Back in 1999 I could have invested in Apple stock for a mere $10 a share. Or, I could take my piddling sub-$1000 savings at the time, and pour it straight into an eight year old Peugeot 405. A car that I found at an auto auction in the thick of Georgia's Deliverance country.
Guess which one I invested in?
I don't know why I fell in love with the idea of owning a Peugeot. At the time I was working at five to seven different auto auctions a week as an auctioneer, and looking back, I must have breathed an awful lot of gas fumes to get to that extreme state of delusion.
It was actually a whole lot of little things that put me on the road to the terminal cancer that is French car ownership. I started noticing a Peugeot 505 wagon at a house nearby in the typical abandoned state. Flattish tires. Exterior covered in dirt. A license plate that expired three years ago and next to it was... a 1988 Jaguar XJ6.
I wish I had a friend who told me this...
But what I ended up doing was befriending a guy from the old Car Talk bulletin boards with the handle, The Headless Chevalier. His real name was Marty, and somehow Marty was getting the types of deals on cars that us enthusiasts salivate over.
The low-mileage high end European vehicle that somehow goes for less than $2000? Marty had three of them thanks to his work as a probate lawyer in Pennsylvania. A 405 MI16, a 505 diesel wagon, and something else that required a lot of free time and fluency in French to maintain. The descendants of the dead wanted nothing to do with a French orphan car, which meant Marty could share and experience his love for what were seemingly cheap unloved cars.
So the mind trap of me buying a piece of failed French engineering was pretty much set. As the weeks wore on I went deeper into the hole of human stupidity. I started following the old BBS boards that had the name alt.autos.peugeot. It should have been named alt.peugeot.cananyonefixmyrollingpos because everyone there seemingly had an old Peugeot laying in the weeds, but all I heard between the moans and pangs of financial agony was an opportunity to do something new car wise.
That fateful day of financial self-mutilation finally came at a small auto auction in north Georgia. An auction that should have been issued a hanging banner that said, "We Only Sell Junk! Really!"
I saw a 1991 Peugeot 405 with less than 100k and for all of $225, I bought it. Keep in mind that back in 1999 you could buy a lot of cars that weren't running for less than $100.
This "Poo-got!" as the cashier at the auction called it, seemed to run great. The engine was fine. The interior was surprisingly nice. Seats were fantastic. I pulled onto the winding one lane road and went from first to second gear.
KA-PLOW! It was like I got shot on the ass. Nevermind... let's see how third gear is ... third gear? third gear?.... anyone?....awwww....fuuudddggee!!!
Actually I was expecting failure, and boy did I get it. I drove home in the car I came to the auction with, and the next morning, I called a nearby junkyard to find out if they had any Peugeot 405s.
"Yeah, we have three."
"Great! Can I get a tranny?"
"Nope, that's why they're all here."
I came to find out that the ZF transmissions were about the 27th fatal weakness of these models. Like the timing belt on an old Daewoo, once the Peugeot tranny decided to deep-six itself, everything attached to it was pretty much toast.
I kept the car at the auction and a month later, I got lucky. Someone wrecked a 405 and it wound up at an impound lot auction for a wrecker service. I bought it for $125, had a transmission shop nearby the junkyard install it for $600, and with about $1000 in it, I finally had my Peugeot. It was great... for three days.
Then the fuel pump went. That was another $250. The power steering leaked. I fixed that. A coolant hose had a small leak. Fixed that too. The power steering leaked again and this time it was a bad rack.
I soon found out about an old axiom frequently cited by two automotive philosophers named Click and Clack who had the deep misfortune of repairing dozens of these rolling French turds, "The French copy nobody, and nobody copies the French." I put it in an auction that I did on Thursday evenings and sold it for $800.
I lost money. But I got an education. In the car business, the tuition you pay is called experience and this one lead me as far away from the romanticism of owning unique cars as Mercury is from Pluto. When someone offers me a broke down piece of nostalgia for a price premium at my dealership I always have three answers in the back of my mind.
"Are you talkin' to me???"
These days I give advice to folks who haven't been immersed in the brutal free market that is buying and selling used cars. 15 years and thousands of cars later, I have learned an awful lot of unique lessons. So feel free to read my old stuff, my new stuff, and... before I forget, let me ask you.
Have you ever owned a car that was worth more dead than alive?