Poor Prior Pre-Purchase Planning Promotes Pao Problems

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poor prior pre purchase planning promotes pao problems

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):

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:

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn
David "Piston Slap Yo Mama" Sanborn

A TR6, a 1949 Beetle formerly belonging to Kraftwerk's Florian Schneider, a Z32 300ZX and a Nissan Pao are currently in the stable. I dig Moondog, Felix Laband and MC Chris. Anyone who defends Ashli Babbitt, the J6 insurrection or Putin is a human butt plug, looking at you JB.

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3 of 38 comments
  • -Nate -Nate on Sep 09, 2016

    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 . -Nate

  • 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. http://bringatrailer.com/2016/09/15/bat-auction-success-story-commenter-inspection-leads-to-perfect-944-purchase/ Still no refund btw. Another week and I'll spill the beans.

    • DubTee1480 DubTee1480 on Oct 17, 2016

      Out of curiousity, what happened here? I've had a tab open in Chrome watching for an update :)

  • MaintenanceCosts So there is no Sonata trim without some type of Theta engine.It seems like they've been doing a bit better when attached to a hybrid system, so that's probably the one to get, but they're going to have to go several years without further engine troubles before I'd trust a H/K ICE product again.
  • Lou_BC Full sized sort of autonomous RC's. Cute.
  • Art_Vandelay Autonomous capabilities are being deployed (or planned anyway) in multiple combat vehicles. Should be fun from my perspective
  • Drew8MR Interior is trivial now you can get repro everything in various levels of quality. Getting the top sorted will be a couple grand, but I'd drive it as it. I drove a $1500 67 GTO convertible for 20 years, not every old car needs to be like new.
  • John Not everyone pays that much for power. Mine is 10 cents per kw…..