The Great American Hoopty
I’ve heard of some people out there who’ve gone out to the dealership, signed a paper and came home happy with their brand new car. Lucky bastards! The only time I’ve been on one of those lots has been on one of my Nike-Express trips down Broad Street. No, I’ve never fulfilled the car part of the great American dream…
See, I’ve got all the wrong mentalities to get a nice car, not to mention all the wrong debts, jobs and bank accounts. I hate spending a lot of money on something that isn’t a tool for artistic expression or sports. And before you spit it out, burn marks on roads are not art, and getting to the next red light before the guy in the next lane also is not a sport.
So I’ve taken the cheapskate road to dealing with cars. And there are several pieces of advice I can give you that relate directly to my own experiences with cars. Take my advice if you want a nice car… follow in my footsteps if you want the Great American Hoopty.
Lesson 1: Car Dealerships
Everything you’ve heard about used car dealers is true. Every last word. There is one truth of selling used cars, and that is if you are a poor liar or cannot ignore your conscience, you cannot be a good used car dealer. You've got to lie to sell used cars. If you don’t, you'll be out on the street in no time.
It took me a while to learn this one. I picked up this little white car that was good on gas from a little used car lot on the Westside a few years ago.
I asked the dealer, "Is it a good car?”
"Oh yeah,” he retorted in that wise, fatherly undertone.
The thing was only $600. I never expected luxury… and I was actually happy with the thing. That is, until the ball joints went out and the radiator went bad and the air-conditioner stopped just a few weeks after I bought it.
Luckily some guy got too busy changing channels one day and rear-ended me, smashing that little white car to pieces. So I didn’t have to worry about all its problems for too long.
But the slow learner that I am went back to the same dealership. This time I was up for an upgrade, and this time it was a red car with only seven years behind its wheels. Not wanting to get taken, I was a little more determined to make sure the car was usable.
I said, "I want to know if there is anything wrong with this car before I buy it.”
The overweight man put out his cigarette and said, "The car is great. There’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, we just put new brakes on it.”
Wow, new stuff! But still I pressed the issue. "Is the transmission fine?”
"Transmission is good.”
"Oh yeah… just fine.”
I drove it around the block and I bought it. Three months later the power went out. I took it to a shop and waited like a father waiting for his son to finish a physical. The Doctor/Mechanic came out and said, "Well, how much do you love this car?” Suddenly I didn’t feel like a father waiting on his son’s physical but more like a father about to be asked to witness his son’s circumcision.
"Well,” I said, "what do you mean.”
"What I’m about to say is that it will cost more than the value of the car to get it fixed. The trannie is bad. I’d say two or three weeks and you won’t be able to drive it.”
I sighed. I knew I had to trust him because he had grease caked in the cracks of his cheeks and grime permanently encrusted in the grooves of his fingers.
"How could this be?” I asked. "The transmission light has never come on.”
He said, "Well we noticed that the dashboard had been pulled off and improperly placed back on. The light bulb for the transmission warning is not there.”
Son of a… I went back to the dealership and started to raise hell. But then I learned about the "As Is” agreement that I had signed when I bought the piece of junk. So I got mad, stopped paying the guy, and soon met a couple of thugs from a gang called The Repo Guys.
Do not buy a used car from a used car dealership. If someone in your family gives you a used car, that’s fine. Just don’t waste your money on them.
Lesson 2: Stay off of Route 161 in a used car
Many years ago I was driving to the home of Jeremy Martin near New California. I was driving my gray Ford station wagon. The back was full of my fishing poles and a couple hundred pounds of copper wire I intended to scrap. I was heading north on 161 when I heard a loud "thud” sound from under the car. I was only a couple miles form Jeremy’s house, so I decided to ignore the noise.
Although I could easily ignore the noise, the drivers behind me didn’t find it so easy to ignore the thick jet stream that started pouring out the rear of my wagon. Wincing and slightly embarrassed, I leaned some more weight onto the pedal to get to the exit faster.
I made it to Route 42 and headed northeast… but that didn’t last too long as the power went out and I coasted to a stop at the side of the road. A torrent of smoke suddenly gushed into the car from the vents like water filling the bridge of a sinking vessel. I grabbed my papers and quickly bailed; I started walking to the house I could see not far down the road, expecting to call Jeremy and ask for a rescue.
Before I was halfway to that house, a motorist stopped by me and said, "Is that your car back there?”
"Did you know it’s on fire?”
I turned to see thick smoke engulfing the car and billowing into the sky; little tendrils of fire flicked up from the hood. I felt a little bit like Han Solo and had a bad feeling about this. At least the guy offered to take me to Jeremy’s, which was only a mile away.
As soon as I got to Jeremy’s I called the fire department and said, "My car is on fire.”
