The first time in my life I ever bought a car from a dealer, there was a scam involved. Now, after almost 30 years, I’m still not sure how upset I should be about it.

In 1987 or so, I needed to buy a car. I was self-employed and didn’t have a whole lot of money so a used car was in my future. One night I went exploring used car lots and saw a 1985 Dodge Charger - one of the little 4-cylinder things you never see on the road anymore because they all went to junkyards shortly after they were built.

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This one was black and looked nice. The next morning I called and got a salesman on the phone who said I was welcome to come in for a test drive. I made an appointment. What can I say? I was young and naive. It would be four more years before I would begin my career of suing places like this. Repeatedly. This dealership is one which I have named in dozens of lawsuits.

When I got there, the car was pulled up out front. It looked even better in the daylight. I took it for a drive and was mesmerized by the boost gauge - How cool!

We struck a deal but the salesman simply refused to let me buy the car without buying a service contract. I bought it.

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When I went to pick the car up, it wasn’t “ready.” The salesman told me they were washing it and would pull it around. A few minutes later, it was brought around and I drove off.

The next day, the first time I ever fired it up on a cold start, smoke billowed from the exhaust. I can still picture it. I quickly brought it to the gas station at the end of my street where I had worked and the mechanic there knew what it was instantly. The bearing in the turbocharger was shot. And as we talked, the smoke stopped. “At first, they just blow smoke when they are cold. Later, it will blow smoke all the time. It needs to be replaced.” The smoke came from burning oil, oil which ran through the key part of the turbocharger which was now failing.

I called the salesman who obviously knew the car had a bad turbocharger when he sold it to me (which is why they never let me see it run with a cold engine). He didn’t even pretend to be surprised. “That’s why I sold you the service contract.”

Yes, I brought the car into a Dodge dealer (The seller was a Pontiac dealer) and got the turbocharger replaced under the service contract. Other than being without the car for a few days, it all worked out. I got a new turbocharger and drove that car for a few more years. I even took it to California when I went to law school (the transmission grenaded on me in 1991).

If the salesman had been honest with me, I never would have bought the car. As it was, I paid a few hundred bucks extra for the service contract which took care of the turbo. The service contract company got ripped off (I am pretty sure their rules do not allow for a dealer to sell the contracts on cars which are in need of “covered” repairs at the time of sale). But then again, they’re a big company and they have lots of money. And I wasn’t the one who ripped them off. I used the service contract a couple of times and was glad I bought it.

So, someone got ripped off in my first dealer purchase. The primary victim was just someone else.

Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear my podcast on iTunes: Lehto’s Law

Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible and Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.

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