When Martin Johnson bought his 2009 Kia Spectra two years ago, he had every reason to believe he was making a solid investment. Car ownership has traditionally been a lifelong dream for many Americans, including Johnson, whose parents had owned a vehicle when he was growing up. “I remember how proud Dad was of that thing,” Johnson says, remembering the 1978 AMC Pacer that served as the family’s vehicle for fourteen years and would inspire the younger Johnson to purchase an automobile of his own. “I’d been renting a car for years. Ownership just seemed like the next step.”
When he went to apply, Johnson found that it was easy to get a car loan–almost too easy. “I see now that it was irresponsible lending practices,” he admits, “But at the time, I just thought, ‘Well all right! A Car.’” Johnson fell for what experts say is the biggest scam in the industry. “Automobiles are dogs; they’re only going to lose value,” says Dr. Emil Haagerdäddi, a vehicle-investment guru, “And the car companies already know that!”
Like many people, Johnson viewed his automobile purchase as a nest egg. “I thought I’d take my $15,250 investment, put in a couple thousand in upgrades, then turn around and sell it for $25,000 or so. That’s the American dream, right?” The question hangs in the air, as much an indictment on the times as an interrogative.
But like many Americans, Johnson is learning the hard way that the dream may have died. Just two years on, he’s had to come to terms with his rapidly-failing investment. “I looked in the Kelly Blue Book this morning,” he says, trying to hold back bitter tears, “$7,200 dollars. Just $7,200 left of my $15K. It’s criminal.” Johnson will most likely have to sell–at a loss–the car he once viewed as his family’s nest egg. “That’s the hardest part,” he says, “Explaining to my boy that now he may never go to college. When he asks ‘Why?,’ just what am I supposed to tell him?”
Already Washington is besieged by desperate pleas for relief from thousands of soon-to-be-carless Americans. Johnson believes it was the government and the Wall Street fatcats who got the nation into this predicament, but lacks the same certainty that these institutions have the wherewithal or desire to bail the country out. Johnson may be more fortunate than most, since he has been planning for such an economic catastrophe for some time. “I’ve spent the last several years trying to diversify my portfolio,” he says, referring to the collection of Beanie Babies he has locked away somewhere in the garage. “Once I liquidate those suckers, I’ll be sitting pretty once again.”