clubman Estate.

To our astonishment, Craigslist listed one Pao locally at Montu Motors, a local JDM importer, so we hustled over there. It showed early signs of a possibly leaking front main seal, age cracked tires, rattle-can-painted front bumper, sliding Webasto style sunroof that wouldn’t open, and air conditioning that wasn’t pulling its weight. We passed, but not before lingering lovingly over the other cars there, including the Pao’s Pike sibling, the Figaro, as well as a right-hand drive, third-generation 4WS Prelude and a Honda Beat. To be fair, it was a good-enough Pao for the price, but we felt we could do better.

Using the automotive addict’s best friend, we threw a wider net across the List of Craig with Search Tempest. There were two Paos in the Dallas area — one painfully advertised as “Hipster Car” with a front main seal leak and the other looking resplendent with low miles — but both were automatics. With 55 horsepower on tap and just enough torque to unscrew a pickle jar, it’s best to row your own gears in the Pao.

One Pao met our criteria in Maryland: manual, reasonable price and no mention of mechanical maladies. Unlike most Craigslist sellers, my call was immediately answered and the guy was personable. I asked the usual questions about its faults, how he imported it, and the other cars in his stable. He agreed to send better photos than the low resolution ones from the ad. I specifically asked for shots that included the undercarriage, rockers, and suggested he post them to Flickr or Picasa. Three days elapsed without any photos, so I prompted him again. Perplexingly, he sent these three (artfully edited together for brevity):

Nissan Pao Bad Repair

More emails were exchanged, mostly of the disbelieving kind: Is that the “after” shot of the repair? Can you please send the promised photos?

Another three days elapsed with no photos. I called the seller and he stonewalled, saying, “I don’t need to send photos. It’s great! You should fly up here and drive it home. You’ll love it!” and so on.

I should have walked away at this point, but I had an imaginary ace up my sleeve: I’ll buy a pre-purchase inspection (PPI).

Sometimes we need a proxy to do things we either lack the skills to accomplish or because of restraints of time and place that prevent us from doing a task ourselves. This is great in theory, not so hot in reality.

My due diligence picking a car inspection company was akin to that one might do selecting someone to haul a tree limb from the backyard: I chose the first company that answered their phone.

My call to CarChex got routed to its voicemail system. I left a message and moved on. (CarChex never called back — not even after calling them again days later and leaving another message). My next call was to [REDACTED] Inspections. They answered the phone, thus possessed the qualifications to take my money. I asked specifically whether they could perform a compression check (no) and if their mechanic was ASE certified, which they didn’t know but promised to get back to me with an answer.

Days later, with no additional photos from the Pao’s seller and no return call from [REDACTED] Inspections, I called them and again was assured they’d check on the ASE status. I decided to throw caution to the wind and use them. I specifically requested photos of the undercarriage and suspension mounting points and he consented. The fee of $199 unexpectedly increased by $51 when the age of the car was mentioned. Undeterred by throwing our money away, I paid with a debit card and awaited his return call on the ASE question — a call that never came.

A few days later, a PDF inspection report arrived — that was primitive by 1996’s standards — containing potato-camera photos and colored dots that raised more questions than answers. The report, a metaphorical trash can of unclickable links, embedded error codes, and overly simplistic dots was nine-pages long with each page averaging less than one-third full. Some pages barely held a few lines of data. I’ll post a few excerpts here for the B&B to poke with a stick:

Nissan Pao report sample error

Unclickable links and a programming error.

The green/black/red dots represent “present”, “not present” and “problem”, a system better suited to ordering sushi than inspecting cars. Minimal text was added by the inspector, which I present in its entirety:

Nissan Pao report sample

Maki Roll, Nigiri or Sashimi?

From the report:

Overall, the vehicle is in fair condition. Given its age it is in pretty good condition. There was some rattling while driving the vehicle. Could not locate the source, but it was pretty consistent. The interior of the car is in very good condition. The vehicle started up quickly and all fluids were clean. No major leakage or seepage was observed at the time of the inspection.

(4 issues:) The trunk hatch holders do not hold. Scratch on front bumper; one and one half inch-more like a scrape. Two small areas on hood. Leaf marks. Poor rust repair by owner on the driver side door well.

