About 20 years ago my wife and I were shopping for a used station wagon. One of the important aspects was that it had to fit our tandem bicycle with the backseats down. One day we were looking at a used German wagon and I folded the backseats down to measure the cargo area. Flipping the seats forward, I found an official-looking slip of paper that was printed with a checklist marked “GM Proving Ground” and I believe it said Arizona.

We really liked the car but I was curious what this mystery paper indicated. This was in the heyday of CarTalk on NPR, so I gave Click and Clack a call and ended up on the show (I should go to their archives and listen someday!)

They agreed that GM must have purchased the car as a benchmark for testing. My concern was whether this meant the car was pushed to the limit and abused, but they felt that most likely to get good data it wasn’t.

A week after my call aired, I had a phone call from the producers. Two different people had called them with more information. One was a guy who had worked at a different proving ground and assured them that they took the very best care of all their benchmark cars.

But here’s the conspiracy(ish) part. They got another call from a man who wouldn’t give his name but wanted to get in touch with me. They asked permission to share my number. He and I played phone tag until I got him one day after work when he was at a bar. He got out of earshot of his work friends so he could talk candidly. He explained that he worked for a US manufacturer whose name “had four letters” and warned me NOT to buy that car. He said his testing group put cars through hell. The most unscrupulous division, he whispered, was the acoustic testing unit. He said they were most interested in studying engine noise and would lease luxury vehicles, remove their engines, put them in testing chambers and run them for the equivalent of 100K miles. Then they’d put them back in the cars with nearly no miles on the odometers and return them.

He urged me to have my mechanic inspect the car to make sure there were no telltale indications of such tampering such as witness marks on the engine bolts. I wish I had been an investigative journalist because this guy seemed to be a truth teller.

We ended up not buying that car, but rather an Accord wagon that was previously registered in Marysville Ohio, pretty much guaranteeing it had been a Honda employee’s corporarate car. It fit the tandem beautifully and never had any issues. It was never fun, but practical and I got a great story out of the shopping experience.