COAL: 1985 Buick LeSabre Limited – Chapter 20, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

This begins a really odd chapter in my car ownership experience.  Or maybe we should say “another” really odd chapter.  It began with a harebrained idea.  You know the kind – “Hey, what if I quit doing the normal kind of thing everyone else does and did something really unique that almost nobody does?”  And of course, my idea involved cars.

My ’68 Chrysler had been treating me well.  Better, in many ways, than the much newer Club Wagon.  On which I was making substantial payments and was having more service issues than I had been expecting.  Hmmm, I wondered, if one old car is good, wouldn’t two old cars be better?  Why not sell the van and get a second older car?  A really nice one that would be presentable and reliable.  And wouldn’t have a big dent in it.

I think back now and realize that my aversion to car payments is something I have carried my entire life.  For some, a monthly payment for a car is a lifestyle – something as non-negotiable as rent or a mortgage or health insurance.  I only made it halfway through the payment book of my first new car before I sold it and bought a 20-year-old Plymouth sedan for cash.  Although I kept up on the payment book that came along with the 88 Honda I had married – that one wasn’t really negotiable.

By this time in my life I was self-employed with an income that could swing fairly wildly from month to month.  After my office move I was presented with a different set of incentives from before.  Before that move I got a a fixed monthly check – the highs and lows among five partners evened out and allowed these regular draws.  But now it was just me.  I carried a fixed monthly overhead that I needed to cover, and I got what was left over.  When I worked on other peoples’ files I got a percentage of the bill after the client paid.  Most of these files were what we call “insurance defense” – where we defend the guy who gets sued after an accident but are hired and paid hourly by the insurance company.

The twist was that I now got 100% of the billings on my own files.  I had brought with me about two dozen things called “subrogation” files that had been given me during the firm breakup.  These were cases where my insurance company client had paid out on a claim caused by someone else’s fault – be it an uninsured driver who caused an accident or a careless plumber or electrician whose carelessness caused water or fire damage.  My job would be to go after the at-fault party so my client could be reimbursed, and my fee would be a percentage of those collections.  I had a knack for these files and soon had one client who started sending me as many as I could handle (and sometimes more).  Because I kept it all, this work was more lucrative for me and I started working it harder.  Now, instead of fairly steady monthly billings based on my time, I was on the lawyer’s equivalent of straight commission.  The months I could settle a nice fire case would be fabulous, but when none of those came through and I was left with the small monthly payments from the uninsured drivers, good budgeting skills became important.

Think of all the money I could save without that monthly car payment!  With Mrs. JPC as a stay-at-home mom and with Catholic school tuition getting started, the bucks were not stretching like they formerly did.  Ditching the van payment seemed like a great idea – and certainly more practical than ditching children, which is quite illegal.  And it was spring, so my car-fever was kicking up.  But if I were to get rid of my van, with what should I replace it?

Two options soon crossed my path.  Day after day I drove the kids to school in the mornings.  Every one of those days I passed a dark metallic red Mercury Colony Park wagon that looked really nice.  I knew it was from the later 80’s, given its slight attempts at aerodynamic updates.  It had the full paneling package, the alloy turbine wheels and looked really, really nice.  With the unpleasantness of the 5.0/AOD powertrain from my ’85 Crown Vic having receded into the far back part of my mind (and because turbine-style wheels make everything better), I vowed to take a closer look.

The other option came from my office.  The senior lawyer there had just bought a new car for his wife.  After much agony, they opted not to buy one of the Buicks that had long been their favorites and bought a new Toyota Buick Avalon, instead.  This was probably around 1996, which made her old car about 11 years old.  It was a 1985 Buick LeSabre Collectors Edition coupe.  It had racked up a bit over 100k miles, but if you looked up the word “meticulous” in the dictionary, their family picture would have been there.  Everything these people owned was exceptionally well cared for, so I had no doubt the Buick would be a good car.  Yes, the Buick was a 2-door, but with a Chrysler Newport that could easily handle three kiddie seats in back, a 2-door was something I could work with.

After calling Mr. Mercury and getting some info (including a price that was higher than I wanted to pay) I went to look at it.  I was going to be ready with one of my longtime negotiating moves.  I went to the bank and withdrew the amount of cash that would be the most I would be willing to pay, and put it in my pocket.  This was good for bargaining and also protected me from my weakness of getting carried away and paying too much money for a car I should walk away from.

