Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Time Waster - A Cautionary Tale

Panne in 2013
Classic Porsche prices have gone mad recently, and colleagues at work advised me to think of selling, or at least upping the insurance on my own classic - a 1973 911 T, known as "Panne" (French speakers may smile at this point).

Our new house hasn't got a garage, and Panne has been off the road for years. The chances of me getting the time, money and facilities to restore the car to good condition were close to zero.

Polished up nicely in 2016
So, one sunny day M and I got out rags, polish and the hoover and tried to make  an old car look as good as possible. We succeeded and M took some excellent pictures afterwards. On to E-Bay it went, with a decent reserve  and a decent starting bid. The first hint that we might do quite well with the car came early - the reserve price was met within the first couple of hours, while various messages started coming through offering 'cash on the nail' and trailering it off the next day.

These offers were politely refused, although some people were remarkably persistent "I'm going on holiday tomorrow..." "Cars are notoriously difficult to sell on EBay" and "Avoid time wasters" were just some of the messages that came in.

Over the next ten days, our lives gradually became obsessed with auction, as day by day the price increased. Some days it would inch up by a hundred or so. On others it would soar by several thousand in some strange bidding frenzy. I've never experienced anything like it, especially as most bidders showed no interest in coming over to actually see the car. There were three exceptions, one of which was The Time Waster.

The Time Waster came down to see the car during the first week of bidding. A good looking guy driving a huge black Landrover, I took an afternoon off work to greet him. That cost me half a day's holiday allowance and a scowl from my manager. The Time Waster was from a city in the Midlands, and claimed to know Porsches well. He looked over the car carefully - prodding with a screwdriver here and shining a little pocket torch there. Good for you, I thought, if I were spending a small fortune on a car I'd come and have a bloody good look too. The car itself had a metallic tink tink tink sound when the engine was cold. I thought that this was probably due to a mal-adjusted valve and had specifically mentioned it in the advert.

The Time Waster examined the history file of bills casually, we chatted a bit about his life - he was Eastern European via France and then moved to this country in the 1990s. I got a strong impression that he didn't like the car and was disappointed. None the less he stayed for a little while longer and then left, after an hour and bit. "He didn't like it much," I said to M when he'd gone.

Another week passes, two more enthusiastic blokes come to see the car, and as the last minutes tick by there's a final bid frenzy, the price exceeds our expectations (and the reserve) by 100%. Shock, surprise and delight. A deep breath and a blink and it's the Time Waster who's won the auction. More surprise and a wry smile - I really didn't expect to see or hear of him again.

Messages are swapped, and a phone call is made.

First shock, despite seeing the condition of the car and a clear description of 'frozen brakes' in the advertisement, Time Waster claims that his favourite car transporter guy has gone out of business, and that he'll come down on the train and pick up the car himself and drive it (yes, drive it on trade plates) over 100 miles back to his commercial premises in the Midlands. OK, so the guy is a loon. Plenty of them around and provided I get paid, I can't really argue, after all he supposed to be the expert.

Second shock, he's going to adjust the valves himself in an attempt to make that metallic ding ding noise go away. Hummmmm fair enough. He's won the auction, and provided I get paid, I don't really care what he does with the car.

I arrange at short notice to take a day off and collect the Time Waster from the station at around lunchtime. It's a hot lovely gorgeous day. He's wearing jeans and a tee shirt, with a little backpack. He's his usual charming self in the car, and asking me if it's OK for a part bank transfer payment and part cash. No problem with me, provided he pays in full, although I'm amused at yet another business man on some kind of fiddle. Of the many small business men and women I've known in Britain, France, the USA and elsewhere, very few have been completely honest.

We arrive and the time waster soon gets down to business. I persuade him to use my old carpet cuttings to lay on rather than the car's mats and provide the sockets and tools for the job. The Time waster seems good at this bit, although he does move the engine backwards and forwards when the handbook warns to only move it forward to avoid trouble with the timing chains... Hummmmm. Okay. He also manages to get quantities of oil on the driveway, as really you're supposed to drain the oil before you attempt this little manoeuvre.

Then surprise surprise he starts struggling with the job. 

There's a reason for this. At some point in the car's history, it was fitted with "CoolAir" aftermarket air-conditioning, a sensible option for sunny California. Part of many modifications to achieve this was the replacement of the normal crankcase pulley with a special 'double pulley' with an extra belt to power the air conditioning compressor. Unfortunately the double pulley only has one set of crankcase marks on it, instead of the usual 3 at 120 degree intervals. I tell him that when I do the valves, I use a pencil down the spark-plug hole in the cylinder and then adjust the valve when the pencil is at it's highest point. He frowns and carries on with the swearing and judgement method. I leave him to it to get a glass of water for both of us. When I return I find he's using a pencil in the spark plug hole... Sigh.

Next I see the way he's adjusting the valves. Instead of using the feeler gauge I've lent him, a special gauge with a Porsche part number, he's instead getting the piston to TDC and then tightening the adjustment screw all the way, and then untightening it by a set number of revolutions to get the 0.1mm tappet gap. Great.

