Car Buying Is Not Always A Pretty Picture

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Do I have any rights if the car I bought turns out to be stolen? Can the police just take it off me with no compensation?

Back in 1968, my father got a good deal on a nice car. He was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy, and one evening at the base’s NCO Club, he met another chief who was about to transfer overseas. The guy had bought a new ’69 Pontiac Grand Prix before his transfer orders came through, but to ship the car to Japan would be too expensive.

(Not our picture, not our car. But it’s the same model, year, and color.)

The car was a beauty, with green paint and a cream interior, it had the 428 cu. in. V8 engine with 4 barrel carburetor, and all of the luxury options. MSRP had been $6000, but the chief was in a hurry to sell it before he had to ship out, so my father got it for $4200. Sailors made these deals pretty commonly, because the disruption of an overseas posting was so normal.

Our family loved that car, and we traveled often in it. I remember the back seats were very comfortable, even though the car was a luxury sports sedan. For most sports cars, the back seats are just a formality.

One morning, I woke up to see that the driveway was empty, though my father was in the kitchen as usual, drinking his coffee and smoking a cigarette. He’d gone to the horsetrack in New Hampshire the night before, but when he came out to the parking lot, he’d found state troopers and a tow truck crowded around our Grand Prix.

When he protested to the police, they told him the car was stolen. They’d done a routine sweep of the parking lot, checking VIN numbers, and our car came up hot. So, the car was going into impoundment, and my father would have to find a ride home to Massachusetts, maybe 25 minutes.

My father tried to protest, but the Statie glared, pointed his finger at my father’s nose, and said, “Look, count yourself lucky I’m not arresting you for possession of stolen property.” So my father called a friend to come get him, and a few days later, we had a green Chevy Nova in the driveway, the cheapest replacement he could find. Ironically, it was nearly the same shade of green as the Grand Prix had been.

As my father retold the story many times later on, the guy who sold him the car probably wasn’t a sailor. Anyone can buy a uniform, and the base’s gatehouse guards don’t always squint properly at a military ID badge.