Why did buying a car used to take so long? (or did it?)

When I was a little kid back in the 80s, my father used to have a near-obsession with buying new cars. Every year or two at most, he’d trade in whatever car we had and got something else. These weren’t expensive, fancy new cars, they were vans and station wagons and such for hauling us all around in; he just liked having a new car, and frankly I think he just enjoyed the car shopping experience.

Anyway, I remember when we did this, it took forever. My father was very studious about his research beforehand, so he would go into the dealership with a specific vehicle in mind, and there’d be just one or two test drives before they went to the paperwork. In my memory this took literally all day. I remember more than one occasion of going to the dealership in the afternoon and not heading home (in the new car) until well after dark.

I bought a car yesterday and the time between walking into the dealership, taking a short test drive, filling out paperwork, and driving off the lot was 40 minutes flat.

What took so long back in the day? There was always a trade-in involved, as well as new financing, so I’m sure that took longer than just buying a car outright, but why all day? Or is it just that my memories occurred in “little-kid-time,” i.e. sitting around a boring place for a couple hours with nothing to do?

There was a haggling/bargaining ritual that I’ve often read about and heard about. It involved a lot of back and forth offers. A LOT. Typically the salesman would say he’d have to show the offer to his manager, and after spending some time in the manager’s office (while the manager was “calculating”) he’d come back with a counteroffer. Often there was drama on both sides, with the customer sometimes getting up to leave only to be called back with a plea of “let me see what I can do.” Of course the salesmen had much more practice at this than the customers, and people didn’t always get as good a deal as they thought they’d gotten, but many were satisfied that they fought a good fight and got a great deal.

ETA: For some time now, many customers have gotten more complete info on what the dealer’s real cost is, and on what comprises a good price. The dealers know this, and I think both sides nowadays tend to make short work of the negotiation.

What Gary said. When I went to go buy my car, I knew what I wanted and what the market price was. I fucking hate negotiating and wish it would go away forever. I went to four different dealerships for the same car and went with the dealer that gave me the best quote…I think it took me about thirty minutes or less (but I didn’t get a test drive at that dealer).

Of course then I had to wait six weeks for my car to come in, but it was super worth it, since I had THREE MILES on it when I got it!

mY dad was like yours - buying a car was a huge thrill, and it did take all freakin day. I have a clear memory of dad “walking” when the guy wouldn’t give him a deal, and the guy coming out and literally begging my dad on his knees to come back inside…he was on his knees! in the parking lot! Next to the driver’s side. I remember watching him and even at that age thinking “What an idiot!”

Those kinds of shenanigans take time.


To me, that bespeaks more desperation than idiocy. Car salespeople are often under a lot of pressure. I can easily imagine the guy’s manager having put him in fear of his job if he didn’t make a sale that day.

I’ve bought exactly two new cars, one in January 2000, and the other in June 2009. The first one did actually take almost all day - we got there in mid-morning, and it was dark by the time we finally drove the car off the lot. There was back-and-forthing, there was paperwork, they were playing games I couldn’t understand with the trade-in, so I wound up just taking it off the table, there was negotiating over the financing, and finally since we wanted the car with a stick shift, it had to be driven up from a dealership in Virginia (and the dealership we were at was in College Park, MD). But even if they’d had the car we wanted on their lot, it would have taken ~5 hours.

Our negotiations in 2009 were much simpler and more direct. One thing that helped was that we paid cash, so we didn’t have to wrangle over financing details. But we were in and out of there in <2 hours, is my recollection.

In both instances, we were buying Honda Accords, so that variable is controlled for, so to speak.

Financing did take longer back in the day, and before the internet, there wasn’t any way to check out cars from home. You had to go and look at them in the lot. I’ve bought four cars new in my lifetime, and the process really does seem to be getting simpler. With the last car we bought, the dealer started to do the financing song & dance, so I called up my credit union on my cellphone then and there and we financed it through them, as I’d arranged earlier online. Really does take some of sting out of negotiating.

We just bought a used car about a year ago. From the time that I chose to buy it until we drove away was probably 2-2.5 hours. This seems longer than it should be.

We waited at least 40 minutes just to talk with the money guy (whatever he is called). We filled out the paperwork for a loan, he looked up our credit (which is superb), gave us a terrible rate, we balked, and then wrote a check. That took probably about 35-40 minutes itself.

Yeah, have to echo the financing comment. No instant credit checks back in the day, so there was usually time consumed contacting the bank or a credit bureau to verify info, etc. The first vehicle I ever bought in the mid 80’s took basically until the next day to sort the financing after the deal was made.

But even the deal could take a long time to write up. In the days before limited option packages, there was quite a checklist to go through if you were ordering factory fresh rather than buying off the showroom floor. I remember my waiting forever for him and the salesman to work through the engine and drive train options, then the interior options, then all the dealer installed options. It seemed to take forever.

When my husband buys a car the elapsed time is not measured in hours, or even in days. It is measured in weeks.

First all potential choices are researched. Thoroughly researched. There are test drives in the ones deemed acceptable, and even in some that are not, just because. It is difficult to narrow the choices down to only two or three.

Then negotiations with each and every dealer ensue, with much back and forth. Many what-ifs and then-elses.

We bought a new car in December. Even in the age of internet and “instant” financing, it still took over 2 hours to get the financing approved. Not because of a problem with us, it was just that busy. Add an hour of kicking the tires and road testing, and we were there for over 3 hours. Now imagine pre-internet days, when identity and financing had to be confirmed and approved over the phone/fax.

