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Stalled in South Africa

A Stranger in a Strange Land Just Wants to Do the Used-Car Hustle the Way They Do Back Home in America

March 04, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — If Australia is the land Down Under, South Africa is the land upside-down. Most everything here seems to be turned on its head.

It is summer in winter. Minorities are majorities. Men are called boys. "Thank you" means "No, thank you." Crime does pay.

But nothing is more topsy-turvy than the showrooms of South Africa's car dealerships. I learned this the hard way. I just bought two cars, and it was absolutely maddening. If there weren't so many shootouts among rival cab owners, I might consider traveling by taxi.

Despite my nagging, begging, cajoling and threatening, few salespeople were much interested in selling me a car or even pretending to be interested. Three months into my new job here, I experienced the strangest craving: I longed for a scheming American-style car salesman, a wheeler-dealer who cared enough about my business to hustle me out of my savings.

*

Owning a car in South Africa is an adjustment.

Motorists drive on the left and sit on the right. Trunks are called boots, and hoods are called bonnets. You fill the tank with petrol and use an aerial for the radio. Traffic signals are robots, as in, "You just ran a robot."

The man hailing you at the curb is not a parking attendant but expects payment anyway when you pull into a spot. So does the gas station attendant who washes your windows, dirty or not.

This all takes some getting used to. But first you need a car. And that is what brought me to some of the finest showrooms of Johannesburg.

*

I was in the market for two automobiles: I was replacing the office car, and I needed a family vehicle as well. I dealt only with authorized dealerships so I would have somewhere to turn if things went sour. To keep within budget, I focused on used cars.

A stranger in a new country, I walked into my first showroom expecting the worst. I was a sitting duck, a wide-eyed foreigner ready to unload tens of thousands of dollars on the first salesperson who outsmarted me. I talked myself through the scenario. I'm only looking. Don't be pressured.

As it turned out, no one paid me much attention. A lucky break, I thought. I can really look around. It wasn't luck at all but an infuriating pattern of indifference. In South Africa, you can walk into a car dealership and walk out barely noticed, let alone talked into driving off with your dream-mobile.

I know. I did it over and over again.

*

At one dealership in the city's richest suburb, my wife and I had a test drive. When we finished, the salesman walked off. No sales pitch. No enticing offer. Not even the threat that the car might be gone if we didn't buy right then. I had to chase after him just to get a business card.

I ventured into another showroom one Saturday morning near my home. I saw a used car my wife liked. Even the color was right. I went straight to the manager.

"Sorry, but we don't have what you are looking for," she said.

"But I saw it," I said.

"No," she replied.

"I saw it with my own eyes," I said.

"It is true," an eavesdropping salesman interjected. "It is the one I've been driving."

"It is not for sale," the manager said.

"You mean you won't sell me the car?" I asked.

"It is too new," she said. "You might as well buy a new one."

My telephone dealings were no better. I contacted half a dozen salesmen, explaining what I needed and how much I could spend. And that was it. I left repeated messages but got calls back days or weeks later. One of them finally arranged for me to see a car. The only catch: It was already sold.

Another complained that my persistence embarrassed him.

"I am supposed to be the one selling the car," he said.

Tell me about it.

*

I got very excited one day when I thought my streak of bad luck was over. I went to a dealership near my office, talked to a nice man named Richard and took a car for a test drive. Everything was going so well that I asked my wife to take it for a spin and even paid $50 to have the auto club mechanic look it over.

There were a few problems, but nothing major. The most serious concern was some repainting on the right side; the car apparently had been involved in a minor accident. Richard claimed to know nothing about it but indicated he could be flexible in closing a deal. Well, that's what I thought he meant anyway.

After standing silently in the lot for what seemed an eternity, I finally suggested we go inside. When we took our seats at his desk, Richard didn't utter a word. Ahhh, I thought, he is waiting for me to make the first move.

So I hemmed and hawed about the repainting and came in 10% below the asking price.

Oh my, was Richard's response. The dealership would lose money. He pulled out the blue book and his invoices. Now this is a familiar scene, I thought; finally a script that I can follow!

But it all went wrong. Richard made no counteroffer. What about the accident? I asked. Could we meet halfway? Richard consulted his manager. No.

I am paying cash, I reminded him. Money in your pocket. Today.

Tsk, tsk, was the reply.

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