How To Buy A Car: Try To Avoid The Hillman Minx

(Dave Barry is on vacation. In his absence, we are reprinting this column, which first appeared in 1990. TODAY'S consumer topic is: How to Buy a Car.

The First Rule of Car-Buying is one that I learned long ago from my father, namely: Never buy any car that my father would buy. He had an unerring instinct for picking out absurd cars, cars that were clearly intended as industrial pranks, cars built by workers who had to be blindfolded to prevent them from laughing so hard at the product that they accidentally shot rivets into each other.

For example, my father was one of the very few Americans who bought the Hillman Minx, a wart-shaped British car with the same rakish, sporty appeal as a municipal parking garage but with not as much pickup.

Our Minx also had a Surprise Option Feature whereby the steering mechanism would disconnect itself at random moments, so you'd suddenly discover that you could spin the wheel all the way around in a playful circle without having any effect whatsoever on the front wheels. Ha ha!

You can imagine how I felt, as an insecure 16-year-old with skin capable of going from All Clear Status to Fully Mature Zit in seconds, arriving at the big high-school pep-rally dance, where all the cool guys had their Thunderbirds and their GTOs with their giant engines and 23 carburetors, and there I was, at the wheel of: The Hillman Minx. A car so technologically backward that the radio was still receiving Winston Churchill speeches.

You don't see many Minxes around any more, probably because the factory was bombed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. You also don't see many Nash Metropolitans, another car my father bought. The Metropolitan was designed by professional cartoonists to look like the main character in a children's book with a name like Buster the Car Goes to Town. It was so small that it was routinely stolen by squirrels.

It was not the ideal car for dating, because there was room for only one person, so the other one had to sprint along the side of the highway, trying to make casual conversation and sometimes dropping from exhaustion. Being a gentleman, I always made sure my dates carried flares so I could go back and locate them at night.

Of course today's cars are much more sophisticated, by which I mean "expensive." This is because modern cars employ all kinds of technologically advanced concepts such as measuring the engine in "liters." Let's say you buy a car with a "5.7 liter engine": This means that when it breaks, you should not ask your mechanic how much it's going to cost until you've consumed 5.7 liters of a manufacturer-approved wine.

Of course, the most important consideration, in buying a new car is the rebate. This is one area of automotive technology where America still reigns supreme. A lot of Japanese cars don't even have rebates, whereas some American car dealerships have become so sophisticated that they no longer even sell cars. You just go in there and sign legal papers for a couple of hours and get your rebate and your zero-percent financing with no payments due until next Halloween, and you drive home in your same old car. Ask your automotive sales professional for details. He's clinging to your leg right now.

NO! JUST KIDDING! The last time I jokingly suggested that there was anything even slightly unpleasant about buying a car, several million automotive sales professionals wrote me letters threatening to take all their advertising out of the newspaper and jam it up my nasal passages. So let me state in all sincerity that as far as I am concerned these people are gods, and car-buying is the most legal fun that a person can have while still wearing underwear.

But it can also be confusing. There are so many brands of cars today, with new ones constantly being introduced, not only from domestic manufacturers but also from foreign countries such as Mars. I refer here to the "Infiniti," a car that was introduced by a bizarre advertising campaign in which you never actually saw the car. All you saw in the magazine ads was ocean waves, leading you to wonder: Is this a submersible car? Or was there some kind of accident during the photo session? ("Dammit, Bruce, I TOLD you the tide was coming in!")

There's more to buying a car than just kicking the tires. You have to really know what you're doing, which is why, all kidding aside, I recommend that you carefully analyze your automotive needs, study the market thoroughly, and then purchase the car that you feel, in all objectivity, has the most expensive advertisement in this newspaper. Don't thank me: I'm just keeping my job. Dave Barry is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.