Traveling Far For That New Car

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

Jamie KitmanwriterTim Marrsphotographer

Ever buy a new car from a distant dealer? It's not the thrifty customer's typical first choice—few deals are so good that they're worth the additional time, shipping, or travel expense. But neither is purchasing cars from afar just a rich guy thing to do, as I once believed. Buying a vehicle hundreds or even thousands of miles away can be the committed car guy thing to do. Or just the thing for the guy who ought to be committed.

I traveled to Northern California from New York once and drove home in a new 1994 Alfa Romeo 164LS. Alfa's departure from the U.S. market wouldn't officially commence until the end of the 1995 model year, yet even in September 1993 sources at Alfa headquarters in New Jersey were telling me that the only blue 164LS five-speed in America was at a dealership in the airport support city of Burlingame, along Highway 101 in the shadows of SFO and a mere 2937 miles from my home. A complete dearth of blue, '94 five-speeds, less than one month into the 1994 model year? Kind of odd, but who was I to argue?

Although there was only a modest discount involved, the same as if Alfa's cars were selling well, it seemed obvious to me that Alfa's end was nigh. If it had any intention of making a go of it in America, why couldn't the company find some more blue cars, with most of the 1994 selling season still left? Talk about low expectations. But I'd learned much in my short years covering the automobile industry.

I was also able to reason backward from my eagerness to invest in the Milanese firm's products, which reminded me of previous interests I'd taken in Fiat and Peugeot cars, buying them only to then watch the demise of their makers' U.S. operations shortly thereafter, in 1981 and 1992, respectively.

Basically, I traveled far because I had to, to get what I wanted. I've never regretted it, not even when the 164's windshield cracked in three places courtesy of flying stones on the long trip back to New York, or when I flattened part of its exhaust system on a small canyon masquerading as a pothole in a convenience store parking lot somewhere in New Mexico.

Two years later, the Alfa had to go. I'd tracked down one of the last Land Rover Defender 90 station wagons remaining from a limited one-year-only U.S. allotment in 1995, and I got on down to Wilmington, Delaware, to get it. While I regret selling my 164 to make it possible, Arles blue, limited-edition Defenders like mine quickly became so coveted that the dealer bought it back two years later for only $1000 less than I'd paid for it. In effect, I'd driven it practically for free—if you don't count my numerous impacted vertebrae and its old-school V-8's extraordinary thirst for premium gasoline.

In 2005 I traveled to Waltham, Massachusetts, to buy a Lotus Elise from Steve Serio's Lotus Motorsports. This car, one of the first North American-spec Elises, seems to have retained a goodly portion of its value, unlike the Lotus franchise. So call that another road win.

Just last week, I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to buy my first new car in nine years, one I didn't even know I wanted until I heard about it at this year's New York Auto Show.

A few years back, Mini started making noises about bringing a van version of its Clubman model stateside. It's called the Clubvan, and Mini showed some at the 2013 New York show. Being a big believer in small vans, and, like most gearheads, a fan of the funky sedan delivery look, I strongly encouraged the Mini folk to bring it in. It escaped my attention that they actually had.

The Mini panel van is small, it is cute, and it might have been a good promotional vehicle for small, upscale American businesses. With its barn doors and 33 cubic-feet of load capacity, it offers some actual, albeit mild, utility. But even among its natural audience—cupcake bakers, Anglophile sandal makers, and humanist children's clowns, the artisanal sea salt of the earth, if you will—its popularity was hindered by prices starting at $25,985. The steep figure reflected the so-called 25 percent chicken tax placed on imported commercial vehicles in the early 1960s by President Johnson in response to French and West German tariffs on American chicken exports. As a result, only 50 or 52 Clubvans were shipped here (depending on whom you believe), and they proceeded to sell slowly or not at all. Virtually no marketing dollars were expended, and awareness was low. Shortly after it arrived, the Clubvan got kicked to the curb, making it the rarest Mini ever sold here—and, perhaps, a future collectible. However, since it was also a new car that was growing old on Mini forecourts, dealing days had arrived.

With the help of Mini product planner Patrick McKenna, who at this year's New York show alerted me to the Clubvan's demise, an ice blue, six-speed 2013 Cooper Clubvan, one of the few, one of the proud, was found sitting at Mini of Louisville. With a big discount, no money down, and favorable financing, these motivated sellers persuaded me it could be mine. How could I say no?

So, one flight to Louisville; an introductory session with salesman Mike Morrison, a gentleman gearhead of the first order (the man owns a Renault R8 Gordini); and a quick but substantial meal at Atypical Man BBQ on St. Matthews Avenue, a few blocks from the dealership, and I was the proud owner of one oddball Mini.

I remember as a kid seeing a never-changing line of phosphorescent Superbirds out front of the Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in Paramus, New Jersey. No one wanted them then, proving that today's unsalable car can be tomorrow's coveted classic.

The Clubvan is no slouch, but it's no Superbird. I'm not exactly sure what I'll do with it, but it won't be going to the dragstrip. I was pleased to note, however, that on my way home to New York, I averaged 41 mpg over 800 highway miles. You can't hold a lot in a Clubvan, but it's got enough room for some good ideas. Like this one: Some cars are worth traveling for.

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