My sense of unease grows as this complete stranger, whose so far paid me precisely £0.00 for the car so far, curses and fiddles with my Porsche. So it's with a sinking heart that I hear him claim he's discovered a problem with one of the camshafts. I take the torch and slide/wriggle on my back over oil covered tarmac to look up into the engine. I can't see what the problem is - it looks like a perfectly normal cam lobe to me.

And then, finally, it comes...

He asks for £500 off. 

I say I'll consult with M. She is understandably furious and tells me no way, we've had over 20 people bidding on the car and the 2nd and 3rd highest bids are all higher than £500 off the top bid. I relay this news to the Time Waster. He pulls a face and starts pleading. Then he asks me if he wants me to replace the valve covers and the spark plugs! Yes, please. So we spend another miserable and awkward hour in each others company while he get the plugs back in and the valve covers on.

I make one last plea to him, and offer to drive him to the station. He politely refuses and asks for directions to the train station on foot. He wanders off in the direction of the river which, if followed will guide him back to the train.

The Reason Why

When he's gone, the anger rises along with the question why? Why did he waste an entire day of both our lives on the off-chance that I'd knock £500 off a £30,000+ classic car. Hours have been spent thinking about and discussing this question. Here are the possibilities:

1) Culture. The Timewaster came to this country from Romania via France and emigrated here in 2004. Romanian and French culture are very different to that of Britain. Even after 12 years, he may not realise that in Britain an auction price is a promise and a contract and not the start of some further negotiation process.

2) Under estimating me. I'm a nice guy and live in a modest house with two other cars, one of which is 14 years old, the other 18 years old with sun-damaged paint. In short, I look and sound like the sort of guy who is short of money and rather naive, perhaps a bit desperate to sell. Everyone thinks they're tougher than they look and hard to fool but in my case it's true. I played serious poker successfully for nearly 10 years, and have spent 30 years in industry, more than a decade of which was running my own company. I also have a rather unpleasant hatred of car dealers and small businessmen in general. The Time Waster may have thought that I was a soft touch, and that if I agreed to reduce the price by £500, then that might just be a starting point for a more serious price reduction. If so he made a big mistake.

3) He was desperate. One of the last things he said to me was something like "Come on, it's a lot of money and I'm really stretched here." I somehow smiled sympathetically when I should have said "You should have bid on something you could afford then."

4) His recent divorce had affected his mind. During the course of our afternoon together, he mentioned a couple of times that his wife had been bonking someone else and how disappointed and upset he was about this. Divorce when you're the involuntary party is similar to grief. It drives people mad. They bid on old sports cars they can't afford and convince themselves it's a good idea to drive an old car back home over 100 miles when it hasn't moved for years and has almost-sized brakes. They think they can bargain a price down to something they can afford. They think that doing up an old car and making money from it will make them happy. This is my favourite theory, as it explains the Time Waster's rather crazy behaviour.

But really.... all the above is just me making excuses for him. The time waster really was a time waster. He came down and wasted half an afternoon, and then 10 days later he came down and wasted an entire day. That's fine for him - it was his choice, but not for me. I work for a company that doesn't give us days and afternoons off for free. It all came out of my holiday allowance.
 Panne is sold

After the Time Waster, I got in touch with E-Bay, left some stinking feedback, and contacted the chap who'd come second in the auction. He'd bid £100 less than the Time Waster, paid by bank transfer without fussing, and arranged to have the car collected by transporter a week later. No time wasted and a simple efficient transaction. The  car is now up in Scotland, being restored. I assume the Time Waster found his way back to the railway station and from there to home. I hope I never see him or hear from him again.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016


As I write, it looks like Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States.

Even typing that sentence feels unreal.

America has elected a con-man, a liar, a demagogue.

Why? My best guesses are:

  • The weakness of Hillary Clinton, one of the least talented and dislikable politicians to ever run for the White House.
  • The appalling effects of the 2008 recession, which large parts of the United States have never recovered from.
  • The ridiculous levels of executive pay, which cause huge amounts of resentment in ordinary people, whose wages have stagnated and in some cases actually diminished over the past couple of decades. 
  • Globalisation, which means that 'ordinary' people now find themselves competing against much of the world.
  • The failure of President Obama, who, lest we forget was elected on a 'hope and change' platform. He did provide change, but not enough, and his second term in particular was largely devoid of hope.
There are a two consolations from the election of Donald Trump

1) The entire American political system is designed to restrict the power of monarchs. Many Americans and foreigners don't realise how limited the powers of the President are, and how largely symbolic the role is.

2) With any luck Trump will find Benjamin Netanyahu  as obnoxious and repulsive as Obama did (and every other world leader). But unlike Obama, Trump may be able to turn that dislike into positive action. Dark days for Israel? I fervently hope so.

What lies ahead? Who the hell knows - perhaps a recession followed by a shallow recovery followed by the election of someone more able 4 years from now? Urgh. My predictive powers have been rubbish this year