The term “white elephant” – meaning something you can’t get rid of, even though it’s costing you money – comes from the tradition of kings in southeast Asia keeping white elephants as a show of power and prosperity.
They occasionally gave a gift of a white elephant, which was seen as both a blessing and a curse. While it was an honour to receive the gift, the sacred animals couldn’t be put to work and were expensive to maintain.
Even circus legend and “The Greatest Showman” P.T. Barnum ended up with his own white elephant – literally and figuratively. After spending a huge amount of money to get one from the King of Siam, he discovered his “white elephant” was in fact grey, with pink spots.
And in mid-2016 I ended up with one on my driveway – in the form of a 2003 Peugeot 206.
My daughter was after a more modern car to replace her first ride, and (unfortunately) I spotted this unregistered French hatchback on Gumtree, for $800. So we went to Caloundra to look at it.
A number of internal alarm bells went off for me during the inspection – starting with the man selling it (“Pat” the laid-back muso was a bit vague on the history of the car, saying his son had been driving it, and he assured me its bad clutch was a characteristic of Peugeots). The Pug needed plenty more work: it had a damaged front passenger panel from a “minor” bingle, worn tyres, plus no spare tyre – or even a gearstick top. Despite my repeated warnings about the cost of repair, my (adult) daughter maintained her interest in buying it. My wife (who later dubbed it the white elephant) says she would have simply dragged her away from the place!
Just before we handed over the cash, I asked my daughter to do a federal government PPSR search on the car with her phone: this would check whether the car was stolen or written-off. After spending $3 and waiting a minute, the website came back, saying the Pug wasn’t stolen. So money was exchanged and she drove the car home on a permit.
The next day we took a closer look at the PPSR certificate, seeing this:
This was the bit she hadn’t seen, further down her phone screen – that the Pug had been written off 2 years earlier following an accident, but it was “repairable” damage. However after any repairs, the car would still need a “written-off vehicle inspection” (WOVI), costing close to $450.
I rang Pat, and accused him of selling a dodgy car. He claimed he didn’t know about it being written-off, and he’d been given the Pug to settle a debt. However he couldn’t remember the name of the person who’d handed it over. I told him he should refund my daughter, but he said the money had already been spent on “music equipment”. In the end, it was our word against his, and I would spell out what happened in a Statutory Declaration at the written-off inspection.
A mechanic took a look at the car and said while it ran well, the chassis crash repair looked like a backyard job, and the clutch was too far gone – so both would need to be sorted before getting the Pug registered.
My daughter now didn’t want the car, and planned to sell it – as a write-off – for a few hundred dollars. However I foolishly told her I’d pay her a few hundred for it, and get it fixed for myself.
After $450 chassis work at the panel beaters, 4 new tyres, a spare wheel found at the wreckers and a whopping $2,000 on a new clutch and front suspension, the Pug was ready for the written-off WOVI inspection – which it easily passed in early 2017.
It drove very well and spritely with the 1.6 litre engine, plus it sat securely on the road like the VW-based cars I’d owned in the past. The air conditioning worked a treat. It even featured automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers.
However, it wasn’t a car I’d wanted to own – and it had caused me hip pocket pain.
So after driving it for a while, it went on the net for sale – initially for what it owed me, then at a more realistic price. Once the price was lowered just before Christmas, I had more than a dozen buyers asking about it. A couple looking for a spare car made an offer, and I accepted.
I wasn’t sad to see the Pug drive off: like P.T. Barnum’s own white elephant, mine was also a dirty grey colour from sitting out in the weather, and just as much of a money pit.