The dispatcher said, "Is it the one on Route 42?”
"We’ve already got a truck out there.”
I was back at the scene within five or ten minutes, by which time traffic had built up nearly a quarter of a mile on each side. I ran to my car, which was now dripping with water and only slightly smoking from the hood. The hood was partially melted to the shape of the engine and had holes from firefighter axes. The fabric on the seats had been scorched, leaving behind merely the charred wire frames. The windows were shattered across the ground. And all of my fishing poles had been cremated… now mixed into a melted heap of stinking plastic, rubber and black copper.
I never drove that car again.
But I did drive on Route 161 again. In fact, my father bought a used truck from a used car dealership in New California. (See, he too is a slow learner…) I rode with him the day he bought it so that one of us could drive his really old car and the other could drive his really old new truck home.
I drove the new truck. But I almost suffocated before we left, as the exhaust didn’t leave the truck through the back as in most vehicles, but through the cab. It wasn’t so bad once we got on the open rode, but that trip didn’t last too long. The engine went out within ten minutes of our trip home while on Route 161. Dad didn’t notice that I had stalled out until he was so far away. Normally I'm a patient person, but I do remember being a bit annoyed with how long it took him to get back to me: it was a particularly frigid day, and it had not working heat.
I’m not superstitious… but don’t drive a used vehicle on Route 161 unless you’ve got a rabbit’s foot in your pocket.
Lesson 3: Don’t get too handy
During my teenage years I worked with my Dad and his friend Harold. Dad and Harold are jacks-of-all-trades. I could write a book about the time I spent working with them. But what’s relevant here is that Harold always has been the king of resurrecting long decayed vehicles and using them as machines from beyond the grave.
Harold always had trucks, which makes sense since a lot of the work we did was hauling trash and scrapping metal. Most of the trucks during those years have faded into a blurry fog in my mind… so some of these memories may be conglomerations of several trucks. But they were classic Harold.
One truck’s gas system went out. Dad and Harold couldn’t get it to get any gas. Instead of taking it to a shop, they put two large gas cans into the cab and ran a hose from the carburetor out the hood through the window and into the cans. When one can went dry, Dad quickly pulled the hose and put it in the next can. Except for a momentary sputtering, the system worked well. I couldn’t tell you how long that system stayed in place, except they finally solved the problem when Harold removed the gas tank and dislodged an old glove that had clotted the system.
Another great truck we ran around in didn’t have a key ignition. Harold had to open the hood and tap a screwdriver across a couple of wires to fire up the engine. Well there was this one job we were working on in Delaware County. And this one day there was a long traffic jam. And there was this County Sheriff directing traffic. And we were in the traffic jam. And we were told to stop so that cars from the other direction could pass. And then the Sheriff motioned for us to go. And then the truck stalled out.
So Harold got out of the truck. And, oh yeah, the hood wasn’t actually attached to the truck. Harold carefully lifted the hood off and set it on the ground and tapped the wires with the screwdriver and fired up the engine, put the hood back on and drove off. Harold smiled and waved to the Sheriff as we drove by. The Sheriff looked incredulous, though I never knew why.
This is how I learned about cars. Though I never really did learn about cars too much… I kind of always figured that I wouldn’t ever need to learn with such resourceful people around me. But eventually I got out on my own and had to deal with a car or two. And while I’ve never enjoyed working on them, I’ve sometimes actually tackled problems with them.
That takes us to my van. Now I really hate vans. They can carry a bunch of stuff, like my pack of kids. That part is really fine. But when you open the hood of a van you might as well slit your wrists and get it over with. You have to have a Ph.D. in Sledgehammer to get to anything. But when you were exposed to such resourceful people all your life, you have no choice but to live up to your upbringing.
My van went out. This had a lot to do with the fact that I was still a slow learner when my lady and I bought it from her mother who bought it from a used car dealer (see Rule 1 above).
It was puttering out sometimes, and wouldn’t start back up after a trip. I thought it might be the starter. So I got under the van, removed some bolts, and dropped the starter. Of course, I hadn’t removed the battery wires, so the live wires singed a break line and sent break fluid all over the ground. That was really exciting since I was not sure in the moment if the fluid being drenched with sparks was gasoline. When my face didn't catch on fire, I calmed down, put a bowl under the break line leak, and took the starter to an auto shop to be tested. The starter was perfectly fine. So I put it back in and tried to remove the freshly broken break line. Well that line was corroded to a little block that connected with two other lines. You guessed it--trying to detach the bad line from the block led me to break one of the other connected lines...
So now there were two broken lines because I removed a perfectly good starter on a used van that didn’t want to be fixed. I cussed and we paid a few hundred dollars for a real mechanic to fix that issue. Sorry Dad and Harold, I know I let you down.
But I still hate the van, as it still has more problems every day.