Used Cars
October 21st, 2012

Most people trade in their cars not because they’re worn out but because they’re dirty. It’s a fact, something I learned half a century ago when I worked as a certified used car reconditioning expert at Redd Motor Company in Price, Utah. My job was to take a vehicle and over the course of three days transfer all the dirt from the vehicle onto myself.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’ve gotten to the point where no amount of air fresheners appended to the rear view mirror can mask the odors of all the food you’ve spilled, all the kids and dogs you’ve transported, and however many dead sheep you’ve stowed in the trunk. So you swing by the dealership and trade the thing in on something that has that new car smell. While you are in the front office signing the paperwork, your trade-in becomes the centerpiece of a frantic scrum involving mechanics, grease monkeys, salesmen, the wash bay attendant, detailer—sometimes even the service manager. The first thing we do is pull the back seat in hopes of finding money.

Alas, what we mostly found were sticky Popsicle sticks, snack wrappers, lollipops, petrified caramel corn, mummified gum drops, buttons, bottle caps, drive-in theater ticket stubs, underwear and socks. Oh, once I remember distinctly we found condoms—this in a white 1960 Impala with red leather interior that had previously belonged to an attractive female bank teller. Had I found any loose change in THAT car, I can guarantee I would have returned it to its rightful owner!

Once the car has been thoroughly searched, it goes off to be steam cleaned. In our shop, the steam cleaning machine was housed in a separate building, far enough away so that in the likely event it should explode, the only casualty would be Tom Dickerson. By and by Tom would emerge from a greenish-yellow cloud, overalls dripping wet and eyeglasses fogged over. From the steam room, if the car should start—which it almost never did, thanks to wet spark plugs and condensation underneath the rotor cap—the car came to my bay, and for the next three days it was all mine.

There isn’t any part of a car that can’t be repainted. I’m talking engines, hoses, radiators, fender wells, trunk interiors, kick panels, floor mats and headliners. I had a paint for EVERYTHING, plus an arsenal of soaps and polishing compounds, lots of steel wool and rolls of something we called “sucker tape” with which one could “reupholster” cracked and torn arm rests. Add a coat or two of latex paint and it was almost as good as naugahyde.

After three days the car—now looking great and smelling good as new—went out to the used car lot to join the others. I took great pride in my work and considered those cars works of art. In fact, I was sad to see them go, albeit not nearly as sad as whoever bought one, after discovering later on that appearances can be deceiving.

Oh, here’s something else you should know in case you’re in the market for a used car. The really good ones don’t ever get detailed. Soon as it comes in, a salesman will latch onto it because he knows it’ll be an easy sell. And, best of all, no smell!

-Richard Menzies