Car dealers can't meet the demand for clean, low-mileage used cars

By , Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

If it's a snappy late-model used car you're after, you've got company - lots of it. Tens of thousands of other motorists from coast to coast want the same thing.

They're also looking for the larger cars, including vans and station wagons, as opposed to the compacts, subcompacts, and minis.

The demand for clean, low-mileage cars is so high that when a dealer takes one in trade, it goes out the door almost as fast as the ink dries on the contract. People are paying top dollar, and most buyers don't bat an eye.

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''A motorist can get a much better deal today in a small car, but that is not what the public wants to buy,'' asserts James F. Terry, used-vehicle manager for Ford Motor Company.

The dearth of late-model used cars is blamed on the four-year new-car recession, when the normal flow of trade-ins stopped as people hung onto their cars. Thus, the vehicles that many new-car buyers are trading in these days have more mileage on them than those traded in before the automotive downturn. And these are not the vehicles most in demand.

Just the other day Faricy Pontiac of Pueblo, Colo., got two 1982-model cars in trade, plus a bunch of older-model cars. ''We'll sell the '82s in 72 hours and get top dollar for them,'' says Rich Hearn, sales manager for the dealership.

The Denver market, less than 100 miles away, is probably $400 higher than Pueblo because the supply and demand are greater in Denver. The same is true in other large cities of the United States.

High prices on used merchandise are the rule no matter where you live, because the dealers themselves are being selective in what they buy and are paying high prices at the wholesale car auctions around the country.

''When you get a low-mileage car in trade, you throw away the book because the car stands on its own merits,'' notes Mr. Hearn of Faricy Pontiac. ''The blue book used to be your guideline, but no more.''

Despite the persistent high prices of used cars, however, many motorists find them a lot more palatable than taking on a huge new-car debt. If you buy a new Chevrolet Camaro, for example, you may be looking at $13,000. A comparable '82 -model car with perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 miles on it could sell for, say, $8,995 .

A motorist may feel that he can afford the '82, where he can't realistically go for the '84 at $4,000 more. He also saves on interest charges and taxes.

The used-car market is especially strong on both coasts, while in the mid-section of the country it is less robust. Ford's James Terry blames this on the deep winter snow, tornadoes, the ongoing economic squeeze in some areas, and a cool spring.

Also, the strength of the new-car market has fooled everybody, Mr. Terry declares. At Ford, buyers are going for the Grand Marquises and Crown Victorias. The big-car luxury market is on a long-term roll, and new-car dealers are making money by the barrelful.

As a result, ''Some new-car dealers have a capacity problem,'' adds Mr. Terry , ''and they can't take care of both new-car sales as well as used-car sales.'' Also, dealers make more money when they sell a new car.

One thing is clear: Clean, low-mileage cream puffs are in demand everywhere. And don't look for any decline in the price till they become a lot more plentiful.

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