I went into an auto dealership the other day. The vehicle on the showroom floor was an unremarkable gray, four-door something, more or less the same as all the others. But up close – oh my: The hood was held in place by a random series of flat-head and Phillips-head screws; so was the trunk lid. The handle on the passenger side rear door didn't work. The driver's-side rear door had no handle at all.
Inside, four huge hex bolts, each fastened by a rusty nut, protruded from the two center pillars, more than just suggesting that the car's front end and rear end were just bolted together. The two bucket seats in the front compartment clearly came from different cars. One was covered in form-fitting black leather; the other was done in a war-surplus green leatherette with chipped plastic-chrome piping. The bench seat in the rear was different still, upholstered in a stained twill of some kind.
"What's going on with this thing?" I asked. "It is new, isn't it?"
"Yes and no," the salesman said. "It's newly assembled, but it's made up mostly of parts that have been used 10, 20 times before. Real eco."
"But nothing fits together," I said. "And look: The radio is held in place with duct tape."
"Yeah," the salesman said. "The customer had a radio on his spec sheet, but it wasn't noticed until the last minute. It's kind of dealer installed."
"With duct tape?"
"We could've done better. I'll admit it."
"So you've actually got a customer for this thing?"
"We thought we did, but he turned us down. He didn't like the presentation."
"Well, that's a no wonder. Look at the driver's seat. The seams are held together with... What is that?"
"Right. Super glue. And look at this: It says Ford on the front and Chevrolet on the back."
"And on the dashboard it says Fodr."
"Typo. You know what we meant, though."
"What about the passive-restraint system?"
"There is none," the salesman said. "The passive's used everywhere. Why not take it out for a drive?"
Why not, I thought to myself. The car had to drive better than it looked.
"Good lord, man," I sputtered when I brought the car back. "The steering is totally unresponsive; the thing wanders all over the place. And the brakes are practically useless; you want to stop it but it just goes on and on. Why would anyone buy one of these things?"
"Because I get them for free and sell them for $399," the salesman said.
When I asked how he got them for free, the salesman pointed across the street to a nondescript two-story brick office building that looked like a WWII bunker sans machine-gun hole. "You see that building?" he asked. I nodded. "It belongs to a civil-engineering firm."
"A couple of years ago I was walking on a beach and I rescued a genie from an old oil lamp I found. He was so thankful he gave me a wish. I wanted cheap cars to sell. Now, every Friday night he sneaks into that civil engineering firm's offices, steals five or six of their most recent proposals, then brings them back here and turns each one of them into one of these cars built out of parts from all over."
I actually believe him.
John P. Bachner is the executive vice president of ASFE/The Geoprofessional Business Association, a not-for-profit association of geoprofessional firms – firms that provide geotechnical, geologic, environmental, construction materials engineering and testing (CoMET), and related professional services. ASFE develops programs, services, and materials that its members apply to achieve excellence in their business and professional practices. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org