(Ed. Note: In writing about Betsya few years back, I was
accused of creating the “haigiography of a gas guzzling testament to why
we don’t have widespread public transportation.” Thus, I understand that
another “car” story opens me up to that again. Point taken. Also, please excuse
the “colorful metaphors” others have used to describe foreign cars. As I tell
my kids, violate AP’s rule regarding derogatory terms only if you have good
reason. I think I met the burden, but either way, consider this a pre-strike
apology. Part 2 is next week, as this just kept growing beyond what was sane to
do in one shot. Thanks. – Doc.)
A Mustang discussion board I frequent for repair hints and
automotive advice had an interesting question pop up a few years ago:
“What’s your favorite rice burner?”
The poster noted that obviously Mustangs were God’s gift to
the automotive world, but if you had to choose a Japanese import (a.k.a. a rice
burner) to own, what would it be?
The answers tended to be what you’d expect: high-speed,
low-drag “Fast-and-Furious” mobiles that ate nitrous and crapped flames.
I thought about responding to the post for a while, as my
answer was clearly going to be different. I finally figured I’d add to the mix.
“My dream rice burner is a 1998 Honda Civic EX,” I wrote.
“It has no street mods, offers no high-end speed options and it doesn’t even
have a spoiler. The reason I love it is because I own it. It gets 36 mpg, I
have put about $37 in repair parts into it over the past ten years and it
starts every time I ask it to, regardless of weather. Thanks to that car, I can
afford to dump a ridiculous amount of money into my Stang.”
No one really said anything about it, but I felt my point
had to be made: You can call them whatever you want, but the Accords, Civics,
Tercels and other imports had a lot to like.
Growing up as I did, I never expected to drive a foreign
car, let alone defend one. Dad was an America First-er and I was expected to
follow suit. I still remember a conversation I had with my dad when I was about
“When are you going to get a haircut?” he asked.
“I’m not,” I told him, running my fingers through my nearly
“Hmm. Why don’t you get an earring then?” (Keep in mind,
this was when a guy with an earring was either a rebel or a gay. In fact, the
issue of “Which ear means you’re gay?” was hotly debated among the pierced and
“Really?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Then you can get a foreign car and a new
place to live.”
The next day, I had my head shaved.
I learned to distrust and dislike foreign cars even more
when I worked at the garage. The master mechanic, Tom, had an aversion to
working on these “Jap pieces of shit.”
In many ways, he had a point about them.
The econo-box cars that rolled out of Japan in the 1980s were impossibly
difficult to work on when compared to the traditional American vehicles of that
era. Front-wheel drive flipped the engine sideways, thrusting three sparkplugs
on a V-6 up against the firewall. The smaller engine bay and additional
electronic options led to less open area and more busted knuckles. Even more,
the cars were designed by engineers, not mechanics. The sense that you should
put an oil filter somewhere near an open space since you change it every three
months never seemed to dawn on these people.
The one I remember working on most was a mid 1980s Toyota
mini-van. The battery was under one of the seats of the car. The oil pan was
hiding in some ridiculous spot that required you to practically create a
Tennessee Valley Authority irrigation project to drain it. The radiator was…
well… you get the idea.
Foreign cars were strange. Foreign cars were crappy. Foreign
cars were, well, foreign.
The first time I went car shopping with The Missus was not a
fun event. The Firebird I’d owned since college was suddenly car-non-grata.
I was sitting at a bar when my cell phone rang. It was my
lovely fiancée calling from her job at the police station.
“Did you park in the ramp today?” she asked.
“Get over there. I just ran your plates for Jenna. Seems
that someone slashed a shitload of tires and a couple of them are on the Firebird.”
I paid my bill and hustled over to the parking structure.
Sure enough, I had two flats with giant ugly gashes in the sidewalls. Jenna,
the police officer investigating the situation, had me hop in the car and she
took me back to the station.
The next day, I had the guys at the garage put four new
tires on her. I also asked them to put an alignment on the car, since she
seemed to be pulling to the left. About 30 minutes later, I got a
less-than-encouraging phone call.