Nissan Pao inspection photo

Simultaneous overexposure and underexposure: check.

The more I looked at the PPI, the more underwhelmed I felt. My expectation was $250 paid to a professional would produce, at minimum, the same quality I’d produce as an amateur. I needed the inspector to be my eyes and ears, and I expected large and detailed photos befitting the technology of 2016.

Nissan Pao inspection photo

Blurry, sideways seat: check.

All photos received were about 740 px x 740 px and compressed to about 60 KB each. They’re blurry, washed out, and suggest the inspector pointed his potato at random things to get 50 photos, some of which were duplicates. My cellphone (LG G4) takes photos at 5,300 x 3,000 at ~7 MB — more than 100x more detailed than the ones I paid $250 to receive. For perspective, my phone takes 16-megapixel images, but what I received were 1/2 of one megapixel. Despite specifically asking for photos of the undercarriage and floor pans, all photos received were topside.

Nissan Pao inspection photo

Foot: check.

Anyone needing pointers on inspecting a prospective used car purchase should read what Consumer Reports has to say on the subject. My disappointment was that [REDACTED] Inspections failed to meet my expectations or the minimal standards of Consumer Reports. Additionally, there were discrepancies between the report and what the owner said.

  • Trunk Seals: “The trunk hatch holders do not hold” – Does this mean struts? This car has a tailgate that swings down and glass that swings up. Which one has the issue and how?
  • Interior: “Leather” – Is it? The owner says the interior is vinyl.
  • Gauges: Green Dot – The owner said some don’t work, others are intermittent. Did every switch/lever/gauge/button work?
  • Miles: 131,012 – Is this kilometers or miles?
  • Rust: Red Dot – Is one blurry shot of the door repair the extent of the rust evidence? The seller did not see the inspector check the car with a magnet. Did he check the length of the rocker panels, sills, and fenders for bondo? I shudder at the thought of buying a shiny-rust time bomb.
  • Radiator Holding Pressure: Green Dot – Was this the result of a radiator pressure test or an opinion rendered after a 10 minute test drive on a cool day?
  • Engine Oil Leaks: Green Dot – Does this mean a bone-dry engine bottom and a clean front main seal? It’s easy to photograph the front main seal area, which didn’t happen.
  • Engine Starting: Green Dot – Was this a cold start or warmed-up before it was started by the inspector? That could tell a larger story. Did it start on the first bump of the key?
  • Engine Coolant: Green Dot – What color was the coolant? Was there any sign of oil in the water that would indicate a head gasket issue? “All fluids were clean” is too broad. Why is there no checkmark box for oil condition? Photos of both fluids would be ideal.
  • Transmission Fluid Condition: Green Dot – Did the inspector unbolt the manual transmission drain plug to check this?
  • Signs of Tobacco: Green Dot – Are there any odors in the car: body odor, gasoline or mold?
  • Radio: Green Dot – Does the stereo work fully? Do all the speakers function?
  • Suspension Ride: Green Dot – This car has been lowered, which can be a deal-breaker. Is the ride back-breaking or normal? Do the shock absorbers bounce? If a bounce test was done, did the car bounce once or more? Regarding wheel bearings, tie rods and suspension bushing issues, didthe inspector physically tug these to note play, preferably on a jack, or did he just drive around for a few minutes?
  • Air Conditioning: Green Dot – Did it blow cold or just blow? Most shops put a thermometer in a vent and note the temperature. I sold an Insight recently, which on a blistering Texas summer day blew 39 degrees at the vents. A poorly performing A/C is an expensive problem.
  • Heater: Green Dot – Again, how hot? Was it a hot day to begin with?
  • Tires: 11/32″ – Depth is half the equation. Did he run his hand over the tires to detect cupping (caused by previous bad alignment), which manifests as a loud whirring sound when driving? Did he look for age cracks?
  • Frame: Green Dot – Does this mean no previous accident damage repair was found?

Not on the report, but should be:

  • Is tailpipe residue black and greasy or dry and dark grey?
  • What’s the history of the timing belt?
  • Are the factory tools and jack present?
  • What is the condition of the floor under the carpet?
  • Is there rot in the storage well under the spare tire?
  • Were there oil drips or red or green fluid on the pavement beneath the car?

