NEW-VEHICLE CONSUMERS CURRENTLY POSSESS THE most favorable warranties and consumer protection laws in American industry. My experience with other warranties on major appliances shows a vast imbalance between a 36-month/ 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty with other major non-automotive manufacturers who warranty their products for a matter of days.

Today's blanket of protection for vehicle buyers did not happen without a great deal of effort by consumer protection advocates and dealer associations.

Time was when automobile consumers traversed rip-off mine fields in negotiating the purchase of a vehicle from a new-car dealership or a used-car lot. The 1960s were a turning point.

Back then, it was a common practice among dealers (new and used) to reset odometers on high-mileage trade-ins. In fact, there was a device, openly advertised in the trade press, which was attached to the odometer at one end and a 110-power outlet at the other. The device turned back the odometer at the rate of 250 miles per hour. In less than a day, the device could take more than 5,000 miles off the odometer.

I remember the story of a used-car technician who had a passion for the number 39. It created an embarrassing situation for his dealer when one of their customers questioned the number of used cars showing 39,000 on their odometers!

Pseudo-ethical new-car dealers would reset a trade-in odometer to zero, then tell the buyer it was done, in situations where there was a used-car warranty, to better monitor actual mileage driven from date of purchase. They might as well have told the customer that the tooth fairy was real.

Unethical dealers would entice their buyers to sign blank finance contracts quoting favorable monthly payments with an undisclosed large balloon payment on the last note.

It was not uncommon for used-car dealers to re-groove the tread on worn tires to give them a "new" look. Or to install seat covers in order to cover up worn and stained upholstery.

The most popular used-car warranty employed by dealers was a 50/50 whereby the customer would be charged 50% of the repair bill. The process was for the dealer to quote double the price for the repair so in fact, the customer was paying the entire bill.

But both sides played such shenanigans.

The new-car showroom was an arena where no holds were barred. Even members of the clergy had special dispensation from their employers to fib about known mechanical problems in their trade-ins or about mythical deals they were allegedly offered from the dealership down the street.

Members of the general public were notorious for confiscating tires and batteries off their trade-ins while waiting for a new-car delivery. This practice was widespread enough so that most new-car dealers listed the equipment's condition on the appraisal sheet when the deal was made.

Several states were slow to enact automobile title laws. Without an accompanying title, dealers trading cars were exposed to any registered lien on the car. The problem was dealers had limited resources for investigating for existing liens on trade-ins unless they physically sent a representative to the appropriate town hall to check.

It was not unusual for finance companies and other lending institutions to approach dealers to settle balances on traded vehicles after they were in the dealers' inventories.

Service was a misnomer in automobile repair and service departments. It wasn't outright steal-ing rather it was an issue of poor diagnosis and replacing parts until the right one was found.

Technicians were paid on a straight 50/50 commission, and were not reluctant to claim repair operations they skipped. Also, dealership service departments were so busy rebuilding the poor under-warranty products that Detroit was sending them, they had limited facilities to market lucrative tune-ups and uncomplicated repairs to brakes and transmissions. Consequently, a lot of that business went to independent shops.

Full-disclosure legislation plus aggressive automotive repair regulations by concerned state attorneys general were instrumental in setting reasonable standards for ethical dealers. Also, NADA's lengthy battle to enact odometer fraud legislation was a giant step in leveling the retail automobile playing field. Until then, dealerships that set back their odometers had a huge advantage over dealerships which didn't.

I've always contended that odometers are a poor measure of a vehicle's mechanical condition. Compare the stress and wear on a vehicle used mainly for highway driving with a vehicle making several daily stops yet accumulating fewer miles.

An hour meter (similar to boats and airplanes} displaying the time used rather than the distance traveled would be a more realistic gauge of the vehicle's mechanical condition.

Also, the periodic renewal or replacement of tires, batteries, brake linings and other component parts do not give an accurate picture of a high-mileage vehicle when compared to a vehicle with lower mileage but which underwent less preventative maintenance.

The consumer war of the '60's was a victory for all parties concerned. As an active dealer participant during those years I can attest to the marked improvement in customer, manufacturer, and employee attitudes enjoyed today in the retail automobile industry.

Nat Shulman was owner of Best Chevrolet in Hingham, MA for many years.