“We can’t align the car,” the guy told me. “The steering
knuckle is shot, the rack and pinion is pretty much worthless as well. You’ll
need to put about another couple grand into this thing to make it right.”
I hung up the phone and went down to the garage to get the
car. Tires were fine, steering sucked. I parked her outside the apartment and
went upstairs to discuss the situation with the Missus. We agreed we might need
to trade her in, but that we’d give it a couple days.
I went back downstairs and planned to drive to the grocery
store. The car refused to shift into gear at first before finally lurching into
I shut the car off, walked upstairs and told her, “We’re
buying a new car tomorrow.”
It was the Missus who broke me out of the “rice burner” mode
by suggesting a Nissan Xterra. It was big, it had 4-wheel drive and it would be
a good car for a family when that time came. Truth be told, she actually wanted
it because it had a first-aid kit built into the back of the trunk and that
just seemed cool.
Our foray into the world of automotive purchasing wasn’t a
good one. The cars were iffy and the salesmen were pushy. Worse yet, they
committed the mortal sin of treating my wife like a handbag.
She’d ask a question that was important and completely on
point. The guy would ignore her.
I’d reiterate the question and he would perk up with,
“Excellent point, sir! Let me explain that to you!”
By the time we had arrived at our fourth lot, I think she
wanted to geld me for the sins of the other penis bearers.
Buying the car at this place wasn’t that hard. The kid
selling us the car looked like he could shave with a Kleenex and he had been on
the job for about two weeks. He was still working out of the “Official
Salesman’s Handbook” when it came to his pitch. At one point, he’d gone through
Stages 1 and 2 of the program and he stopped and stared at us. After about a
minute of awkward silence, he leaned forward and whispered, “You haven’t asked
me for any money off yet…”
I said, “OK, I’d like some money off of the price.”
He then launched into the Stage 3 of the sales guy thing,
explaining how we could work on price.
Eventually, we agreed on stuff and this kid had his first
sale. Got the plates transferred, the car insured and everything else ironed
out. Things seemed fine until later that night when I had to call home. Here I
was, a faculty member who was pushing 30, living three states away, worrying
that I had to call home and tell Dad I bought a “Jap piece of shit.”
He handled it better than I thought he would, although he
handled it worse than when I told him the Missus ran away from home and was now
living in sin with me in Missouri.
Kind of strange where some priorities lie.
After we got married, we realized we needed another car. The
one we had been borrowing from our folks to hold us over as we saved for the
wedding needed to be returned. What we were looking for was a Dodge Neon or
something like a “grocery getter.” Gas was about $1.20 a gallon so “mpg” wasn’t
a huge buzzword for us. Still, we were trying to find something small, smart and
that would get us around town.
The search was spectacularly unsuccessful. The Neons we
drove had huge braking and steering problems. The Saturns were beat to hell and
had engine problems. Everything else either had a million miles on it or had
some other massive flaw.
We decided to consider a new foreign car. The Hyundais were
horrible to steer at that point and it felt like you needed a jet-assisted take
off rocket to get onto I-70.
The Kias weren’t any better. I remember being on the lot
with a sales guy, when I pointed out that the gas hatch looked like it was bent
out. That seemed strange to me for a new car.
“Oh,” the guy said, reaching over and bending it back into
place with his hand. “There we go.”
It reminded me of the “Adobe: The cute car made of clay”
sketch from SNL.
We expanded our search to the outlying areas of the county.
Then, we expanded it to the surrounding counties. Still, nothing looked right,
worked right or felt right.
Finally, one Saturday morning, I took a drive to a city called
Boonville to check out a used car lot off the freeway. When I got there, they
had not only no cars of value, but no salespeople. I walked the lot for 10
minutes and couldn’t find another living soul. The thought of hotwiring
something occurred to me, only to be overcome by the sense that nothing out
here would be worth hotwiring. I got in the car and headed back to the freeway.
As I was approaching the on ramp, I spotted a dealership on
the other side of the road. Decision time: pass up the ramp and waste more
time, or go home. Hell with it… Let’s stop.
The first thing I realized about this place is that it was
different. It was a Chrysler dealership. This was farm country and everything
here appeared to be a diesel.
