Is an ex-rental car something to be avoided?

It used to be something of a long-standing joke that the fastest car in the world was a rental car. I think it was legendary US political journalist and some-time motoring writer PJ O’Rourke who coined that particular phrase and you instantly knew what he meant. No matter the type or size of car being rented, it wasn’t yours so you didn’t have to care about it so you just drove the doors off it.
In fact, back in the sixties, this theory came hilariously true. Ford signed a deal with Hertz to rent the glorious fastback Shelby Mustang, dolled up in Hertz corporate livery of black with twin yellow stripes. A fabulous thing to rent for the weekend, but it didn’t take long for many amateur (and allegedly some professional) racers to realise that these GT350H-spec Mustangs were essentially racing cars with

1966 Ford Mustang GT350 Hertz Shelby Clone
1966 Ford Mustang GT350 Hertz Shelby

number plates. A great many were rented on Friday, qualified on Saturday, raced on Sunday and handed back on Monday – some apparently with racing number still stuck onto the doors.
And then there’s the old image of the American tourist coming to Ireland and renting a tiny Yuuuurp-ean car for the first time. The steering wheel’s on the wrong side, the streets and roads are narrow and there’s a funny looking stick on the floor that seems to have something to do with the gears.
It’s no wonder, so, that many of us would recoil from buying an ex-rental car as a second hand purchase. You would just assume that the poor car has been used, abused and disposed by a queue of uncaring business travelers, tourists and families to the point where the gearbox is essentially a collection of metal shavings and no one wheel is pointing in the same direction as any of the others.
The thing is that the rental car market has become a significant money-spinner for almost all of the major car importers here, as they try to deal with a continual slide in private sales. With the massive fall-off in new car sales since 2009, a greater and greater proportion of any year’s sales are now to the rental market which means that if you’re shopping second hand, your chances of buying an ex-rental are now greater than ever.

"Buy from a reputable source"

Thankfully, an ex-rental is nothing to fear, as long as you buy with your eyes open and make sure that you’re buying from a reputable source.

George O'Connor
George O'Connor

We spoke to George O’Connor, MD of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in Ireland, and he had some thankfully reassuring things to say to us.

In a nutshell, purchasing a vehicle is your second biggest purchase after your home, so there’s a significant amount of risk and money involved. So we would simply say that you should buy your car from a reputable dealer, someone who’s with SIMI and abides by its code of practice.

From our own point of view, we don’t sell directly to the public. We wholesale our vehicles to the motor industry. So our customers are essentially garages and dealers. Once they buy the vehicles from us, they would would put them through a PDS process (Pre Delivery Inspection) so that they meet their forecourt standards.

We’ll be here forever, and that means we have to sell on cars forever, and we have a name to keep and a reputation to uphold, as do the dealers we work with, so we tend to deal with reputable people, and just as we want to take good care of our customers so too do they. They build their business through word of mouth and by giving people good experiences, as do we. So there’s nothing in it for us, as a reputable car hire company, to cut corners or to in any way misrepresent a vehicle.

We have customers all the time who’ve come in, having rented a vehicle, and say to us ‘that was a great car, can I buy it from you?’ And we just recommend that they should go through their local garage who can then contact our car sales department directly and see what can be worked out.

We’ve been trading here in Ireland for 16 years now, and in the old days you’d have had dealers coming up from Kerry, Cork, Donegal to Dublin for the day, to go and stand in auctions to acquire stock. We’re at the point now where they’ll actually buy virtually from us. They’ll just go through our stock list and decide which cars they want. So if we keep that garage buyer happy by selling them a quality product, then they keep their end user happy with a quality product and then the whole cycle starts again.

The average car in Ireland now is nine years old, and it’s hard to go from that up to a new car. But if a new car is just out of your reach, then going down the nearly-new route can be a good one. Some of the depreciation will have been absorbed by us, by the hire-drive company, so that’s a further benefit to the final user.

I worked for Enterprise in the US for a few years, and at the time wasn’t entitled to a company car so I actually bought an ex-rental car for myself.

Your reputation is everything and brand is very important, so we would look at our car sales business as just as important as our rental business. No short cuts.

George O'Connor, Enterprise Rent a Car

Enterprise usually keeps and runs a car for between 13 and 17 months on its fleet, and during that time would carry out all regular scheduled maintenance, as well as obviously dealing with any individual issues that arise. And as far as the uncaring tourist market is concerned, Enterprise might be the safer option in the ex-rental world, as its business tends to be less airport-based, and more locally oriented.
Even so, as George pointed out to us, cars are becoming a lot more robust these days and even our American cousins are becoming more used to ‘stick-shifts’ and European-style cars as transatlantic motoring tastes become ever more closely merged.
So if you’re buying secondhand and the history check flags up that the car is ex-rental, don’t panic and don’t run away. As long as you’re buying carefully, as long as the vendor is reputable and if the history and condition look good, you could actually be on to a bit of a winner.