Roadside Attractions

Tim Marrs

At no point in my life have I ever thought, "Man, I just have to own an AMC-era Jeep that gets 11 mpg." But I'm out getting groceries when my trip is derailed by just such a vehicle. It's a 1989 Grand Wagoneer with 117,000 miles, no rust, and a $3500 asking price. And it's not at a dealership. It's not on eBay. It's the best, most tempting kind of used car: one that's for sale by the side of the road.

Never having contemplated a Grand Wagoneer up close, I find it shockingly appealing. I start picturing myself riding around with my dogs in the back, windows down, driving to beach parties where we'd sit around a bonfire and talk about surfing while drinking craft beers and steaming clams I'd dug myself just that morning. The Grand Wagoneer, I decide, is shabby chic for charming rogues. And only $3500! That's a good price, possibly!

As I head home, I begin planning how to convince my wife that we need this thing that I heretofore didn't realize we needed at all. But by the time I reach the driveway, I'm over it. The Grand Wagoneer would be a lot of work. I'd have to figure out whether you can use Pledge on fake wood, and then I'd also have to buy a surfboard and learn how to surf and dig clams and become a charming rogue, all of which sounds like a lot of effort. But the fact that this humble used car caused me to stop in the first place (and text-message the seller) is a testament to the strange power of the car by the side of the road.

I'll admit that I've never bought a car that I discovered by the side of the road. But when I raise the subject with my car-addled friends, I'm deluged by stories of winsome machines that beckoned from the shoulder of some highway. "I think that a car by the side of a road exudes the forbidden excitement of the hitchhiker or the attractive movie prostitute mixed with the rescue-me aura of a stray puppy," says Elana Scherr. She bought a slant-six '72 Dodge Challenger that was parked on a side street in L.A., and that car led her to build a 440-cubic-inch V-8 in her living room, meet her boyfriend, and land a job writing for Hot Rod. In her case, the car by the side of the road worked out great. "Basically, I think the lesson is, never think about anything before doing it," Elana says.

But it's not all love stories and living-room Mopar rebuilds. David Wade, a CBS morning news anchor in Boston, once succumbed to the allure of an electric blue 1980 Corvette parked next to a Dunkin' Donuts. "I went in for a cruller and I came out with an abnormally bright Corvette," he says. "I realized it was a mistake a few months later when, in the middle of the winter in a desolate storage unit (the collateral cost of an impulse purchase), the back tire rolled on top of my ankle while I tried to jump the battery in the back of the car. I had to pull my leg hard enough that, after five minutes, my foot finally came out but my sneaker remained under the tire. I knew then that old Corvettes need to stay in old Prince songs." I hope he enjoyed the cruller.

Our own Jason Cammisa once used his specialized automotive knowledge to score a 1984 Jaguar XJ6 that had been for sale by the side of the road for a year. "It had a fuel leak, so the owner let it sit," Cammisa says. "I plunked down the cash, went outside to the car, hit the button that switched to the other fuel tank -- a button about which the owner was completely unaware -- and drove it away." I'll bet that guy was really kicking himself as his leaky-fuel-tank XJ6 drove away and all he had to show for it was a bunch of money.

The force of serendipity that causes roadside purchases also underpins impulsive Internet car-buying, which explains how I recently ended up making a 700-mile round trip to purchase a Lincoln MKT EcoBoost. It tows like a truck, hauls kids like a minivan, accelerates like a sport sedan, and looks like a half-evolved cyborg land whale. And that, you have to agree, is a unique combination of attributes.

So far, I'm really enjoying my twin-turbo all-wheel-drive family barge. But inevitably I'll outgrow it. And when that time comes, I'll park it by the side of the road, slap on a For Sale sign, and let the magic happen.

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