When I pulled in, there were about four old guys in bib
overalls huddled around the engine bay of some gas-guzzling monstrosity. One
guy in a corn-feed cap looked up and pointed at me.
“Foreign truck,” he muttered.
“Yup,” the guy next to him said, shaking his head.
There were exactly two “foreign” vehicles on the lot: The
one I drove there in and the one I bought.
I still remember introducing my wife to the salesman at this
lot in Boonville. His name was Jim Ray Cluck. He was a rotund man who had the
distinction of being on the same high school offensive line as either the
police chief or county sheriff in the area.
His business card included the slogan, “The Round Man with
the Square Deal.”
I’d driven the car earlier in the week and was now getting
the final approval from my wife.
The car was a 1998 Honda Civic EX model. It was four years
old, had 40,000 miles on it and contained every option you could possibly
imagine. It had been on the lot for almost a year without a single taker.
Jim Ray (you said the whole thing, much like “A Pimp Named
Slickback”) had explained to me that the dealer bought three of these Civics
from an auction house in Kansas. The first two sold in a week, because they
were stick shifts and the kids in the area were tricking them out. The
automatic remained untouched.
I wasn’t entirely sold on this car, but it was one of those
“this is better than nothing” moments. If I could get him to move on price, I’d
take it. If not, to hell with it.
Jim Ray’s boss wouldn’t move on price at all. It was a take
it or leave it kind of thing. My wife had become so frustrated by the process
that she finally got up and left. When I followed her to the car, she told me,
“You’re really pissing me off. Either buy it or don’t but I’m not coming back
I returned to Jim Ray and told him, “She’s not happy with
He sighed and took a sip out of a Styrofoam coffee cup. He
then leaned in and in a conspiratorial tone, told me something that changed the
“Look,” he said, furtively turning his head left and right
on its non-existent neck. “My boss doesn’t want me to sell this car to you. We
have a thing here where if you sell three used cars in a month, you get a
good-sized bonus and the profit he’ll make on the car won’t be big enough to
cover the bonus. What if I gave you some money back out of my own pocket to
“You mean cash?” I asked.
“If you bring cash,” he retorted.
We drove back home to clean out our bank account and return
with the most money I’d ever had in my hands at once. When we sat down with
him, I tossed the thick envelope containing $100 bills on the counter.
“What the hell is that?” he asked.
“Your money. Cash.”
“Jesus Christ!,” he yelped. “I meant just that we didn’t
have to finance you. You coulda brought a cashier’s check!”
“Hey. You said cash.”
He had an envelope with about 200 bucks waiting for us as
well. Ten minutes later, we were on our way.
As I drove home, I thought, “Well, two or three years and
we’ll trade it in and get something good.”
When we moved to Muncie, the goal was to see if I could get
100,000 miles on the car before it went to shit. When we moved back to
Wisconsin, the goal was to get 120,000 before the problems outweighed the
Somewhere last year, the car hit 150,000 miles. I had to do
the routine repairs (exhaust, brakes etc.), but I’d only put about $37 worth of
replacement parts in her, thanks in large part to a place called “Wally’s
It was a graveyard of dead, smashed or otherwise damaged
vehicles. They would gladly pull pieces off of these wrecks for you, but if you
were willing to sign a “go out there at your own risk” form and wander the
yard, you could pull your own part and save a bundle.
My first experience with Wally’s came when the Civic’s power
steering started to squeak. Turns out, the reservoir had a giant crack in it
somehow and the fluid was leaking all over the place.
I’d called a few shops and part houses to see about getting
it replaced. $120 for a new part, $50 for installation, both of which seemed a
bit excessive to me.
Wally’s price? Ten bucks if I could find one myself.
Found it, replaced it and fell in love with my car. There
always seemed to be an ample supply of dead Civics on the lot thanks to kids
who drove them like maniacs and people with Grateful Dead bumper stickers who
didn’t know red means stop and green means go. The mechanical features of the
car were more simple than I remembered and more intuitive than I gave them
When the AC died, I figured out it was the fan, not the
compressor. The cost for diagnostics would have been $50 just to hear that from
a guy in a greasy shirt. It was half that for a replacement fan from Wally’s.
