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No Fixed Abode: Winning Through Intimidation and the ‘Doc Fee’

A couple of weeks ago, I told the tale of an extremely profitable Soul sale. Some of you criticized me for implying that the “doc fee” was negotiable. I don’t know what kind of mindset you would have to possess in this world to think that a doc fee is not negotiable. Even if you can’t get the actual line item off your deal, you should be able to obtain a similar savings elsewhere. It’s such a scam that lately a few state courts have gotten involved in the discussion. The actual costs of “documenting” a sale don’t come close to what dealerships are trying to charge. It’s pure, raw profit.

Still, I wouldn’t expect my readers to do something I’m personally unwilling to do. So I will tell you the story of how I walked out of a dealership over a $300 doc fee. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal — but, in this case, the dealership was six hundred miles from my house, and I had no way to get home.

Eleven years and one month ago, I took delivery of a new 2005 Volkswagen Phaeton at my local dealer, Midwestern Auto Group. It was odd-duck combination of every option you could get on an eight-cylinder Phaeton and the poverty-spec 17-inch wheels that were a no-cost downgrade. Painted in a shimmering light grey and chock-full of California walnut trim, it was a lovely automobile and quite a step up from the 2003 Discovery 4.6 I’d been driving up to that point. Since MAG hadn’t stocked a Phaeton in quite some time, I’d had to request a dealer trade, which led to me paying nearly sticker: $78,000 against an MSRP of $81,595.

Mrs. Baruth (and by this I’m referring to my first wife, not Danger Girl) hadn’t been very enthusiastic about the Phaeton idea. She thought I should have gotten an Audi A8L like the car I was using as a company loaner at the time, or possibly a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. But once she got behind the wheel of the big VW, she was absolutely unwilling to let it go. And I mean absolutely unwilling. Day after day I woke up to find the driveway occupied by her tuned-up SRT-4, with my anonymous uber-sedan nowhere in sight.

Clearly the remedy was to get another Phaeton for myself. Once the snow cleared, I sold the SRT-4 and decided to go shopping for a 2006 model.

This was a bit of a problem, because VW had only brought three hundred ’06 Phaetons into the country as part of what they surely hoped would be a gradual and unnoticed retreat from the segment. The good-news side of the situation was a few dealers had been unable to sell their single-unit allocation and, with a Phaeton-free 2007 model year approaching, some of them were starting to feel a bit desperate.

The closest one of those dealers to me was in Virginia, about six hundred miles away. They had a black 2006, with Eucalyptus trim and no options, in stock. Sticker of $66,000. I told Mrs. Baruth that if she bought this one for me, I would let her keep the grey one. Two days later, she came back with the number: just a shade under $56,000. She handled financing and all the details, which was only fair because she’d spent half a year driving a car around that I was paying for and which had my name on the title. All we had to do was hop a plane to Norfolk on a Saturday morning and go get the car.

The salesman who picked us up from the airport was a cheerful if slightly confused fellow. To begin with, he hadn’t even understood that he was the salesman of record until that morning; my wife had worked the deal with his manager directly before being passed to a nice young woman who handled the F&I details with very little stress or difficulty. He also couldn’t understand why we would fly all the way from Ohio for a VW. I didn’t bother explaining to him that he was actually in possession of the East Coast’s last 2006 Phaeton.

The sales manager was a bull-necked, square-jawed fellow, about 5’11”, wearing a black leather jacket despite the warm weather and fairly gleaming with gel in his slicked-back black hair. I’ve often suspected dudes like this are actually grown from seeds planted out back behind the service building; you never meet them in real life but they are omnipresent in automotive sales, bristling with imperfectly suppressed menace and usually loaded to the brim with the most crass and depressing stock phrases known to man. I knew when I saw him that he would: over-squeeze my hand, call me “Buddy”, turn his shoulders instead of his head to look at something. I was not disappointed.

“Buddy, this is a hell of a car. A real shit-kicker,” he clarified. “Now, Candace (the F&I girl; not her real name) couldn’t make it in this morning, but she gave me all the paperwork, so just sign and you can be on your way for that long drive home.” I took a brief look. Everything looked about right. Except …

“What’s this $300 ‘doc fee’?” I inquired, holding up the paper and pointing to the line.