When I bought Saturns it was fast. But I suppose it still can be fast if you want to pay their first offer. I bought a Prius 2 years ago, and even though I didn’t look at any other cars it was a multi-day process. First I researched the model I wanted, and got quotes over the net. Then we bopped between 2 dealers 15 miles apart to get their prices down. The first made an offer, the second, which offered a AAA discount, made a slightly lower offer, so I went back to the first to beat it. Plus lots of calls. I eventually wound up with one for a lot less than the online price.
I paid cash - if I had financed it would have taken even longer. The final deals took about 4 hours, maybe more.

I recently bought a work truck from a private party financed through a credit union. It was definitely an ordeal. There was about a month that elapsed between me telling the CU, “hey, I’m thinking of financing a truck” and actually making the transaction.

I’m sure I could have done it in an afternoon if I was buying and financing through a dealer, but I got a heck of a good price on the truck and interest rate on the loan. The whole dealer apparatus has realized that they’re in a much better position on price and interest rates if they’re about to provide instant gratification.

Yep, it’s entirely different now. Customers are WAY more savvy, overall, and the little sales tricks they used to pull don’t work nearly as well. This has been for the good IMO as generally sales guys aren’t nearly as cute with those games because they know they don’t work nearly as well, if at all.

That said, I don’t think it’s THAT much faster - that lies mostly on how much research you do and how much you are willing to test drive, haggle etc. Always has varied with people, always will.

You are so lucky…I can never get out of there in less than 3 or 4 hours…usually they think that the longer they keep you around the better position they are in to get the deal that benefits them.

If the deal you worked out was already in their maximum perceived benefit, then they had nothing left to squeeze you for and just let you off the hook.

I do recognize the possibility that it might just be me. I am practically any salesperson’s easiest customer, be it a car, electronics, clothes, anything really: I know what I want when I walk in, I have the money (or financing) in hand, and I generally accept the price I am presented. So if you have what I want at a price I can pay, I just say yes. I’m just not very particular about much of anything.

Five new cars.

1988 Subaru -> 6pm to what seemed like midnight. They tried everything to confuse me and rip me off. I ended up paying $300 more than my first offer, which means I probably paid $300 more than I needed to.

1995 Acura -> About 2.5 hours. I knew what I wanted to pay, and put an offer on the table as soon as I found that they had the trim level that I had researched in stock. I told the salesperson that if he left the office we were in, I was leaving and wouldn’t come back. He pulled the “Have to talk to my manager.” schtick, and I pointed to the telephone. “You can call him on the phone, but if you leave…” "He kept talking for two hours, and I just looked terminally bored and ignored everything he said. Every 15 minutes I would say, “My best offer is on the table. Anytime you feel like asking me to leave, I will.” Finally he gave up and filled out the paperwork to match the offer I had written down two hours earlier.

2002 Toyota -> Made the mistake of taking the wife with me. She doesn’t believe that car dealers lie. She got really mad at me for ignoring everything the salesperson was saying. We got screwed. She found out that we had paid $1000 more for the car than we should have. We bought a car that was different from the one we had researched before coming to the dealership.

2004 Honda -> Did the entire deal by email before going to the dealership. When we got there, everything on the paperwork matched what we had agreed to on email. Fifteen minutes. Did not have tags and the state we were in did not allow temporary tags. Dealer drove 40 miles to deliver the car.

2009 Toyota -> Did the entire deal by email. But it took a couple hours at the dealership to get the paperwork to match the email. They kept trying to sneak charges in. Even gave me an invoice that didn’t add up. Like I am not going to notice an extra $200 in the total.

I have never financed a car. That would have been a whole nother level of grief I imagine. I only once traded in a car. After we agreed on the Acura, they asked if the used car manager could look at the Acura. For some reason they were willing to pay me $300 less than I was going to advertise the car for. I figured I did not need the hassle.

So I don’t think it is really getting better. At least not for me.

I think part of the process used to involve options. I remember my Dad buying a new car back in the 1960s, and every option had to be chosen and ordered. Many were things that are standard today, but were not then: Automatic transmission? That was extra. Radio? That was extra, and even more if you wanted FM. Clock? Extra. Tachometer? Extra. Bucket seats? Extra. Which of these 25 colour choices would you like? And with what interior? There were a myriad of mix-and-match options, each of which was gone over carefully. There were no option packages or limited colour choices, as there are now. The end result was a car that was practically custom-built. Delivery took three months; and when the car arrived, it was exactly as Dad ordered, and had two miles on the odometer.

Of course, part of why you can’t do that anymore is the whole instant gratification thing. Dealers figured out they’re in a much better negotiating position when you’re negotiating about a car you can drive away today than one that won’t come for 4-6 weeks, so they don’t even give you the option to buy configurations that won’t be found on the lot.

Our car-buying experiences are always a pain in the ass. We always show up with a check, either from our credit union or a personal check. We do our research, both on what we’re buying and what we’re trading. We’ve had test drives of various models. And even when we’ve settled all that, the paperwork seems to drag out forever.

The easiest one was when I bought my Scion 6 years ago. No trade-in, check in hand from credit union, at a no-haggle dealership. The only thing we had to futz around with was arranging to have cruise control installed, which meant we had to pick up the car a couple of days later. The actual in-the-office part was pretty painless, tho a bit protracted.

I hate the whole process, and with careful maintenance, I hope I can avoid replacing the Scion for another 6 or 7 years. And by then I’ll be too senile to drive, so maybe I’ve won at last!! :smiley: