Buyer Beware

Page 7 of 8

Super-Clean Mustang -- Only Junked Twice!
No car is more American than the Mustang. Ford's legendary sports car debuted at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City and proceeded to smash all records for first-year sales. Although the model is enjoying a resurgence, in the late Seventies and early Eighties the Mustang bloodline suffered from a touch of colic. With instability in the Middle East and gas prices sky-high, muscle cars fell out of favor. In response the Mustang devolved into a domesticated economy car with a relatively tame engine.

In February 1991 Homestead resident Jorge Rios bought a red 1981 Mustang from John Svadbik. After financing Rios's starting balance was $1156.77. Less than two months later the car was repossessed and, according to Svadbik's records, was junked. After the junking, and with the repo fees and other costs, Rios's balance stood at $1183.77.

But Rios shouldn't have had any balance to pay off. In August 1991, Svadbik resold the supposedly junked car to Solomon Small. The starting balance was just over $3000, an impressive markup. By law Rios should have been credited with the full price of the sale to Small. He wasn't, according to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White. If he had been, his debt to Svadbik would have been erased. It wasn't. Instead after waiting seven years, Svadbik seized a late-model Ford pickup truck owned by Rios's girlfriend, whose name was also on the Mustang title. A recovery fee and seven years of interest on the account raised Rios's balance to close to $3000. To get the truck back, he paid Svadbik $2000. Despite the sale to Small, Rios's outstanding balance in May 1998 was still more than $800.

As for Solomon Small, records indicate he missed several payments on the Mustang, prompting its repossession five months after he bought it. According to Svadbik's records, the car was again junked. Small's account was credited $100. Five years later, in 1997, records show Svadbik was still searching for Small to pay off his $2400 balance.

It was a balance that should not have been there, according to records in White's possession. After junking the Mustang a second time, Svadbik sold it a third time. Homestead resident Tim Connolly bought the aging car in February 1992 for just under $3000. Five months of weekly payments knocked a grand off his balance. There is no indication in the documents White obtained that Connolly made a payment in June or July, prompting the car to be repossessed in August. In September, according to Svadbik's records, the car was junked a third time. By late 1997 Svadbik was still trying to find Connolly to settle his account.

The sales office of Coconut Palm is a tiny yellow shack located on a small, sun-bleached lot near the intersection of South Dixie Highway and SW 248th Street. During business hours several cars are parked outside the chainlink fence that encloses the lot, all sporting come-ons such as "Reduced" or "Today's Special." An Amoco gas station sits just to the north. A rival lot looms across the street. Dozens of other used-car competitors line the highway, most waving more colorful triangular plastic flags than the Lido deck on a cruise ship. All of them make money, according to Serge Thevenot, Svadbik's former manager.

When Vickie White walked away from Coconut Palm this past October, she took with her (among other things) a copy of the company's credit and collections policy manual. In it Svadbik spells out his corporate philosophy: "Coconut Palm Auto Sales, Inc., has provided a service where low-income to middle-income families can purchase and finance quality transportation. We service the vehicles and assist in the maintenance and repair for the customer at reduced labor rates and part discounts.... We stock only automobiles with excellent mechanical durability that perform exceptionally well even if the customer doesn't perform regular periodic maintenance."

Elisa Williams reports that there's a wide gulf between Svadbik's benign policy and his actual practices. "He always acts like he's doing me a favor by letting me drive this car," she says of her red 1991 Geo Prizm. "I tell him that he's not doing me any favors. I am the one who's helping him."

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Robert Andrew Powell

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