For my entire life, car dealerships have always brazenly offered deals they’ve never intended to uphold. My personal experience with a deal was so sweet I was destined to cave to the temptation.The first time I saw one of those early morning TV spots offering brand new Chevrolets for $79 a month, I knew it was a fantasy. It first began with a stunning illusion: the attractive woman sporting the maroon dress and infectious smile pulled my eyes away from my open sock drawer. Her sweeping gestures, her open hands, the way her eyes reflected the withering glow of the Klieg-lights…all of it served its purpose. For “Joseph Blow” Chevrolet, the “attractive model spokesperson” budget was money well spent. But the end of the ad came with fine-print, and selling cars is a pastime made for fine-print.
My first car was pretty unremarkable, but my second ride was a Chevy—a 1980 Camaro. It rattled and creaked everywhere. The headliner wilted during the summer of ‘88’s oppressive heat and fell into the back seat. I had to rebuild the motor with my dad and uncle after throwing a piston-rod (actually I scraped dirt and grease off the block and valve covers while they rebuilt the motor…but I did watch). The overloads clamped onto the leaf-springs worked against the worn struts and shocks to give it the smooth ride you’d feel crossing Colorado in a Conestoga wagon. But for all its faults, it was such a cool car. The burned out glass-packs gave its dual exhaust system that idling warble—the kind that says “a warrior drives this machine.” I loved that car.
I grew up for my second Chevy and bought an ’89 Cavalier with a leaking trunk and a turn-signal which often shorted out my cruise-control. A decade later I went back to the brand for a 2000 S-10 powered by a four-banger that would have struggled to get a push-mower moving down a steep hill covered in green porch carpet. And following my divorce I turned to Chevrolet once more, this time buying a ’06 Cobalt with a loose pin in the gear shifter—causing the lever to lock up. After taking off the console three times to jiggle it back into place, I finally said “to hell with it” and cut “access panels” on each side so that I could reach in, snap it into place, and be on my way.
I knew I wasn’t getting $79 a month. I knew the fine-print was etched onto the bottom of the screen for a reason, and I further knew it read that the only people actually eligible for $79 a month were Medieval Saints and hall-of-fame quarterbacks. But I at least figured I’d get a cheaper payment.
During my final months with the Cobalt, I would drive my fiancé’s Toyota and think, “I need to change brands.” Brand loyalty, I realized is a psychological phenomenon, rooted in the same sort of primitive thinking that convinced the ancients that sprits lived in trees. It’s emotional, illogical, and only a complete idiot would go back for another Chevrolet. That must be why I went to “Joe Blow’s” and traded in the Cobalt for a new Cruze.
Mechanically speaking, however, a funny thing happened on my way home from “Joe Blows”: the car became my favorite one ever. Unmarried with mostly grown kids, I was going through my weird Kevin Spacey moment from American Beauty (minus the stalking cheerleader and the gunshot wound to the head). Consequently I latched onto a 6-speed stick-shift. I figured that since my first car had been a stick, as well as two more in the years that followed, it would be fun to be “actively driving” again. And it was. Dropping down into fifth-gear at high speeds to make a pass filled up my head with Indy racing daydreams. I was Helio on a road course. Furthermore, the roads heading east and west out of my home town were notorious for their tight-winding curves and narrow straightaways. Nearing a curve in sixth…clutching out…then slipping into fourth while powerfully goosing the engine made boring trips to the mall moments I would stand in the garage and excitedly look forward to. It was my favorite car ever.
There was one small problem, however. The payment.
After a monumental back-and-forth game of “telephone” between me and my sales rep…then between him and his manager…then between his manager and the finance rep…then back to me—I drove home owning a little over $100 more than I had paid for the old car. Like I said: I knew I wasn’t getting $79 a month. I knew the fine-print was etched onto the bottom of the screen for a reason, and I further knew it read that the only people actually eligible for $79 a month were Medieval Saints and hall-of-fame quarterbacks. But I at least figured I’d get a cheaper payment.
That higher payment itself was never a critical issue. I made them all, never missing a single one. Watching early morning television, however…that was awful. For the next three years, I got up every morning, and I’d stand over that sock drawer watching that same good-looking model giddily announce that “Joe Blow” was offering my car for $79 god-damn dollars a month. For three years, I scoffed, grunted, and sulked into the kitchen for my coffee.
As my lease neared its end, my thought process was simple: The Cruze was my favorite car ever. I didn’t want to haggle with “Joe Blow” or any dealer for that matter. I wanted my car and lower payment. My mind was made up when “Joe Blow’s” team called me. I was going to politely decline, head to my bank, get a loan on the residual, and be happy.
“But you’re payment history looks very good,” Blow’s rep told me over the phone. “It looks here like you’re eligible for…”
Please don’t say it, I thought to myself. Pleading.
“…$79 a month,” she concluded.
Cue the deep sigh. I knew better the moment she uttered those words. I knew the offer was a myth. But this time the pretty model wasn’t telling me this. This time it was someone who was there. She couldn’t lie to me if she was actually there…right? Grunting as if I were standing over my heap of socks, I cleaned up the Cruze and headed to “Joe Blow’s.”
Two hours later, most of it spent sitting at a cheap display-room lunch table between a Malibu and new Camaro, my sales rep approached me. He had a great deal for me: Only $20 more than I’d paid for the last three years. In my head, the pretty model’s voice rang out, “Seventy-nine dollars a month!”
I didn’t buy my old car from the bank. I actually drove off “Joe Blow’s” lot with new car. Another stick-shift. Another Cruze. Another Chevy. Brand loyalty.
I did leave with a lower payment—five dollars lower than my bottom-line number and almost $60 lower than my old payment. But it remained light years away from that dream the pretty girl dangled in front of me every morning while I tried to figure out if I was wearing brown or black socks with my green chinos. I suppose somewhere out there, some “Joe Blow” customer really is paying $79 each month for her Chevy Cruze. But given that it’s only the case because she once saved an entire village of sick and dying by using magic to make dry creeks beds fill up with water—then it’s at least well-earned.