For those wondering why I refer to them as [REDACTED] Inspections: they have me over a barrel. I requested a refund over a month ago, which they made contingent upon my signing a nondisclosure agreement regarding their buffoonery. I grudgingly agreed. Meanwhile, I promised our benevolent rulers at TTAC I’d have this story regarding my PPI, stat. So now, after weeks of thumb-twiddling and excuse-making, I’m omitting the company’s name but otherwise write this warning for you, the B&B, to heed: do your research before hiring a PPI company to do your dirty work. Meanwhile, my refund is still AWOL. If no refund, expect the [REDACTED] to vanish.

It’s clear now why there’s usually a comment on Bring a Trailer that reads, “Hey, I live close to this. If you want, I’ll go check it out.” I don’t scoff at those anymore. If no good samaritan is available, here are a few alternatives to [REDACTED] Inspections, in no particular order:

Car Chex Inspections: Hopefully you won’t get voicemail and if so, hopefully they’ll call you back. Are they ASE certified? Maybe.

WeGoLook Inspections: Definitely not ASE certified. An instructive chat with Jacob revealed that it sends a photographer “lay person” to take pictures of the car. The person is not a mechanic and doesn’t drive the car, but he or she does start it and “listens for unusual noises” if that’s any comfort. WeGoLook is comparatively cheap compared to its rivals, but the service it offers is quite limited. The example inspection report they offer contains images so high in resolution that the metallic glitter on the Audi TT is obvious, though it doesn’t standardize photo equipment or resolution, so take the example report’s quality with a grain of salt.

Automobile Inspections: Could be the best option. Its FAQ is reassuring, though the No Refunds policy does not promote much confidence. Caveat Emptor.


To be fair, the seller of the Pao was likely sincere in his repeated affirmations that it was exactly as described. As far as I know, it’s still on the market and might make someone a happy Pike Factory owner. We’ll never know the ineffable reason why sending better photos was impossible, but my instinct is towards skepticism so I walked away.

Meanwhile, we’re continuing our search for the right car. Time’s on our side for this discretionary purchase, rather than the rush one feels when their one-and-only daily driver car coughs up a head gasket. That said, we’ve got a solid and excellent lead on a local car that I think my partner will like, no inspection necessary. Stay tuned.

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38 Comments on “Poor Prior Pre-Purchase Planning Promotes Pao Problems...”

  • avatar

    Now my eccentric fiancée has her heart set on a 1989-91 Nissan Pao…

    Wow she’s a rare breed indeed. Not many people in the USA even know that car existed let alone have a desire to own one.

  • avatar

    At least they picked the right saint.

    /lost causes

  • avatar

    I am an unashamed Nissan fan… the old school Nissan from that period of 1984 to about 2002 although my bent is obviously towards the Skyline GT-R however I find these Nissan cars, the Pao and the S-Cargo to be the whimsy and flights of fancy that make Nissan almost human at the time. Nissan were losing money then so one wonders why they would make not one, not two but three of these retro cars.

    You can still see the DNA of the Pao and S-Cargo in the Cube. Its not quite gone just yet.

    Nissan is now a sea of CUVs and SUVs with too much French parentage but not that long ago, they specialised in rwd sports cars and modern art called the Pao and the Pike cars.

  • avatar

    I had a PPI done on 944 s I was thinking of buying and also on a saab vert I did buy each time I went to the forums of each make and asked who they used and choose from there, each report was pretty detailed, I passed on the 944s and still have the Saab, I am all in favor of someone local checking out the car as part of your gaining info.

  • avatar

    What you’re saying is that you need a ppi on your potential ppi company?

  • avatar

    “Poor Prior Pre-Purchase Planning Promotes Pao Problems”

    Please, don’t “pop” your “P”s.

    • 0 avatar
      David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

      I submitted that headline knowing the crack editorial staff would scoff at it and replace it with something / anything better. What do I know?

  • avatar

    This shameful hipster relic deserves torching but more figuratively and effectively than Derp Yokel in the photo is doing it.

  • avatar

    Had 3 experiences buy cars site unseen:

    First was a 1946 Nash 600 I bought from a guy in the Nash Club for $4500. He was in WA and me on the east coast. Car arrived as described with a treasure trove of spare parts in the trunk. Cost me about $800 to ship. I was able to sell it for $6200 when I got bored of it.

