By James R. Hood
ConsumerAffairs.com

June 28, 2004
Auto transporters are a rough-and-ready lot, as they're quick to tell you. The drivers affect an aging Hell's Angels persona and some of the managers we hear from are a few notches farther down the Miss Manners scale.

Though a small industry, the transporters certainly let you know they're around. We have probably received more obscene and, shall we say, colorful e-mail from auto transporters than from any other type of service provider.

In truth, many who call themselves transporters are really just brokers who do little more than take orders over the Web and try to match them up with independent drivers. This is a recipe for disaster, as the consumer has no idea who is hauling his car around the country. Most of the complaints in this section deal with brokers.

Thus, the first question to ask when interviewing transporters is whether they own and operate their own trucks.

One of the older and better known transporters is Passport Transport, a St. Louis-area company which started out moving classic cars for enthusiasts. The company is now owned by FedEx and has its own fleet of trucks equipped exclusively with closed trailers. It also has a customer list that includes many large corporations who regularly move their cars and people around.

Passport had earlier Passport Transport with our comments about auto transporters. So, when we decided to do a consumer test of auto transporters, we chose Passport as our guinea pig. As our test buggy, we stationed a Saab 900SE at a business address in Santa Monica, CA for shipment to a residential address in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

Cancellations

Many of the complaints on our site have to do with transporters keeping large deposits even though the car was never picked up. We first went through the scheduling process with Passport in April, then abruptly cancelled the pick-up a few days before it was scheduled, just to see what would happen.

In fact, nothing happened. The Passport rep cancelled the order without any protest and we were charged nothing. Passport doesn't charge your credit card until the vehicle is picked up, we were told.

The FedEx Connection

The week of May 24, we repeated the process. We went to the Passport Web site and requested a quote. We were given a quote ID number and told we would be contacted with a dollar amount.

A few hours later, we received an email quoting a door-to-door delivery price of about $1,800 -- roughly $700 more than a couple of other transporters had quoted. But, after all, Passport says it is the best and claims to be well worth the extra price.

We thought we would be able to schedule and track the shipment online but when we clicked on the appropriate button, we were taken to a page that directed us to call 800 325-4267. We did this and gave the gentleman who answered the quote ID we had been given. It turned out this was the wrong number; after much research, we were given the correct ID number.

We were told that pick-up could not be made the next week (May 31) because of the Memorial Day holiday but that it would be scheduled for June 7. The car would be picked up the week of June 7 and would be delivered 7 to 14 days after pick-up, we were told. There was no discussion of door-to-door versus terminal-to-terminal delivery.

We were surprised to find that there was no way to track the pick-up and delivery status online. The agent we spoke with simply said we could call the 800 number anytime. Doing so puts you into the usual voice-mail tree. Tracking a shipment is option #6, far behind "Send a FedEx Package" or "Hear a directory of our employees." Maybe it's nit-picking, but after sitting through the phone tree directory a few times, we'd vote for moving the track-a-shipment function a bit higher on the tree.

The Saab Sits

The week of June 7 approached. We had the car brought to the Santa Monica address we had specified ... and there it sat. When it was still there Thursday, now dusty and beginning to be autographed by the neighborhood birds, we called the 800 number and were told it would "probably" be picked up Friday.

Late Friday afternoon the car was still there. We called and were told it would "probably" be picked up early the next week. Sure enough, on Monday, June 14, the car was picked up.

We happened to call to check on the shipment while the pick-up was in progress. "You should have it in 10 to 14 days," the Passport rep assured me.

The week of June 21 dawned. "The driver's in the Midwest and should be in Virginia by Thursday or Friday," we were told when we called early in the week. (We didn't think it necessary to mention that Virginia is not exactly Midwestern though maybe we should have).

Friday, June 25, we called to check and were told it would probably be "next Tuesday or Wednesday." Wednesday came and went. We called on Thursday, July 1, and an enthusiastic Passport rep said: "The driver's in the Northeast so he should be there by Saturday." (Virginia's not exactly Northeastern either, so we didn't know whether this was good news or not).

Happy Ending

In fact, things took a heartening turn later Thursday when the driver, Brian, called from somewhere on I-95. He apologized for the delay and said there had been a death in his helper's family and he had lost a couple of days because of it. He was confident he would get to us the next day, Friday.

Sure enough, Brian called again the next day from Delaware. It being the Friday afternoon before July 4th, traffic was even more horrendous than usual. We discussed various back roads and before too many hours had passed, the enormous Passport truck appeared and disgorged the Saab.

Although the trip took a few days longer than we had expected, the car arrived in perfect condition. The Passport trailer was not only enclosed but had a hydraulic hoist, allowing the car to be gently lowered to street level, rather than driven down the precarious metal tracks that most car carriers use.

At a Minimum ...

It's hard to see how anyone could fault Passport's equipment and road personnel. The truck was new, clean and a big cut above other car carriers. The driver was courteous and professional.

The customer service experience during the move left a bit to be desired, however. We would have felt more confident if we had been able to track the shipment through Passport's Web site, just as one can track a FedEx package.

We found it disconcerting that the customer reps obviously knew exactly where the truck was at any given time but were terse, to say the least, with the information they were willing to share.

Transporters stress that shipments don't go from Point A to Point B. The trucks meander around the country making drop-offs and pick-ups. OK, we can understand that, so how about sharing a little of the information with us?

Here's what we'd say auto transporters ought to provide if they want to get out of the stagecoach era:

  • A Web site that lets the consumer get a quote, schedule a pick-up and track the progress of the shipment across the country, seeing where the car is at any given time, perhaps with its tentative route mapped out;
  • A clear explanation of door-to-door versus terminal delivery on the Web site at the time the customer decides which method to use;
  • A written contract, provided via the Web or e-mail, or a clear description of where the appropriate tariffs can be found;

Way To Go?

So, is an auto transporter the best way to move your car long distances? It depends on your situation. Driving it yourself ensures that you and the car arrive at your destination simultaneously. Personally, we take road trips whenever possible, especially if there's a Porsche or Alfa that needs to be ferried somewhere. But for those who don't have the time, patience or ability to drive long distances, a first-rate transporter is probably the only realistic option.

It's important to choose a first-rate transporter, even though it will cost several hundred dollars more than a cut-rate broker. Don't put anything in the car that you will need anytime soon and, above all, don't be impatient. Be prepared to wait an extra week or so, especially if holidays and bad weather are likely to be factors.

Adopt the same Zen attitude you would if you were facing a massive traffic back-up or found yourself at a busy airport on a stormy afternoon. Things will go wrong. With any luck, they'll all be small.