A few weeks ago, I was merrily thrashing away at my keyboard to talk about the purchase of an R53 Mini Cooper S. Now I have the keys, I’m over the moon, but what I glossed over at the time was the tortuous few weekends leading up to that point.
It’d been a good few years since I’d last been car shopping, and I was simply unprepared for what a galactic pain in the arse it can be. Budgeting around £2000 for a used car opens yourself up to all sorts of sheds, and many a crap car dealer.
Of course, my colleague Alex Kersten goes out and buys stuff for less than that sum all the time, but he doesn’t have to live with the consequences of his purchase for several years after handing the money over. And if there’s drama, that makes for great videos. But for me? I could do without such shenanigans.
The first example I went to see was sold moments before I arrived at the dealer, but no matter, as the second seemed relatively promising on paper. The mileage was high, but it was my preferred spec - grey with a black roof and Minilite wheels. Plus, it had been fitted with a new clutch recently and had the rare optional climate control. I knew it was a risk going on a 240-mile round trip to see it, but that seemed a risk worth taking.
Until that was, I got there and started it up. The check engine light didn’t clear, and the dealer claimed his OBDII reader had a broken screen, so wasn’t able to determine the cause. I then took it for a drive, discovering it had a horrendous misfire under load. When asked if anything would be done about it, one member of staff simply replied, “but these people have come to look at it,” gesturing to the small group standing behind the temperamental R53.
And there’s the issue. There was no incentive to bother fixing anything (other than taking pride in what they were doing - clearly not on the agenda) when a faulty car can merely be palmed off on the next customer who doesn’t check the thing as thoroughly.
Cooper S number three - another dealer car - was priced much higher, giving me more confidence, but IRL it was tatty and the suspension noisy. Again, there was no hope of nudging the price to reflect this. The fourth one I never even got to see - the private seller claimed it was blocked in on an industrial unit the day I went to see it, and never offered to rebook the viewing. Hmmm.
Mini number five had a slow puncture, with the front left tyre being - hilariously - pumped up while I waited to start my test drive. It quite clearly had a knackered wheel bearing, but there was no negotiation on price or any offer to fix what was wrong with it as the dealer was confident he’d “get £2k all day” for it.
The sixth car - the second of the two private sales I looked at - was much more like it. It would end up being by far the tidiest of the lot, but it wanted new rear tyres and a few other things sorted. For the price, my expectations were a little higher. But at least I’d finally seen one that wasn’t hopeless.
Number seven (we’re nearly at the end, I promise) I didn’t even bother test driving. At a dealership crammed full of tatty cars overseen by inattentive staff, it wasn’t in anything like the sort of condition it should have been considering what was being charged. Amazingly, the price in the window was a further £300 higher than what was being advertised online.
The eighth and final car was at a kinda/sorta dealer - one of those car-buying services. This particular branch kept back and sold the nicest examples from its inventory, auctioning off the rest. I came very close to buying this one - someone had spent a small fortune at London-based Mini main dealers and independents keeping it in good mechanical shape, plus the mileage was good. And, thank God, I’d finally found people in the business of selling cars that actually seemed to care about what they were doing.
In the end, the seller of Mini number six was open to negotiation, bringing the price of the Pepper White Cooper S down to where it should have been. And thus ended a hugely frustrating car search that took up three weekends and saw me spend many hours and hundreds of miles on the road.
Although I’m happy with the car I’ve got out of all of this, the experience still left a bad taste in the mouth. Primarily because of the number of dealers I came across that appear to be picking cars from auction or as part-exchange, and flipping them for inflated prices having done sod all other than giving them a quick wash. In the case of one car, a wash that was being finished just as I arrived. Classy.
Granted, I’m not expecting a car at this price point to be perfect, but fixing something like a misfire, a busted wheel bearing or a slow puncture before selling to the public seems pretty fundamental. If not, what service is it dealerships like these are offering, beyond some vague comeback if something goes catastrophically wrong? I’m sure there are thousands of great car establishments out there, but the stuff I’ve experienced in this price bracket at dealers across the country doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what you might find out there.
I had initially been thinking that the new Robinson family R53 would be something of a stop-gap - a car we’d keep for a year or so before moving on to something else. In the end, I reckon we’ll hold on to it for longer. Partly because I’ve fallen for the little scamp harder than anticipated, but also because I don’t want to go through the cheap used car shopping rigmarole again for some time.