There are "car people," and then there's me. My old car has half-moons of rust around every wheel arch that make it look like it has aging shoulders peeling from a bad sunburn. Inside, all the dirt and coffee cups and mismatched gloves that have accumulated over the years have had the pleasure of seeing every angle of the city at least 127 times. I once took a ripped bag of birdseed on a very special 14-month tour of the Twin Cities in that car.
I don't really care about cars. Or at least I didn't. The last time I purchased a car, the "Thong Song" was still in its infancy and there was lots of talk-radio chatter about Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress from the Gap.
Now, everything about car buying has changed. Including choices of crazy button-splattered steering wheels. (They can play music from your phone, just FYI.)
Which is why it was weird to find these super-futuristic metal machines are sold in such throwback showrooms. It turns out, if you're a woman shopping by yourself for a new car in the Twin Cities, you're going to have to take a time machine back to 1977.
Recently, I went in search of a new car that didn’t have a major oil leak at the head gasket, a penchant for coughing up white smoke, nearly non-existent brakes, and birdseed in every crack and crevice.
I visited 8 dealerships in the Twin Cities metro, and called a few more. "Cute" was the big thing all the sales guys (and, yes, all the sales people I encountered were men) wanted to sell to me, though I never said that word. "I saw a cute car you'd look great in ... We had a cute car that would've been perfect for you…I know we're getting a really cute one in as trade in a few days. You'll love it."
Ok, I could live with them assuming I was looking for "cute." After all, I have been known to call things cute. And, well, I ended up buying a hatchback that is "cute" in a doorstop kind of way.
But there were other things:
I was asked at a dealership in Inver Grove Heights: "Can you purchase a car today? Or do you need to go home and talk it over with someone first?" You mean my husband? My boyfriend? Some man pulling weeds down the street? My friend as we "gab on the telephone" over wine? I am pretty sure I can make the decision all by myself, I told him.
I was looked over and ignored at two dealerships, though salesmen were just hanging around chatting.
I was asked if maybe I wanted to consider something a bit bigger, "for a family."
I was told a hatchback I was looking at was great for shopping.
I was asked if I would be co-signing with someone.
I was called sweetheart. Twice.
There are lots of places a woman can go to be reminded that old-school sexism is alive and well: an office, the internet, the bar, just to name a few. But car dealerships are a particularly striking reminder of boys’ club sexism. It's not the systemic kind that's going to keep a woman out of a job or, say, a science lab. It's the kind of everyday undermining and disrespect that wants to get your pretty little head “into that cute little car."
Pages and pages of websites are dedicated to doling out advice to women buying cars alone. There’s even a woman’s survival guide to buying a car solo. One web site, promoting "law for all," says, "The cardinal rule for any car buyer is to do research before walking into a dealership. The importance of this rule is doubled for women." In other words, women, you have to be twice as informed to get what you want.
And twice as aggressive.
In Minnesota, dealerships have “Best Price” pricing or “Fair Value Pricing,” which the sales people will tell you: "The price you see on the car is the price it is." That's not exactly true. While negotiating car prices isn't what it used to be, there is room to negotiate, especially when you have a very detailed list of prices on similar cars at other dealerships. I walked out of "deals" three times. A $450 price difference maybe "didn't matter to financing," but it mattered to me. I wasn't going to take the car without it. I left, and guess what? I got a call that I could have it for $450 less.
Then there's the financing process. One guy at a dealership in Hopkins told me I could only get 4.99 percent financing. He'd checked at every one of their 20 or so banks, and that was the best deal he could get for me.
Again, this wasn't true. I'd already done the research and knew I could get 2.99 financing on a used car. He tried to tell me I was lying: "Where are you getting this idea? You don't know you can get that until you actually apply and go through the whole process, which we are doing here." So I pulled out my paperwork, showing him I could get 2.99 from my credit union.
He walked in the back to "talk to someone." I imagined he stared at the painting of mallards in the hallway and counted to 15. When he came back, lo and behold, he could work with the credit union to give me that rate, too.
But I was too creeped out by how he treated me. So I walked out.
In the end, I wound up purchasing a 2015 used hatchback, for a lower price than advertised and for the best financing rate available in Minnesota on used cars. I felt good about it. A former car salesperson I know said I’d gotten a great deal, and probably “made those guys squirm.”
Two weeks after driving that new car off the lot, someone scraped the entire passenger side of my new car, leaving two scratches that extended like jet trails across the front and rear doors.
I wound up getting it fixed for $100. But I couldn’t help but imagine it was a message in Morse code from my old car that’s still parked in front of my house: “That’s a lot of work to avoid some white smoke and birdseed.”
Molly Priesmeyer is the co-owner of Good Work Group, a creative and storytelling consultancy dedicated to helping mission-driven businesses and organizations succeed. Her stories on culture, the arts, and the environment have appeared in the Star Tribune; Pioneer Press; Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine; Rolling Stone; MinnPost; and others. She's been working on her novel, "Why Me? A Martyr's Guide to Life," since 5th grade. She can be reached at www.mollypriesmeyer.com.