When I was a boy I dreamed that I sat always at the wheel of a magnificent Stutz - in those days the Stutz was the stamp of the romantic life - A Stutz as low as a snake and as red as in Indiana barn. - F. Scott Fitzgerald

There's no question that automobiles have always held a special place in our lives.But if we like to drive them, we don't necessarily like to buy them - especially these days. Many of us are intimidated by high price tags, pushy salesmen, complicated machinery.

Despite the fact that this is one of the major purchases consumers ever make, it is one that is often made without proper preparation and care. Emotion and impulse often cloud the issue, buyer's remorse creeps up.

Proper preparation may not eliminate all the headaches, but it can go a long way toward smoothing out some of the wrinkles, says Joseph C. Fackrell Jr., director of the Motor Vehicle Business Administration (MVBA), the state agency charged with regulating automobile dealers and transporters and investigating automobile fraud.

The most important thing you can do, he says, in avoiding problems is choosing the right dealer. "No matter how prepared you are, if you get into a dealership that wants to rip you off, it can do it and there's not much you can do. They know all the ins and outs; there is no way you can outsmart a dealer."

Not that there are that many dealers who try to rip off consumers, but problems creep up every now and then, he says.

So how do you find a good dealer? Here are Fackrell's suggestions:

- Talk to friends and associates who have recently purchased a car to find out about their experience. They can give you an idea of what to expect.

- Check the dealer's complaint record (at the MVBA office at the State Fair grounds or at the Better Business Bureau). "Remember that not all complaints are well-founded, but if you see a lot of things happening, it should be a red flag," says Fackrell. Approximately 40 percent of the complaints his office receives, he says, involve failure to deliver title during the time required by law, but other complaints also surface.

- Look at the dealer's ads. Beware of claims that seem too good to be true.

- Visit the dealership and test its "climate." There are dealers that will take time to explain things without applying any pressure.

The next step in preparation is to decide just what kind of car you want, says Preston Kearsley, director of the Utah Auto Dealer's Association.

Too often, he says, people don't think through their purchase, don't even test drive the car until they are driving it off the lot. Then when it doesn't meet their expectations, they try to paint the dealer as the bad guy.

True story: a man went out to buy a station wagon for his family and stopped off at a Porsche dealer and bought a Porsche instead. He had fun driving it around all afternoon, but when he got home his wife was furious and told him to take it back. By this time, he'd put 500 miles on it and the dealer wasn't about to take it back.

That kind of buyer's remorse can be avoided, says Kearsley, if people do their homework before they go to buy. "Look at Consumer Reports and all the other material available. And, more importantly, know what kind of car you need and what you will expect it to do."

With those ideas firmly in place, the next step is getting the best deal. Fackrell's suggestions here include:

- Don't base your decision on price alone. "Go to any dealer and you will get about the same price," he says. So, look at things like warranties, service, trade-in, etc.

- Don't fall into the trap that low monthly payments mean a good deal. You may pay only $200 a month - but end up doing it for 60 months at 36 percent interest. Look at the total picture.

- When getting a price quote, be sure all the charges are disclosed, including such things as additional accessories, delivery charges, trade-in price juggling, documentation fee, additional profit and so forth.

- If ever you feel uncomfortable or pressured, get up and walk away. Don't worry about hurting the salesman's feelings.

"It's true that there are some aggressive salesmen out there," says Kearsley. "But I would never sign anything just to help one win a trip or any such thing. Buy the car you want, not the one that satisfies the salesman."

- Do not sign anything or put any money down unless you want to buy the vehicle. Generally, once you sign something, you have bought the car.

- If someone makes a claim, have him put it in writing on the contract.

- If you are buying a used car, examine it carefully - or better yet, have your mechanic take a look at it. Realize that if you buy "as is," there is no warranty.

- Be sure you know what the warranty covers.

- Don't sign anything that is not completely filled out.

- Remember that there is no three-day recision right when you purchase a car. You don't have three days to think it over and change your mind; any contract you sign is binding.

- The dealer should give you copies of all documents you sign, a copy of the completed odometer statement (on used cars), title to the vehicle (unless a temporary permit is issued), a temporary permit (unless a title is given to you. The dealer has 30 days to deliver title and license plates to you.

What can you do if there is a problem after the sale? The first step is to contact the dealer, says Fackrell. "A reputable dealer wants to help you." Also, he says, don't expect the world if the dealer made a mistake. "I've seen consumers try to blackmail the dealer into getting a better deal. That's illegal."

If the problem is with a new car covered by a warranty, your problem is with the manufacturer not the dealer.

If you don't get satisfactory help, he says, contact the MVBA. But, he says, remember that there isn't a law that covers everything out there. Buyer beware, still applies.

Fackrell would like to get consumer opinions and ideas about how cars are sold in Utah. Here is a chance, if there are things that have always bothered you, or if there are changes you would like to see, to let your voice count. Fill out the questionnaire on C-1 and return it to the MVBA.

For example, some say consumers would like to do away with the haggling system, but dealers seem to like it. Others say dealers would like to do away with the haggling system but consumers seem to like it. Here's a chance to voice your opinion.

Fackrell is also interested in knowing what legislative changes you would like to see, and what car dealers are doing right.

And while it's true, says Kearsley that auto dealers often suffer from stereotypes, for the most part those stereotypes are not true. "The dealers in this state are great people, upstanding businessmen."

As an association, he says, they are developing advertising policies to eliminate any misleading advertising and have other measures to help to self-regulated the members. And they, too, are interested in knowing about any problems that develop.

But he says, the consumer needs to be aware of the dealer's side as well. The dealer has to pay financing while cars sit in his showroom, he has a lot of money tied up in inventory, it's an extremely competitive market.

"Dealers don't have near as much flexibility in pricing cars as they have in the past."

Still, he says, this has been a fairly good business year. "It's been volatile. The dealers have to work harder, it's not as much fun."

But, he says, there are some good deals out there. Just be sure you know what you really want.

Consumer questionnaire

1. What bothers you most about the way car dealers do business in Utah ?

2. What changes need to be made in the way car dealers advertise ?

3. Which laws governing car dealers should be done away with or changed ?

4. If you could enact one new law governing car dealers, what would it be ?

5. What pleases you most about the way car dealers do business in Utah ?

6. If you are the victim of fraud or misrepresentation regarding the sale of a motor vehicle, do you know which state agency is available to help you ? If yes, what is the name of that agency:

RETURN TO:

Joseph C. Fackrell, Jr., Director

MOTOR VEHICLE BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION

State Fairgrounds 1095 Motor Avenue

Salt Lake City, Utah 84116