    Second was a 1975 Pinzgauer 710m. Bought it on ebay from a guy about 7 hours away. I paid him, got the title and registered it, then went down there with the plates and drove it home. Not an easy drive, but worth it. It was better than described. Ended up making a nice profit when I sold that too.

    Not me, but my brother, bought an 85 Mustang GT convertible from Texas. Was owned by a body shop and had been repainted. Car was as advertised as well, and considering how rusted our Fox body mustangs can be up here, ended up being a great deal.

    That being said, the 1973 Jeep CJ5 I own now I picked up locally but was an ebay buy from the west coast by the PO. This thing is a basket case that they tried to make seem presentable. I am pretty sure he got taken on this one, but whatever I got a good deal on a west coast Jeep with a V8 so I cant complain myself.

  • avatar

    The minute a seller gets screwy is the minute I quit, no rare car is worth the hassle.

    Volvo 940t: I questioned a very odd third hatch hinge that had been added in the cars life, a “kid did it”, despite the car being dealer owned then driven by the sellers father. Magically the seller cant locate the title.

    Volvo 740t: I question why the car smokes when started in the morning, title magically goes missing (different seller same excuse). Promises to hold car til he finds the title then sells it anyway.

    Infiniti G20: Dunno if it was rust or what I asked, seller abruptly rushed his words and hanged up.

    Probably about a dozen others Ive forgotten, lots of sellers get nervous at my questions!

    • 0 avatar

      Oh yes, just remembered what may have been the worst ofender:

      Volvo 240: Had an alarming rust hole in the rear rocker panel shown in the pics on the ad, asked the seller about this, the seller quit responding, removed the picture, and jacked the price from about $1100 to $2000 iirc.

      In other words, my simple observation increased that cars value by $900!

  • avatar
    Don Mynack

    Thing looks like a death trap.

  • avatar

    That seller threw about three red flags that you barreled right through.

    I’ve bought one car, and put down a deposit on one other car, sight unseen. In both cases I grilled the sellers and they did a nice job responding to my questions. I’ve turned down many others when they were flaky.

    The ’95 Acura Legend with 186,000 miles but an incredibly detail-conscious first owner was exactly as advertised. I bought it for $2700 and had it shipped from Sandpoint, Idaho to Seattle with no inspection. An EGR cleaning (required maintenance on Legends), a timing belt/water pump, a set of spark plugs, and some rear control arms later, it looks near-new and is ready for another 100,000 miles.

    The ’08 Lexus LS460 was just as pretty as it looked in the very high-res photos, but had bad front control arms (a common malady on early LS460s, but not usually at 43,000 miles). Can’t really fault the selling dealer for not noticing or disclosing that as the signs are very subtle given the isolated nature of the car.

    But if the seller acts the slightest bit flaky, stop and don’t go any further.

    • 0 avatar

      But lust can make a person blind to many things, like all those red flags.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, if a sellers flaky just wait for the next car, there will always be a nicer deal out there for patient.

    • 0 avatar

      My nice service writer at slanted L says the newer LS460’s eat front control arms too. His estimate was 80-120k miles, so yours was early. Not slowing for speed bumps or too many rough RR Xing’s on the commute maybe?

      • 0 avatar

        So far, at least judging by the lack of voluminous forum posts, the post-2011 cars haven’t had the same volume of premature failures. There was a new design late in the 2010 model year which was installed on new cars from the factory and provided as a replacement part for earlier cars. I spent the money to get the new-design OEM parts and will see how they work out.

  • avatar

    If you had paid [REDACTED] Inspections with a credit card, you could call your bank and claim their service was unsatisfactory. Your bank will would call the merchant in question, and if the merchant’s story is lacking, you get your money back. I have used this to un-screw myself several times; it’s a very satisfying experience.

    Dunno if this works for debit cards, but it’s worth a phone call to your bank to find out.

    Good Luck!

    • 0 avatar
      David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

      A few years back I tried to un-screw a bum deal paid with my debit card and discovered it provides different, i.e. crappier rights for the purchaser. I didn’t even try calling them this time.

      That said, perhaps it’s Bank Of America’s debit cards that are sub-optimal for post-purchase protection. YMMV.

