Buying a car
Having arrived in Los Angeles we looked and asked around but just felt that L.A. was proving difficult. The laws on emissions and car condition are quite strict, which made buying anything old a bit more of a gamble. L.A. is also a big and often scary place to go looking at cheap cars. So, we chose to head to Las Vegas.
When we got to Vegas, we picked up a few of the free car-sales mags which can be found in filling stations, and started to make some phone calls. We found two things: 1) There were lots of dealers selling cheap cars and 2) the old cars were in generally good condition (no rain.. no rust..) One of the first dealers we called was interested to sell us a car and he proved to be a real gem - he came to our hotel and took us to his yard where he showed us various cars. He advised us to get a larger all-American model, as he said it would stand up to plenty of "abuse" and would be cheaper to fix if it went wrong. Also - if things do go wrong in the middle of no-where then someone is more likely to be able to fix an American car rather than a European or Japanese model.
We initially chose a Chevrolet Monte-Carlo - a huge "boat" of a car, but Doug, the car dealer, found an oil leak in the transmission and refused to sell it us ! I was quite amazed at how honest the dealer was compared to the "Arthur Daily" types you would find here in the U.K. I think the fact that is the States there are so many claims against people (i.e. - it's the land of the Lawyer), that he really wanted to make sure that he gave us something that would ensure our personal safety, and at the same time make sure we didn't come back in a month to sue him ... plus he was a really nice bloke.
We settled on a 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. A saloon car, automatic transmission, V8 5.7 litre engine. Just the ticket. Many travellers buy Estate cars (or station wagons), but Doug said having a trunk (a boot) made our valuables a bit more safe as we would be visiting a few cities.
We paid around a $1000 and the buying bit was easy. It's getting it on the road legally that proved to be the difficult part.
The rules vary state to state. When we had initially tried to buy in California but found the bureaucracy was frightening. In Nevada there is no M.O.T/ road test to worry about, which is a big advantage in the fact that you won't have to pay out loads to get a car into shape legally. The only downside I suppose s that cars aren't really checked for safety or condition - so a bit of knowledge and a good dealer is advised.
To register the car you need two things. A smog certificate to prove the car has acceptable exhaust emission levels and 2) insurance. The smog certificate was easy, supplied by the Doug, the dealer. The insurance was difficult. Not many agents were interested in insuring a foreigner who they couldn't check up on. The ones that were wanted to charge a fortune. The solution was to get a Nevada driving license. Off I went to the Department of Vehicles (kindly shown the way by the car dealer) to inquire. "No problem" they said. I gave my passport as an ID reference. Don't give them your own country driving licence, as they will take it away from you !
They asked what I was doing, I said " just hanging around Nevada for a while". They also asked for an address - I gave the address of the friendly dealer, and that was the paperwork complete. Next for the test! The written test was the easiest test I have ever taken in my life and the actual driving test was a breeze. The written test had some tricky questions, but a read of the Highway Code (which they gave me) beforehand was all that was needed. Most of the questions were common sense, like "What do you do if the road is wet (a) speed up (b) stop (c) slow down" !!
Once I had a license, insurance was easy (and a quarter of the cost) and we hit the road. Driving in the States is easy - no traffic roundabouts of complicated junctions. We did 4 months and over 13,000 miles and saw so many things we would have missed had we taken public transport. The car also allowed us to drive to great camping spots.
So go out, buy a car, drive around the States, camp and enjoy some of the best outdoors the world has to offer. Keep to the speed limit and watch out for the moose!
I'd like to thank Doug Nellis of Nellis Motors, 5068 East Washington, Las Vegas, Nevada 89110 for his help and hospitality. I would recommend him to all travellers who are looking to buy a car.
©Simon Wheeler (Feb 98)