The End of the Affair

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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The End of the Affair
Photo of confiscated “cats” courtesy of Fremont Police Dept. California is home to some 37% of all catalytic converter thefts in the United States.
Our first cars, like our first serious romance, sometimes just seem destined to break our hearts. We lavish money and attention on them, depend on them, and trust them. They become part of our identity, and take us on adventures to unimaginable places. And then, one way or another, it all ends badly. Sometimes it’s a slow, sad decline. On my 16th birthday, my parents gifted me with their two-tone aqua 1955 Plymouth Savoy, which they’d bought shortly after I was born, on the condition that I assumed full financial responsibility for it. Insurance was still affordable for a kid with an after-school job, gas was 35¢ a gallon, and with no fancy on-board electronic stuff, I could do most of the work on its relatively simple electro-mechanical systems myself. Everything was great for about five years—and then nothing was. Unfixable problems sprung up everywhere, and that was the end of the affair. It was strictly new cars for me after that. And then sometimes it’s a short, sharp shock. After our younger son graduated college, we found him a low-mileage pre-owned black Prius in cherry condition—and unlike my old Plymouth V-8, fully compliant with current environmental regulations and getting almost 50 mpg. I remember his delight and gratitude. It was love at first sight: He took care of that car, and it took care of him. But, as Orson Welles wryly observed, “If you want a happy ending, that depends on where you stop your story.” Last September, he contracted COVID; thanks to the vaccines and boosters, it was a relatively mild case. After recovering, he went out to start the car—and the meek little Prius unexpectedly roared like a ‘60s muscle car with its lake pipes uncapped. That’s what it sounds like when thieves cut a slice out of the exhaust system and make off with your catalytic converter. A neighbor’s security camera caught them in the act around 2:30 a.m.: coasting up to his car, they leaped out with a jack and battery-powered hand saw, and within two minutes had cut it loose and fled. And so the nightmare began. Last October, California’s Bureau of Auto Repair reported that these things were getting ripped off at the rate of 1600 a month in 2021, and our particular model was a prime target. The “cats,” as they’re called, utilize platinum, palladium and rhodium in the process to reduce exhaust emissions. As these precious-metal prices have spiked (platinum $980/oz, palladium $1458/oz, rhodium $10,100/oz), the risk for thieves is low and the reward is high, so on a cost/benefit basis, heisting the cats is a smart criminal proposition. For a few minutes’ work, a stolen cat can fetch a few hundred dollars, and unscrupulous scrap metal dealers can harvest the precious metals for several times that value. Here’s the twist I hadn’t counted on: insurance companies have essentially escaped paying claims on this type of theft because the factory replacement parts are back-ordered for as much as a year (we are now entering our sixth month) with no realistic future date for when a replacement may become available, if ever. My dealer’s service manager tells me that his customer’s insurance companies won’t pay claims until customers actually receive the parts—which are unavailable for the foreseeable future. Japan, it seems, has enacted air pollution legislation similar to California’s, and Toyota’s manufacturing capacity is now directed toward meeting the needs of its domestic market. I called Toyota Motor North America and explained my problem to a “brand engagement specialist” who listened sympathetically and promised to have a “parts delay advocate” call me back. I’m still waiting. The body shop my insurance company sent me to advised me to just call my insurer and tell them to total the car and apply the amount toward a replacement vehicle. The company, of course, refused, since a total loss would cost them more than the repair. When I pointed out that I would be delighted with a repair but couldn’t get the part, which functionally rendered the car both inoperable AND non-repairable, I got a harsh lesson about reading the fine print: the claims manager pointed me to a clause in my insurance contract - Part III, Physical Damage; Coverage D, Comprehensive; Limits of Liability, subsection (d): “The inability to obtain parts shall not constitute or be a basis of a total loss.” If we can neither drive it nor fix it, what can we do in the meantime? The policy, like many, only covers 30 days’ rental during the repair period, which under ordinary circumstances would be more than adequate. But even stretching out that time in a series of short-term rentals, it’s long since expired. My son is effectively grounded: public transit takes three times as long to get anywhere, walking is impractical, ride-shares are expensive, and begging rides from friends quickly wears out its welcome. Meanwhile, because the car has been sitting inoperable in my driveway since October, the battery has now died, another expense the insurance company is resisting paying for. When the factory part becomes available, if it ever does, I will be queueing up with literally thousands of other Californians hoping to get my cat replacement. By then my open insurance claim will be a year old or more. This week, in desperation, I started looking for alternative parts sources, and found a Canadian company that promises Californian-compliant replacement cats. When I finally got them on the line after leaving several messages, they told me they, too, were back-ordered and were unable to guarantee a time-frame for delivery. My body shop cautioned me that the cats also require two special data sensors, which aren’t included. Should I buy them now, hoping I can get the cat later? Or wait until I get the cat, hoping I can find the sensors later? I filed a police report and submitted the security video nearly six months ago; since then, crickets. My research tells me that California is home to some 37% of all cat thefts in the United States. Governor Newsom has announced legislation intended to crack down on cat theft rings, but the question is, what can the state Insurance Commissioner, the Legislature, and the manufacturer do to assist the thousands of car owners who have already been victimized? Maybe there are grounds for some kind of class-action suit—but against whom, and for what? My patient son has borne all this without complaint, something I never could have managed at his age. Call me a casualty of the Southern California car culture, but our wheels are our freedom, and those thieves have robbed him of much more than just an auto part. I don’t know whether there will be a happy ending, but for now, this is where I stop the story.
Joel Bellman

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March 17, 2023