“Well,” he said, practically growling as he spat out the words, “that’s the doc fee.”

“I can see that. The price we were quoted didn’t include it.”

“Sure, it did.”

“No, it didn’t. I have everything written down, and the number is $300 off.”

“The doc fee is extra,” he said, as if to a child. “We can legally charge $300, and that’s what we charge.”

“I’m not going to pay anything that I didn’t agree to before I got on the plane.”

“Well,” our new friend shrugged, puffing up his neck to match the increasingly combative tone of his voice, “you gotta pay it.” The forty-five-year-old me would have laughed it off, but back then I was physically stronger than I am now, fifty pounds lighter, and perpetually pissed-off thanks to a day job in the, shall we say, pharmaceuticals industry in which my customers were both unpredictable and violent. Certainly. I was no self-conscious tough guy like our sales manager — then, as now, I resembled nothing so much in this world as an absent-minded professor of medieval literature — but, at the time, I very much believed in Macbeth’s creed that “the very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand.”

“I’m not going to pay it,” I hissed. “Candace didn’t put it in the deal.” Now we were leaning over the table at each other.

“Candace told me she put it in the deal,” he replied. This seemed quite at odds with his previous statement about it being extra.

“She’s a fuckin’ liar,” I said. He stood up abruptly. So did I.

“Candace,” he sputtered, “is my wife.

“Well, in that case, your wife,” I clarified, “is a fuckin’ liar.” And we stood there eye to eye for an unpleasant ten seconds or so. It was at that point that I remembered a few critical words from one of my favorite books, Winning Through Intimidation by Robert Ringer. In the book, Robert points out that wealthy people always have control in any deal they negotiate because they don’t need that particular deal to get by. They have staying power. So they can always walk away.

I wasn’t so sure I could walk away. I was not wealthy at the time. (Or now, I should add.) I’d already spent about six hundred dollars flying to Norfolk. It would cost me another thousand to go home via plane. And this guy had the only Phaeton out there. He didn’t know it, maybe, but I knew it. If I walked out, I’d be shopping for something else in a $56k sedan — a 530i, maybe, or a low-options Audi A6. Utter junk next to a Phaeton. So I did not have staying power, and I had no options other than just abandoning the deal.

But then I remembered another thing that Ringer wrote: “Guts can be a substitute for wealth.” In other words, if you’re willing to live with the consequences of your actions, you have just as much staying power as a rich guy. I might not like the idea of driving an A6 instead of a Phaeton just to save $300, but I was willing to do it on principle. So I smiled at this fellow and played the only card I had in my hand.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Keep your car. I’m calling a cab. We’ll fly back home.” And to my wife’s astonishment, I picked up my Franklin planner and stormed out. Called information and got the number of a cab company, called and requested a ride to the airport. And I was standing in the lot waiting for that cab when Mr. Leather Jacket sheepishly walked out, palms out in the universal monkey language of surrender.

“We’ll eat the three hundred bucks,” he said.

“Then have your fellow bring the car around,” I responded, “because we have a deal.” When the Phaeton arrived, I almost called the cabbie back. The paint was badly scratched, with most of the damage on the hood and front fenders. The grille was ruined, with deep cuts past the chrome into the plastic. One of the wheels was deeply curbed. But it was the only Phaeton they, or anybody else, had. So I signed the papers and drove it home through the Appalachians in what turned out to be a truly wonderful, memorable evening. Once I got settled back in Powell, I handed my list of complaints to Mrs. B, who contacted VW customer care and got me a replacement wheel, a full rub-out wax detail to fix the scratches, and my preferred Phaeton grill (the two-bar 2005 version instead of the six-bar 2006) as a cherry on top.

That big black VW and I had some great times together. We hit 130 mph on the back straight at VIR, won an SCCA autocross trophy, and traveled everywhere east of Mississippi, from Chicago to Orlando, in style. If I’d known how much I would come to love the Phaeton, I never would have quibbled about the $300 fee in the first place, but sometimes it’s better not to know what’s ahead. And I wish I had the car back sometimes, but I’ll tell you something that another one of my life coaches, the late Townes Van Zandt, once said, something that I occasionally find myself clinging to in the dead of the night like a lifebuoy in a nightmare storm: It don’t pay to think too much / on the things you leave behind.

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