We hear from quite a few readers (like John and Sean) who buy cars sight unseen on eBay and are then surprised when the clunker is shipped in multiple cardboard boxes as a collection of rusted parts. OK, maybe it's not quite that bad but buying a used car is risky under the best of circumstances and treacherous beyond belief when it involves a total stranger hundreds or thousands of miles away.

That being said, there are many people who happily buy and sell cars on the Internet every day. We decided to try it ourselves. We figured this would serve humanity, advance the cause of consumerism and give us an excuse to buy an Alfa Romeo Spider that we could subject to extensive testing on the back roads of the Blue Ridge mountains this summer. Thus began the saga of the Redneck Alfa.

ConsumerAffairs.com's Jon Hood examines
the specimen upon its arrival in Virginia.

Know what you want
Our first step was to begin daily perusals of eBay Motors to survey the market for 1970s vintage Alfas. We wanted an older version because they are noisier, easier to work on and have that neat wooden steering wheel. Also because in 1978 we had put down a deposit on a brand-new Spider but had to cancel the sale because of a job transfer from Northern California, which is prime sports car country, to midtown Manhattan, which isn't. Thus we had what economists call pent-up demand and what poets can unrequited love for Alfas of the 70s persuasion.

The first thing we noticed was that most of the better specimens were in California and Arizona. That's not surprising but since we are currently confined in the Washington, D.C. area, buying a car from someone 2,500 miles away makes it too expensive and time-consuming to take delivery.

There are really only two ways to buy a car from someone out of town:

  • Have it shipped. There are lots of auto transporters who, for a stiff fee, will load your heap on a truck and dump it in front of your house at some point in the future. Like all movers, these guys are largely unregulated and it can be difficult to find one that's at least mediocre. More importantly, it makes it rather hard to inspect the car before finalizing the purchase. More about that in a minute. If you choose this method, be sure to factor in the cost of having the car shipped. It can easily add $1,000 or more to the price.
  • Go get it. Don't trust the transporters? Fine, but that means you have to pick up the car yourself. Thus, you must have faith the thing will make it home ... or you will need a truck and flat-bed trailer to haul it on. Either way, this option can be expensive -- one-way airline tickets, rental cars, hotel bills, too much fast food, you name it.

We decided early on that we had to find a car within a day's driving distance because we simply don't have the time to go chasing around the country in pursuit of flivvers and we didn't want to spend big bucks to take delivery of something we hadn't inspected personally. That restricted our search and saved us lots of time that otherwise would have been spent mooning after cars we wouldn't bid on.

Who's the seller?
There are several kinds of people selling cars on eBay: honest individuals, dealers, con artists and hobbyists.

  • Honest persons. While we have nothing against honest individuals, honesty alone isn't always enough. Many people don't know much about cars, after all, and the guy who has let his uncle's 1964 Porsche sit in the garage for 10 years may think he's taken good care of it, when in fact he's let it slowly decompose.
  • Dealers. Popular misconceptions notwithstanding, dealers aren't all bad. They are, at the very least, licensed in their state and subject to minimal regulation by their state and local yahoos. It's also possible to check them out with local and national consumer agencies and even call them up and grill the salesman responsible for the listing. Worst case, you can sue them in Small Claims Court.
  • Con artists. OK, con artists are bad but if they were easy to spot they wouldn't be con artists, now would they? Same rule applies here as in all other endeavors -- if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Hobbyists. Fortunately, there are lots of people who are less motivated by money than by curiosity and the desire to spend time tinkering with stuff they enjoy. They tend to lavish attention on the object of their affection even when so doing does not line their pocket. The trick is to find one of these guys.

Having pondered all of the above, we started making modest bids on cars in Florida (ok, not a day's drive but close), New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We tried to bid only on cars that appeared to be offered by dealers who specialize in Alfas or by enthusiasts -- guys who listed all the things they had done to the car and gave their appraisal of what else it would need.

Then one day we noticed not one but two Alfa Spiders listed by someone in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. We studied the listings as intently as phrenologists would have pored over Albert Einstein's skull. Both cars -- one a 1980s model with electronic fuel injection and one a 1978 model with the classic mechanical fuel injection -- were on the shopworn side but the seller's description of each car and the work he had performed filled the screen. He had replaced all the filters, hoses and belts on the 1978 model, replaced the springs and shocks, lowered the car to Euro standard, replaced the motor mounts, tuned the notoriously touchy Spica fuel injection and so on. This glutton for touchy anachronisms claimed to have previously owned five other Spiders and four Alfa GTV-6's.

This looked like the car for us. It met all our qualifications: it was old, it was not excessively restored, it was relatively nearby and the seller showed all the symptoms of being a chronic tinkerer. We waited until two days before the auction was scheduled to end, then entered our first bid, a whopping $1,500. (North Carolina is a little off the beaten path so the bidding was not as frantic as it might have been had the car been in New York or California -- another plus).

