The Summer I Flipped A Car
I didn’t have a job the summer before my freshman year of college, opting instead to visit a friend finishing a semester abroad in Paris. The opportunity to bum around rent-free in Paris seemed too good to pass up, and the weeks of drinking wine and breezing through museums pretty much lived up to expectations.
When I returned home, I was not exactly broke, but I felt much less industrious than my friends who had spent their summer waiting tables, or interning at architecture firms. My dad, a lawyer, apparently thought the same thing. When I returned, he told me I might think about learning “how to make money with money,” and suggested I contact his friend D.J., who was looking for a partner in a business venture.
We knew D.J. through my dad’s friend, client, and former high school debate coach Durwood Fincher, a candid-camera comedian on the corporate speaking-engagement and morning-show circuit. Durwood maintained a wide orbit of friends, from Atlanta’s homeless population to Georgia Southern frat boys, and he had met D.J. at the service station where he had his pearl white Cadillac Escalade outfitted with chrome rims and satellite TVs.
The business opportunity seemed simple: D.J., who was closer to me in age than my dad, is a car enthusiast and had been working odd jobs in the industry, and he had somehow or another acquired a 1994 BMW 535i. This is a desirable car, he explained to me, but it had a few issues: It had been declared totaled by an insurance company, and so didn’t have a road-worthy title. It needed a new clutch and was currently in a tow lot, getting more expensive by the day.
This is where I came in: D.J. didn’t have the money to pay the tow lot and repairs. With the few hundred dollars left in my bank account, I would pay off the tow lot and finance a new clutch, and, once the car had been cleared for legal road use, we would sell it. D.J. and I agreed that I would hold the title, and, after my expenses were covered, we would split any profit 50/50. A quick scan of eBay Motors convinced me that even if we had to sell the car for parts, I wouldn’t lose money.
Complications quickly arose, of course, and D.J. wasn’t exactly prepared for them. We were only able to get the documents necessary to prove our ownership and free the car from the tow lot after an entire day spent waiting and sweet-talking at the DMV, finally speaking to a woman who took pity on us and was willing to bend the rules.
At the tow lot, the car had a new ding in the bumper that the grizzled, tank-top wearing tow truck driver menacingly challenged us to prove he had caused. I shrugged and paid the fee to get the car out, but it wasn’t drivable, so to move it to a garage D.J. had to cajole a friend with a car trailer to help us out. The worst news came when we finally got the car to a mechanic: It wasn’t a new clutch we needed, but an entire new transmission. There was a hole the size of a dime in the original part that would be impossible to patch. This took the cost of repairs from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand—I was out of my depth.
D.J. wasn’t ready to give up, and told me he knew a guy that could help us get the car drivable. After another round of begging the friend with the trailer, we got the car to another friend, who went by Lo. He offered to do the service at about a quarter of the price it would cost at a real garage, and, desperate, I quickly agreed. We went to visit the car while the work was in progress: Lo, who emerged wearing blue mechanic’s shirt—one button done, a name patch that said “LO” in a curly script, and a pack of Newports in his shirt pocket—took us into his backyard, where our car was resting on cinderblocks and his friends were adjusting the scope on a hunting rifle.
I began to imagine myself arriving at college without a penny to my name, unable to afford the cases of PBR that I considered my God-given right, but Lo was true to his word: Though he grumbled that he wouldn’t have given us such a sweet deal if he had known how much work it would be, he handed over a working car. It still wasn’t legal to drive, but I was now the 18-year-old owner of a BMW Darth Vader might have: stick shift, shiny black paint, impossibly dark tinted windows—never mind that it shuddered at low RPM.
All that was left was to have the car re-certified for road use. This turned into a bureaucratic maze that wouldn’t have been out of place in Cold War Poland. A new title required a state-sponsored salvage inspection, the extremely infrequent times and locations of which seemed to have been chosen based on the occult significance of the phases of the moon and orientation of the Pleiades.
While I was at this point convinced of the underlying wisdom of my investment, a recertification would have required a drive of several hours to arrive at a station before dawn. You could not, of course, drive an uncertified car to be certified, and D.J.’s trailer-owning friends were less open to this long trip than a short hop across town, though he constantly assured me otherwise. The last opportunity we would have to get the car certified before I left town passed in a pre-dawn meeting with D.J.—we had planned to leave for the inspection station in time to arrive around 6 a.m., but there was no trailer, only bickering and despair.
I began again to resign myself to arriving at college like a modern-day Dickensian pauper, bleak and sober, when my investment unexpectedly paid off. A fellow car enthusiast living in D.J.’s apartment building was so intrigued by the black BMW that was never driven parked in his lot that he knocked on doors until he found my surprised business partner. Even informed of the car’s shady past and uncertain title situation, he paid D.J. cash, and I gladly surrendered the title. Last I heard he was still trying to get it cleared for road-worthiness (the tint on the windows was apparently deemed to be less than legal), but he was a collector who enjoyed this sort of thing and I don’t think he regretted his purchase. Through dumb luck I cleared more profit that summer than many of my friends working legitimate jobs, and I wasn’t shy about rubbing it in.
D.J. continues to flip cars, but I’ve determined it’s not worth the stress. (If anyone reading this is interested in a ’93 Ford Mustang 5.0, however, please contact me immediately.) My dad, on the other hand, seems to have caught the bug: He and D.J. are the proud co-owners of a Chrysler P.T. Cruiser, maintenance and title status unknown, parked somewhere in Atlanta.
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Chris Cohen just graduated from college and spends most of his time attempting to come up with an email address more professional than firstname.lastname@example.org, where he can currently be reached. Photo: Shutterstock/PeterPhoto123