  • avatar

    Just post the name. The warm and fuzzy feelings you’ll get from doing so will be worth the $250. Accept the loss as the cost of a valuable lesson.

  • avatar

    There are no inspection standardization for PPI, or which Technicians are qualified to perform a pre-purchase inspection. Only ASE Master Certified Technicians and Body & Frame Specialists are qualified to properly inspect EVERY mechanical, electrical, and frame systems. Mechanic

    Experience levels between Automotive Technicians very greatly and most Technicians specialize on one or more of the 8 general automotive areas. A PPI should be performed by a Technician that is certified on all 8 General Automotive Areas (ASE Master Tech) and have Body & Frame experience. Learn more at the non-profit consumer site UsedCarInspections.ORG

  • avatar

    always use a credit card so you can dispute charges.

  • avatar

    Hey David, good article. The thought of buying a used JDM, particularly a Honda Beat, has crossed my mind. But worries of parts availability, maintenance, and buying a lemon are factors which have dissuaded me. How is Montu Motors, as a company? Are they legit? Do they stand behind what they sell? Do they check the cars before selling them? Or are they like any used car dealer, with the usual caveat emptor?

    • 0 avatar
      David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

      I have no reservations about Montu Motors, but the Pao they were selling didn’t quite meet our standards for the price. Also a problem: despite my facility with right-hand drive manual transmission cars, they would not let me test drive it without first handing them a fist-full of dollars. I suspect they might offer a few day’s window for a refund if it turns out the vehicle has an undisclosed malady if you’re a good negotiator and it’s in writing.

      Re. buying a Beat, just do it. The internet makes parts easier to find, especially Yahoo Auctions Japan and there’s importers Stateside who can help.

  • avatar

    If a seller refused to answer -any- of my quite reasonable questions about the car, fully well knowing I was a long distance buyer – I’d walk. No excuse for that other than hiding something.

  • avatar

    People are weird, aren’t they?

    By way of contrast, in 2006 we sold the 1977 MGB roadster that my wife had bought long before we met, brand new as a daily (hah!) driver. It had gradually transitioned to being driven only on fine summer weekends, then hardly ever, and finally to being stored for a couple of years and counting. Time to find it a loving home.

    There’s not much market for specialist items like this in our small city in Indiana, so I put it up on eBay. I also prepared a pdf information packet describing the good (lots, like a brand new black leather interior, and a new roof) and less good (somewhat tired paint, a couple of minor dings, no speakers for the newer aftermarket radio) points of the car, complete with detailed, high quality photos. I used a disposable email address to send this to interested buyers.

    We settled a price with a guy who turned out to live just a couple of hours away up in Michigan. He and I spoke a couple of times on the phone and he asked if the MGB was in good enough shape to drive home. I told him yes, but that it had been through a few fuel pumps over the years so there was no telling if the present one would last another 5 years or 5 minutes. He decided to come down with a trailer.

    I detailed the car, and on a clear late spring day was just pulling up to our house in the MGB from getting some gas as the buyer arrived. He inspected and drove the car and found it not only as described, but better. He told me that over many years of buying cars from private sellers he always held back $500 of the price in another pocket, since he expected to find undisclosed faults — but not in this case. He paid the agreed price in crisp hundreds and I helped him get the MG loaded on his trailer. We got the sale we wanted, and he got everything he expected for the price and more.

    I just don’t understand why people play all these games — like a potential buyer isn’t going to notice the dented fender or the torn seats the seller didn’t tell them about?

  • avatar

    I can feel you here, David .

    I’ve bought a few E-Bay cars and gotten screwed every time (lied about the rust) yet I’m still willing to take a chance if I like what I see .

    I’ve only seen these Pao cars once or twice in the flesh, I think they’re way cool but not for me .

    If I wanted one, I’d maybe buy the nasty rust damaged one if the price wasn’t bad, I always figure I have to un screw up a lot of things on any old vehicle I buy .

    Let us know if you ever find one good enough to buy ~ I’d enjoy reading how it is to drive in America and fix up .


  • avatar
    David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

    As noted in the story, a Bring a Trailer commenter offered to do an inspection for a remote but interested party and it turned out well.
    Still no refund btw. Another week and I’ll spill the beans.

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