When the radiator blew, I managed to swap it out for a new
one (never use a used radiator; consider that “one to grow on”) along with
hoses, a thermostat and several wiring harnesses I pulled from Wally’s
With the exception of tires, brakes and exhaust, which all
required special tools, I did all the work myself. The car was more than
holding its own and I had come to bond with it in a very weird way.
It wasn’t like the Mustang, a dream car.
It wasn’t like my Thunderbird, my first car.
It wasn’t like anything else I could put my finger on. It
was just a really good used car that ran like a top and survived like a tank.
My new goal was to put a quarter million miles on her and
drive her until 2018. Then, I would get “Collector” plates on her and demand
that I be allowed to drive her in the Fourth of July parade, as she would be a classic.
Fate has a funny way of screwing with you.
It wasn’t a transmission
or an engine or an axle that was on its way to dying that forced me to think
about selling my car.
It was my great uncle.
Uncle Ronnie was my mom’s mother’s brother and he was not
doing well. He had survived a bout with colon cancer somewhere along the way,
but remained on borrowed time. He lived alone, having never married and often
was the after-thought by some folks in the family. After Grandma died, Mom made sure Uncle
Ron was always invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, which were often
the only good meals he had. When the Illinois branch of the family invited Mom
down for birthday parties, she made sure Uncle Ronnie had a seat in the car and
was able to attend.
Two months ago, he was hospitalized with a MRSA infection. A
week or so later, they sent him home, only to have him hospitalized again the
next day. Mom knew he couldn’t live on his own any more and together they began
the process of getting him into “a home.”
Things must have been terrible for that to happen. When
Mom’s grandma was dying and riddled with dementia, great-grandma found a moment
of lucidity and with terrified eyes begged Mom, “Please… Don’t let them put me
in a home.”
My grandmother was crippled with cancer to the point where
she couldn’t get out of bed. Still, she was adamant: I’m dying at home.
Three weeks after our wedding, she did just that.
For him to say he didn’t want to live and that he couldn’t
be on his own, well, that just wasn’t our way.
As the power of attorney, Mom had to make some moves. She
had to clean out his apartment, settle his banking and take care of anything
else that he wouldn’t or couldn’t use. The car he had became one of those
The 2001 Civic he owned was unlike anything else in his
life. While he ate Spaghetti-Os cold out of the can and abhorred changing his
clothes, the car was in perfect working order. Oil changes every 3,000 miles,
tires every 40,000 and anything the guy said was broken got fixed. He pretty
much was the stereotype salesmen talk about: the little old person who only
drove it to the senior center. After 11 years, it had 46,000 miles on it.
Mom and Dad had long since gotten out of the life of selling
their old cars by putting a “FOR SALE” sign in the window. They also lacked the
space to keep it at their place.
For all Dad’s proclamations that he’d love a little “get
around” car, he had no interest in this thing. It wasn’t a Cadillac and it was
still a foreign car (never mind that it was probably built in Kentucky).
I told them it wasn’t a problem. They could store the car on
our land until they figured out what they wanted to do with it and I’d drive it
occasionally to keep the seals lubed and the battery charged.
Two days later, Mom had a different idea.
“We’d like to sell you the car.”
The Missus had been dropping hints that it might be time to
trade in our Civic. It’s getting a bit old, she’d note. Hey, there’s a sale at
(fill in the name of the car lot) this weekend. Maybe we should look, she’d
It wasn’t going to happen. The Civic was like an old pair of
shoes: it fit just right.
I knew what was right and wrong. I knew how it acted on the
road. I could practically set the cruise and drift off to sleep and let the car
drive me to work.
Thanks, but no thanks, I’d tell my wife. We’re fine for now.
When this deal came up, though, I felt I had to do this. My
wife was right: our car was getting older. I found myself doing more work on
her. I found the problems I knew were going to be coming up and I knew we
weren’t far from seeing them in full flower.
She needed new brakes in about six months.
The timing belt was about 20,000 miles past the “you should
really change this” line.
