In the driver's seat

The smart alternative to renting, driveaways let you take someone else's car cross-country -- for free.

Published December 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Compared with other offices that tourists file into, Auto Driveaway's South San Francisco office is as nondescript as they come. There are no ads from tourism bureaus, posters of bikinied ladies on beaches or even alluring shots of the open roads of mid-America. Basic maps of California and the United States decorate the small two-room office, which overlooks a parking lot, where cars -- a blue Geo Prism, white Dodge Caravan and gray Ford Thunderbird -- idly wait their turn to be driven across the country to such places as Farmington, Conn., Orlando, Fla., and Virginia Beach, Va.

On this day, the Thunderbird's number is up. A 26-year-old Australian is in the office filling out the necessary paperwork so he can drive to Virginia to reunite the Bird with its owner, Beverly, who has been relocated by her company. "Apparently, it's down there," Colin Ligman says, as he points to his final destination, a place he's never been to and is visiting only because he couldn't find a car going to New York, where his international flight is departing from in about two weeks. Ligman plans on driving to Las Vegas, where he'll play blackjack, continuing on to the Grand Canyon, passing "through a whole lot of nothing" to get to New Orleans so he can see the French Quarter, and then finishing his trip by heading north to Chez Beverly.

This tour of the U.S. is slightly different from the straight-across route the office's manager hands to him -- with a stipulation to complete the drive within 10 days and without putting on more than 3,500 miles -- but the goateed Aussie doesn't seem concerned. This is the third time he's transported a car for the company, he says, and they've never noticed all the miles he's tacked on in the past. This is a good thing because if he had been caught, 25 cents for every additional mile driven would have been taken out of his $350 deposit.

For more than 45 years, Auto Driveaway has been acting as a road-trip cupid, playing matchmaker to cars needing to go to a certain location and travelers willing to take them there. The company appeals to foreign tourists and students by advertising in hostels and on college campuses. It's a good deal for everyone. The owner of the car gets his or her vehicle delivered at a cheaper price than hiring a professional driver, and the traveler gets to tour the country basically for free. And the whole process is very easy. Just call up one of the approximately 60 Auto Driveaway offices, or another drive-away company, and let them know where you want to travel. If there's a match, you come into the office, fill out a short application form, leave around $300 as a deposit and then listen to a short speech on road rules -- which are pretty basic, like don't bring any Uzis or pick up any hitchhikers. You also need to have a valid driver's license and be at least 21 years of age.

It's best to make arrangements for the trip anywhere between three weeks prior to the intended date of departure to several days beforehand (although some people have booked the same day). The owners of the car can fill up only the trunk, so the rest of the automobile -- in most cases -- can be filled with the traveler's belongings. The main constraints are time and miles. Travelers are expected to drive at least eight hours a day, and are given only about 20 percent more miles than it takes to get from point A to point B. The only other drawback is the fact that a mechanic doesn't look at the engine before it's turned over to the driver; company employees look only for dents, missing lights and other obvious problems (although Ligman and others interviewed for this article have never experienced any major problems on such road trips). While the concept didn't originate with the company's 82-year old owner, John F. Sohl, he is the one who is credited with mass-marketing this type of mutually beneficial transport relationship.

"If you want to see the States, the best way to do it is in an automobile," says Michael Parzick, the manager of the South San Francisco office. "It lives up to the American tradition of adventure." If his comments sound like a 1950s ad for an American automobile manufacturer, it's because the principle behind the company's -- and other car-delivery services' -- matchmaking of cars and drivers is based on an equally old-fashioned concept: trust. People hand their car keys over to a complete stranger and hope that this person, who isn't even an employee of the contracted company, will keep his word and deliver the car in the same condition it was left in (and in a timely manner).

Times have changed since the freewheeling days of trust, when Halloween candy was gobbled up without inspection and teens entered school through wooden doorways, not metal detectors. And that lack of trust is the reason why some in the industry say there has been a decline in the number of cars transported the casual way. When people call up to have their cars transported, they have a choice: It can be delivered by a casual driver, which is the cheapest; driven by a professional; or piggybacked on a car carrier, which is the most expensive but keeps miles off the car. While Parzick himself doesn't see the new reluctance of car owners affecting casual driver service in the future, a representative from Auto Driveaway's corporate office does. "Cars are so expensive and [people are worried] about having someone you don't know or someone who isn't a pro behind the wheel of their car," says Hank Ryan. "The number of casuals has gone down." For many car owners, to save a few bucks, the stakes are too high.

"Basically, these vehicles are being given to the general public with little or no screening of a person's background," says Rich Dennis, who used to own an Auto Driveaway in Atlanta, Ga. "You have people, a lot of them foreign travelers, who come here and can go into a drive-away office, put down $300 in cash and walk out the door with a $30,000 car to drive across country." Dennis and several other Auto Driveaway franchises left the company in 1997 to start their own company, AmeriFleet, and decided to specialize in transporting cars by professional drivers (called expedited service) instead of the "standard" or "casual" driver service because he thought that was a dying form of doing business.

While most drive-away services -- like Auto Driveaway, A. Anthony and National Auto Transporters -- photocopy driver's licenses or passports, with some offices fingerprinting and running DMV background checks, there is a large risk in loaning a car out to someone who basically walks in off the street. Although Ligman is a lawyer in his native country, he thinks he could have bluntly written "auto thief" in the section that asks for a job description and no one would have noticed. According to a number of employees for various companies, drive-away cars have been used in a bank robbery, for drug deals and for high-speed joy rides -- and have been impounded, driven on the wrong side of the road, returned smashed-up, returned late or not returned at all. Parzick even recalls the time one lady was pulled over by a policeman -- who subsequently found 60 pounds of psychedelic mushrooms in the trunk of the car she was delivering.

Just looking at the numbers shows how the industry is veering away from casual drivers. Auto Driveway's standard service used to make up at least 60 percent of the business, but in the last 15 years it has shrunk to 30 percent, while the expedited service has doubled to 62 percent. A. Anthony Transportation Company of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., one of its main competitors, has also cut back on its casual service and increased its expedited. "We see [casual drive-aways] as a thing of the past," says Anthony Violi, owner of A. Anthony. "In the summertime, there are a lot of drivers, but in the wintertime, they're nonexistent. And the American people don't drive that many cars anymore. Air travel has become inexpensive."

Also, since corporate clients make up a large portion of Auto Driveaway, A. Anthony and AmeriFleet's business, AmeriFleet's Dennis says some are shying away from the cheaper shipment option because of their fear of being sued. "In today's day and age, with lawsuits the way they are, if a corporation entrusts a vehicle to someone off the street and that person goes out and gets in an accident and kills somebody, that company can be opened up to potential liabilities in lawsuits," says Dennis. Also, Violi says, the astronomical insurance rates companies like his have to pay to cover this random assortment of drivers discourages others from coming into the casual driver field.

While the future is in question, most skeptics agree that the casual service won't completely die out -- there will always be some car available for the traveler jonesing for the open road. Over time, the service will just get smaller, with fewer cars and destinations as options. But without question, the big loser then will be travelers who want the experience of the great American road trip -- with all of its greasy food, blinking neon signs, cattle crossings and bad country music -- but can't afford or don't want to rent or own a car.

As Ligman fired up the engine on the Thunderbird and left the parking lot behind Auto Driveaway's office, he started on a journey that, when combined with his two other drive-away trips, will have taken him through 26 states. "The funny thing is, I've now seen more of America than Australia," he says. Plus, he's saved about $900 in rental car fees.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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