Friday, February 08, 2002

THE POST recently ran a story about how used cars have become more of a bargain. The anecdote my newspaper used to illustrate this point told of a couple who paid $31,000 for a two-year-old Lexus ES 300. Thirty-one thousand dollars for a used car. Not a new used car, but a two-year-old used car.

More to my point, not a spectacular and timeless used car -- a gull-wing Mercedes or a Porsche 911 of just about any vintage or even an early-'70s Pantera from the folks at Ford -- but an ugly, boring, mechanically solid but soulless hulk.

I do have some credentials as a car buff (the Pantera reference might have been a clue), but, believe me, I understand the reliability factor. For a kid who could name any car on the street at age 4 and dreamed of becoming a sculptor of Detroit sheet metal, I grew up to be a rather boring automotive consumer. The cars I've owned: Toyota, Honda, Toyota and Saturn. Only the Honda, a 1985 CRX, was new. I understand buying used.

But I don't get the Lexus thing -- at least not the plain-Lexus-sedan thing. I look at an ES, LS, whatever (they're too lazy to even give these things names) and I think of the utilitarian full-size Chevys of the early '60s as they must have looked in the early '60s. Today I look at a '62 or '63 or '64 or '65 Biscayne or Bel Air and I see something endearingly plain, with a Howard Roark-style dignity. (If I had the money and energy to collect classic cars I'd want the bare-bones Biscayne or maybe the standard-issue Bel Air. No fancy Impala for me. I want hub caps, not "wheel covers"; paint, not chrome.) At the time, though, there was no retro appeal. They would have struck me, I'm sure, as ugly, boring, mechanically solid but soulless hulks. At least the Biscayne and Bel Air. Maybe the Impala, with all that chrome, could have been worth some excitement worthy of the universally renowned '57 model or my favorites, the over-the-top finmobiles of '59 and '60.

I understand paying out the ass for a used vanilla Lexus even less than I understand buying a Rolex watch -- and I understand very little about the allure of Rolex watches. I do understand the snob appeal. When Jaz Paris was plastering magazines of the Details ilk with a simple ad depicting a striking brown-alligator-banded white-and-beige-faced, Roman-numeraled gold watch in the early '80s, I had to have that watch. It cost less than $200, but it looked better than anything Rolex has ever made. My current Fossil watch also looks like a million bucks to me, though it cost maybe $50. I like a little true value with my snob appeal, and if any snob appeal that I imagine is only in my head -- as it no doubt was with that relatively cheap Jaz watch -- so be it. The true value of a Rolex over a Timex or a Lexus over a Toyota is negligible; it's all about the snob appeal, the price tag, the envy.

If you want solid transportation at a decent-enough price, buy the Toyota. If you can afford it, buy the Ferrari. I can tolerate a lot of snobbery if it comes with a little taste. Me? I'm skipping over the Audi A4 I wanted three years ago and the Audi TT I wanted two years ago and making my first new car in 15-plus years the 2002 Mini Cooper S from BMW. Price tag? Not much, by today's standards. Snob appeal? I hope so, but whatever. True value? It's cute and fast and, as I understand it, handles like a dream. And British Racing Green goes nicely with the face of my Fossil watch.

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