The alignment was drifting a bit. The tranny was getting
old. I wasn’t sure how much longer the engine had. It had gone from a
worry-free tank to a “how long do you want to let it ride?” roll of the dice.
My uncle’s Civic was fine. It was a good car. It was well
But it wasn’t mine.
Still, we agreed on the price, which was more than reasonable and I
set about trying to sell my Civic.
At first, I did the things that most people do when they
don’t want to do something: I sabotaged myself.
I set the asking price at about $400 above what AutoTrader
told me to. I explained in the ad that I didn’t want to sell it. I failed to
list a few attributes that would draw people to the car. I took the cheapest ad
possible, thus making it a bit harder to find.
The thought of selling my uncle’s car instead entered and
left my mind quickly. It would piss off pretty much everyone involved for a
variety of reasons. Plus, logically, I knew I needed to do this. Still…
After about a week of no real interest and a couple calls, I
decided to get serious: bigger add, more features, lower price.
As it turns out, I probably didn’t need to submarine myself.
The car was doing just fine on its own in that regard.
As I was cleaning the carpet on the passenger’s side floorboards,
I noticed the carpet felt tacky. I figured it was either a coffee spill or some
Midget-related beverage debacle.
I rubbed the carpet and put my fingers to my nose. The
sickly sweet chemical smell chilled me.
The heater core blew.
A heater core is a simple thing: it’s a mini radiator that
sits in your car. Hot coolant from the engine runs through it and a fan blows
air across it to heat the cabin. It’s also a stupid thing, in that engineers
tend to hide them in some of the dumbest places around. Of all the things that
were intuitive on this car, the heater core was not among them.
To get at this thing, you had to disassemble the entire dash.
You then had to remove several parts of the heating system. You then had to
take out part of the steering system, the radio, the dash panel and more.
If you wanted to do it right, you also had to have your AC
system professionally drained of Freon and have the condenser in the car
removed. You also had to be inverted during the entire process so you could see
under the dash. You had to force the seat to recline all the way, hang your
feet over the headrest and descend into the foot well.
In other words, this was not an easy job.
The cost for a pro to do this was well over $1,000. The part
alone cost upwards of $250 and that’s on a good special. Of all the things that
could break that mattered but didn’t kill the car, this was the worst.
I talked to a couple guys at the parts store, who told me,
no, you could actually do this without draining the AC. They also said you
could get into it without any special tools.
The choice was simple: fix it yourself or the car is dead.
The cost to get it fixed wouldn’t be recouped and I could get more money from
Wally’s by turning it in for parts than I could if I paid to have the core
redone and then sold it for what it was worth.
After two days of bleeding hands, scarred arms and a coolant
headache, I got to the point where I could see the heater core. I still
couldn’t touch it, but I could see it.
After two more days, I could touch it but not move it.
Of course, as is Murphy’s Law, now I had a ton of people
calling with great interest in the car. They wanted to come out on the weekend
and drive it.
It was Tuesday. I had five days to figure this out.
By the time Thursday rolled around, I had to make a choice:
Was I going to replace this the “Honda approved” way or was I going to actually
make this happen? This heater core was the full fruition of every racist stereotype
Tom spat forth while working on Hondas and Toyotas in the garage: Stuff was too
tight to fit, they built it so you couldn’t work on it, the thing wasn’t
engineered for repairs…
I went back into the house and grabbed soda. The Missus
looked at me and said, “Oh my God, your head is bleeding!”
I wiped the blood off of my head, once, twice and then
stopped. Turns out, my head was fine. I was just bleeding profusely from both
of my hands and I had touched my head. I wiped my hands on my pants and sat on
She chose her next words slowly and cautiously.
“You know,” she began. “We got a great deal on the green
Civic. If you can’t fix this, it’s OK. We can just call Wally’s and take
whatever they’ll give us for it.”
It was this car that took us through the ice storms of Muncie.
It got us home when her beloved Xterra failed on some shitty road near Lebanon,
Indiana. It took me to Minnesota every summer. It never quit on me. I couldn’t
quit on it. I couldn’t see her out there when I went through the yard to pick
the bones of some other car.
I stood up on wobbly legs.
“I’ll be in the garage.”