The salesman leaned back against another car, ticking off the features on his fingers.
"Air, power steer, electric sunroof, auto, leather seats - and it'll cost yer fifteen hundred bucks. That's pretty bloody good."
He was right, but then he started to stretch credibility.
"Cut out the rust on this side, a quick re-spray, polish the rest of the paint and we'd have it back on the block at three-nine-ninety."
I looked at the patches of rust peeping shyly out from the paint on the top of the doors, on the lower rear sill panel, and around the edge of the bonnet, and wondered. But, well, it was still a pretty damn nice car.
"How 'bout a drive?" I said. "Whack on a trade plate and we'll take it for a quick run."
The salesman looked vague. "We've actually lent out our trade plate for the afternoon," he said, casually acknowledging the illegal practice. "I can drive it if you want."
I considered the three months automatic loss of licence if caught driving an unregistered car, then said that I'd take the wheel - but only around the block. The sleazy salesman backed the car out and I noticed a near-flat rear tyre.
"Got a compressor around the place?" I asked. "The back tyre's down."
The salesman looked taken aback. An air compressor? His expression seemed to ask.
"Just take it down to the servo and use their air-line."
"No," I said. "You take it down to the petrol station and then I'll take it for a drive."
He nodded, and went off to the main road petrol station, driving an unregistered and uninsured car with the casual insouciance of long familiarity.
But just what was I doing in this downmarket yard, peering at the rusty wrecks in the rear row? Partner Georgina and I had decided that we wanted another car. Well, I had, and she'd become sufficiently infected with the Car Crazies to agree to come along. I had a grand total of dollars (literally a grand...) in my wallet, but I still wanted something that was automotively a little different.
An old Mercedes, or perhaps even something like a Volvo or Humber Super Snipe. And it didn't even worry me if it was more Toyota Crown than English decorum. But it had to have character, to have history, to be part of the grand automotive world of the last 100 years; that century where cars reflected more than just transport and had characters that embodied their country's contemporary social, economic and spiritual values. In fact, a pristine Mazda R100 would have been perfect - Japanese production engineering of a German's engine design; typical Oriental period fussiness in the detail overlain with the purity of coupe styling. But - of course - a roadworthy R100 would cost a helluva lot more than $1000....
We'd looked at a Renault 20TS in another yard. Rough? - this car was so rough that I expected it to bark at any moment. But instead it started with the noise that normally comes from having no rear muffler. A look under the back showed that the spot diagnosis was correct... The rust was right through one door, the gloriously huge rear hatch had long since assumed a liking for gravity that the two pneumatic struts had no hope battling against, and the car might have had air, but the cooling abilities of that stream of molecules was entirely imaginary. Priced at $1300 it looked like an awful lot of money for decrepit period French practicality and luxury.
The ride was smooth, the front brakes locked prematurely, and when I inadvertently triggered the windscreen wipers, we found that the rubber of one wiper was entirely missing. Ooops, sorry about that semi-circular scratch in the windscreen.... But the biggest obstacle to forward progress was that - unless driven manually - the auto refused to select first or second gear. Or maybe it was meant to be that way? Either way, I didn't like it.
We moved on.
Yards came and went, often stacked deep with cheap cars. But they were common machines; old Toyotas (no Crowns amongst them), Holdens (but ratty Commodores, not HQ 2-doors which I'd have welcomed to my stable), old Mitsubishis (but never an original idiosyncratic Sixties Colt to be seen).
And then we reached Mr Sleaze's plot.
On the back row was the Peugeot 604, 2.7 litres of V6 under the bonnet, electric sunroof, the sharp-edged design of Peugeot's most extravagant car. Twenty-three thousand dollars in 1979 - about the same as a Porsche 924 - and now $1500 twenty-one years later. Four wheel discs, SOHC-per-bank all-alloy engine, GM 3-speed auto, a car Wheels magazine had called "France's new limousine".
On the road it was smooth and sweet. We wound back the electric sunroof, relished the split leather seats covered with soft lambswool seat covers - and noted that the tacho was missing a needle. The air again didn't work - "Just needs a re-gas," said the salesman from the back seat - but the car steered and rode beautifully. You didn't need a lot of imagination to see the Peugeot lion badge heritage that connected this car to today's superb 206, 306 and 406 models. But what about power? The V6 - a design shared with Volvo and Renault - was never said to be anything wonderful. I put my foot down to the kickdown position and the trans dropped back a gear. The engine revs rose - then were snuffed out, a stuttering note quickly dying to nothing. I glanced at the fuel gauge at the same time as our rear passenger confidently exclaimed, "Out of petrol!".
We weren't more than a kilometre from the yard - and a marooned car with a dry fuel tank wasn't my problem - so I wasn't much concerned. It was a lovely day to walk back to my parked Audi S4; pity about the abbreviated test drive, though. But the salesman had obviously been in this situation before.
"Just roll her back to the yard!" he said enthusiastically.
This seemed about as likely as the tank magically re-filling itself; but I kept pointing the now non-powered steering wheel down the slight incline. And the car rolled and rolled. It rolled around roundabouts, through right-angled turns, down streets and over slight rises. It rolled all the way back to the white gravel inside the chainwire fence, coming to halt only a metre or so from where it had been sitting.
I liked it; it satisfied all of my criteria - with the exception that it was fifty percent more dollars than I had available. But still, the salesman had let slip that the car hadn't been started for three weeks - and surely buyers of rusty Pug 604s weren't all that numerous? I checked the front and rear lights, wound the electric windows up and down - the driver's was sticky but at least the motor wasn't burnt out - and considered the bodywork and trim. What I could see of the engine under the huge aircleaner looked fine, and the carb - a twin Solex - wouldn't be as hard as injection to overhaul if there was a prob in that area.
I tuned to Mr Sleaze. "I'll give you a grand for it," I said confidently.
"No, fifteen hundred's as low as I'll go," he replied quickly.
I was astounded. No "I'll take twelve hundred" or "that's a bit lower than I was wanting"? Just a flat rejection?
So, how much did I want this car, then? Weirdly, it reminded me of my own Audi, sitting out on the street. The Peugeot had no power - and probably had no handling as well - but in the sort of drives that I intended doing, it was going to be almost fatefully like the Audi. Cruising along the coast, sunroof back, windows down and absorbing the salty dusk air, the 604 wouldn't be much different to the Audi. It wouldn't be the brap-brap-brap of a ported rotary, or the upright refinement of a Mercedes or Humber, or even the I'm-in-something-different of a Morris 1100. It was just a little close to the open-sunroof, smooth ride, refined Audi. And, since the Audi cost something like forty times as many dollars as were being asked for the 604, that was some compliment to the old Peugeot.
So we walked away.
But.... I don't know. If the Peugeot was sitting in my driveway right now I'd go out to it, to lift the bonnet and look at the engine, to sit in its seats (all of 'em, one after the other) and relish its space and features, and then... and then, I'd go for that night cruise along the coast. The one thousand, five hundred dollars? It would have been well spent....
Footnote: Two days later Julian Edgar bought a 1968 Volvo 142 two-door... for $1000.