Kids are smart as hell… sometimes kind of dumb, too. I know I was a little bit of both, circa 2004, messing around on the internet looking at cars and Flash-powered automaker websites. That’s how I ended up accidentally ordering a Dodge Neon online. Or, so I thought.
Back around 2001, when I was in first grade or so, my parents were part of an experimental program to get computer and internet access into lower-income homes. We got set up with a top-of-the-line iMac (in the iconic Bondi Blue) and internet access. In 2001, home internet access was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today and the whole thing felt very novel. My boomer parents hadn’t used the internet or computers all that much, and my older Gen X brothers only really accessed those things at school or at a public library. So at that point, I was probably destined to be the designated internet-savvy house resident for the immediate future.
I was as obsessed with cars as a kid as I am now, probably annoyingly so. Like any annoying pre-teen with no friends and an internet connection, that meant long days looking at manufacturing websites under the guise of “learning about stuff for school.” My know-it-all self somehow thought I had “discovered” the “obscure” French automaker Peugeot, and thought it’d be a great fit for the United States. I would later learn a few years later that Peugeot pulled out of the U.S. in the early 1990s but that wouldn’t be until we replaced our iMac for an eMachines that could finally play Sim City 4.
One of my favorite things to do as a kid, as now, was to use the “build a car” tools on car websites. This was around the time that manufacturers had started to embrace the internet as a tool. Honda and Dodge had the best build-and-price interfaces; their models have a crapload of accessories and options that could be spec’ed. Seeing the car change in real-time with every option was mind-blowing to me in ’04.
But, I was convinced that the “build and price” tool was actually sending an order to someone at the Honda or Dodge factory in real-time as I was clicking around. I just knew that if I got all the way to the end of the build and price tool, they’d build up that car, ship it to my house, and then I’d be responsible for the thousands of dollars necessary to pay for the thing. Not wanting to take the risk of accidentally buying a car and losing my computer privileges until God knows when… I devised a plan.
I mean, the automakers didn’t build the car until you’ve finished speccing out the car, right? Well, duh, lightbulb moment – don’t finish the build! For weeks, I’d build new cars how I wanted them on car websites, but I’d make sure to close out the web browser before I got to the last step. That way, the automaker couldn’t bill me.
One boring summer day, I ventured onto the Dodge website, wanting to look closer at the then-facelifted Neon. My neighbor down the street had just gotten one, and I thought it looked kind of cool. On the computer, I was back on my game, I had equipped the car just like I wanted. It was a cheap car, so I didn’t spec many options, I just knew it had to be red and had to have power windows. All was good, until, my too-grown fingers clicked one screen too far, and I found myself on a “congratulations!” summary screen.
Nine-year-old me freaked out. What was I supposed to do when the guys from the Dodge factory showed up at my front door with a shiny new Neon and a huge invoice?
Terrified, I shut the computer down, and for the next half hour, I contemplated how I was going to break the news to my parents that they were about to be the owners of a compact Dodge sedan. I figured I’d rather take my punishment now, rather than later when that Neon shows up.
I waddled into the living room, and explained what I did, with tears in my eyes. My mom wasn’t good with computers, I knew she wouldn’t understand how any of this all worked. I had most assuredly purchased a new car online.
Without skipping a beat, she said “OK, did they ask you for any sort of payment information? No? Well, you’re good then. Get off the computer and go play outside.”
Thankfully, she was right. Crisis averted.