The Mercury was very nice, but had extremely high mileage (to me at the time) – something approaching 200k.  The man was a salesman who drove for his job which regularly took him to two or three states.  He had done some recent maintenance that had been fairly pricey, like full brakes and new tires, and probably a couple of other things I no longer recall.  I went into the evening with the Mercury as the favorite, but was put off by the miles and also by the squeaks and rattles which the high-mile station wagon exhibited.  I was also reminded that the driving experience was a lot more like my Crown Vic than my late lamented Marquis Wagon (the smaller one, like a Fairmont).

“It’s a nice car” I began, after I returned to his house following a test drive “But . . . ”  I ticked off the things that I found wanting.  I made an offer that was well below his asking.  He came down a little, and then I hit my cash limit.  “Here’s the deal” I said – “I have $X (whatever that amount was, I no longer recall) in my pocket.  That’s my top dollar, and if it’s not enough for you, I understand and won’t be insulted.  I am going to look at another car anyway.”  He hung tough and said my offer was not enough, given what he had just put into the car.  Had I been selling instead of buying, I might have agreed with him.  Anyway, we shook hands and I headed for Larry’s house to look at the Buick.

I got there after dark, and took a short test drive.  It was about as pretty as these ever got (because the 2 door B body Olds and Buick of 1980-85 was never very attractive to me).  Visually, this car was an awful lot like the best parts of my Crown Victoria.  The outside was navy blue with a navy landau vinyl roof, and inside was lots and lots of navy blue velour.  The car had the Buick fake wires (instead of the road wheels I wished it had), good tires, and everything was working as it should.

I noticed immediately that GM’s theory of how a 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive should work was far more pleasant to drive than the Ford version I had so despised.  I also noticed how the car felt so much larger and heavier than my old Crown Vic, which had felt light and nimble in comparison.  But hey – isn’t a Buick supposed to feel like a big, heavy car?  Larry’s price was fair (less than the money I had in my pocket, in fact) and I bought a car.

As I was driving it home, my recently purchased cell phone rang.  “Hi” came the voice on the other end. “We talked earlier this evening about my Mercury station wagon. I’ve thought it over, and I think maybe I would be willing to accept your offer.”  I can report that one of the most smug, self-satisfied conversations a fellow can have is when he gets to respond – “Gee, I wish I we could have done that when I was there, but I have already bought the other car.  Sorry.  It’s a nice car and I’m sure it will find a buyer.”  “But that buyer won’t be me” was the part I left unsaid, because that would have just been mean.  Two of us had a car that evening – I had my new Buick and that guy still had his old Mercury.

That is really the most interesting part of the story.  I advertised my van at a fairly stiff price but didn’t really get any serious bites on it.  I drove the Buick a handful of times.  The biggest problem with the car was at the office.  One of the secretaries there had worked for Larry for quite a number of years and was more than a little peeved that I had bought the car.  She felt she should have been offered the chance because her husband was looking for a car, and she believed that I had swooped in and bought it out from under her.

Her dissatisfaction had become quite clear at about the three week mark in my ownership.  She was tactful, but I still detected a bit of a chill in the air.  I decided that 1) selling my van and replacing it with a 10+ year old 2 door Buick was – let’s go with not the best idea I had ever had, 2) I didn’t want to nourish ill feelings from a staffer at work who was both a great person and a great secretary, and 3) I wasn’t really in love with the Buick anyway.  It was nice, and all . . . .  I really loved the triple navy blue color and the extra luxurious “Collectors Edition” trim.  The Buick’s dash was the nicest of that generation of B/C body, too.  But all in all, the car left me sort of lukewarm.

“Hey” I said to her one morning.  “Is Mike still looking for a car?  I have thought things over, and if he wants to look at the Buick I would be open to selling it to him for what I paid.”  Mike came, looked it over, found it acceptable, and he bought the Buick.

I had owned that car for three weeks.  I had never gotten around to registering it.  I had not washed it, had not cleaned or fixed anything on it, and had not even put gas in it.  It was the shortest I ever owned a car, and until writing this I had forgotten that I had taken these photos.  I didn’t make any money on it, but didn’t lose any either, and was a win-win. Mike got his car, our secretary felt listened-to and appreciated, and I went back to my previously scheduled life in terms of the cars we were driving (and that monthly payment on the van).

After my six months with a ’63 Cadillac while still a teenager, I had managed to avoid another GM immersion and I put that day off for awhile longer.  Buick’s advertising from the 1960’s asked the question “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?”  I had been presented with that question, mulled it over, and answered “No, not really.”  At least the list of car brands I had not owned was reduced by one.  Buick – I hardly knew ye.  But was pretty ambivalent during the brief time I did.