We emailed the seller a few times, asking about rust, whether he thought the car would make it to Washington, etc. We liked the answers -- which were honest (he described the interior as "ratty") bordering on pessimistic ("it will need a brake job right away"). Also, this enabled us to get the seller's email address so that we could communicate with him outside of eBay's system.

Things went languidly back and forth and although we were the top bidder ($2,200) when the auction ended, the reserve had not been met. The seller was not obligated to sell to us or anyone else.

We e-mailed the seller, told him our offer stood and offered to send a cashier's check for $220, representing a ten percent non-refundable deposit. He accepted, we mailed the check (inscribed "non-refundable deposit to hold vehicle [VIN #] for 10 days") and made a date to come and look at the car a few days later.

eBay might contend that we had scammed them, since this procedure eliminated eBay's fee but as far as we can tell, it's not illegal, unethical or fattening. Yes, it deprives us of some of the "protections" eBay has built into its system but we were willing to take that chance.

And so it came to pass that a few days later we set off with a friend and fellow Alfista in an Avis Buick bound for Charlotte. Avis, which has never mistreated us in 30 years of business travel, had given us a one-way rental with no drop charge, although we also had the option of keeping the rental and driving it back to Washington if it turned out the Alfa had weeds growing through the floor.

Keep your options open
So far we were out $220 and $100 for the car rental. Sure, we had with us a cashier's check for the remainder of the price but legally, since the auction had ended inconclusively we were not obligated to complete the purchase.

As dusk fell over Lake Somethingorother, we glided up to the seller's home, easily spotted by the fairly decrepit Alfas and BMWs littering its yard. Following our nose, we found the Alfa in question sprawled fetchingly in the garage, where the seller had been fiddling with the heater hoses. Much test driving, peering under the body and nosing through the engine compartment ensued.

In summary, eBay is OK for some things, bad for others. If you're looking to buy a recent vintage Honda or Saturn, it's probably easier and safer to find one locally. If you're looking for something a little more exotic, ancient or quirky, eBay's nationwide market expands the selection. But remember -- if the car's too far away, you'll have trouble inspecting it personally and you'll have to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get it home. Try to buy from an enthusiast or a specialist dealer ... and if possible don't commit to buy until you've seen it or had an independent third-party mechanic look it over.

A word about inspections: there are inspection services who advertise on eBay but most of them do little more than check out the cosmetics. You want someone who can tell you if the engine, transmission and undercarriage are sound. That requires a mechanic.

Whatever you do, be sure to run a title check on any car you're considering. It's the only way to learn of major accidents, verify mileage and get an accurate count of title transfers, etc. (Our Alfa was too old to be in the Carfax records).

The seller, we learned over dinner, was an airline pilot furloughed a few months ago and thus free to fritter away even more time rescuing old sports cars and a bit more pressured to sell one now and then. We got the impression he didn't really want to part with ours but we were fairly insistent and finally persuaded him to let us drive it to the airport hotel where we would spend the night before dumping the rental car the next morning. (A "Welcome to South Carolina" sign was the tip-off that this car was capable of eating up the highway and taking one's mind off such petty details as one's location).

Our drive back to Northern Virginia began gingerly the next morning as we probed for weaknesses in our new buggy. But by the time we hit Danville, Va., home of the Virginia International Raceway, we and the Alfa were feeling our oats. Just outside Tight Squeeze, Va., we stopped at Dan's Market to stoke up on hot dogs (2 for $1), picked up a blaze orange hunting cap, then headed for U.S. 60, a deserted highway that twists and winds for miles up the mountain and back down the other side (funny how that works).

We blasted through a succession of such roads, engine screaming and tires smoking (sometimes vice versa), waking up bears and annoying the locals before hitting the brick wall of Washington traffic late that afternoon. We had given the Redneck Alfa what is known in certain circles as an "Italian tune-up."

The next day, the wise old Commonwealth of Virginia was kind enough to give the car antique status, excusing it from meeting emission standards, but promptly flunked us (the car, not the driver) on the safety test. We made our way to the local speed shop to have the brakes reworked, just as the seller had predicted.

The speed shop service manager, looking with undisguised avarice at our new relic and our checkbook, watched as we tried to get the Alfa key off our key ring.

"Darned Peugeot keys are so big they block everything else," we mumbled.

"You have Peugeots too?" he asked wide-eyed, as visions of superbills danced in his head.

In conclusion ...
To be brutally honest, we had a lot of fun with this project. It beats comparison-testing toasters any day. As a way to buy hard-to-find older cars, we'd say eBay is only slightly ahead of the newspaper classifieds and quite a bit behind the word-of-mouth readily available around car owners clubs, speed shops and, for that matter, traffic court.

For any other form of transport, we'd beat it over to Honest Al's.