By Larry Carley c2006 Click Here to return to Carley's Car Blog.
The average American trades cars every four or five years, and over a lifetime owns a LOT of vehicles. Some are good, dependable vehicles while others are nothing but trouble.
Being an automotive technical guru of sorts, you would think that most of the vehicles I have owned and driven over the years would have been pretty good ones. Truth is, I've owned a lot of crappy cars.
The first car on my list was a 1958 Corvette. What started out as a crappy car actually ended up being a good car. I bought it my senior year in high school from my girlfriend's brother. The car was a total wreck and was sitting in a junkyard covered with pigeon droppings (literally, a crappy car). Everything on that car was either broken, worn out, damaged or missing � but it was a cool car and I had to have it. The price was right ($600) so I bought it and spent every dime I had for the next three years fixing it up, painting it, rebuilding the engine, replacing the original Powerglide automatic transmission with a manual transmission (multiple times because I kept blowing gears out of it), constantly tuning it, repairing it and buying lots of gas (it got about 8 mpg thanks to the wild cam, 4bbl Holley carburetor and big valve heads). I sold the car shortly after I got married because I could no longer afford it (been kicking myself ever since!).
In 1970, I replaced the Corvette with another crappy car, a used 1964 VW Beetle. The VW was cheap and easy on gas, but I soon discovered bugs had a few shortcomings. One was the heater (or lack thereof) and the defrosters (also totally ineffective). The car also felt like a kite in the wind and would blow all over the road in crosswinds or when being passed by other vehicles (especially trucks). Rainy weather meant the windows would fog up and you could not see the road. Cold weather meant the windows would frost over, and your feet would grow numb. The floor-mounted brake, gas and clutch pedals would stick partly from the frozen slush on the floor and partly from accumulated rust in the pedal fixture and cables. I also discovered bugs required constant maintenance. If the oil was not changed every 1500 miles and the valves adjusted every 3000 miles, the engine would self-destruct. I quickly learned how to work on VWs out of necessity. This was actually a blessing in disguise because it later led to a summer job as a VW mechanic while I was struggling to put myself through college. It wasn't long before I was making more money buying, fixing up and selling used VWs with blown engines than I was earning working fulltime at the dealership. Over the next few years, I probably bought and sold 30 VWs. My VW experience opened the door for me as a freelance automotive writer because I was able to sell some repair articles to Hot VW magazine.
Most of the VWs I only bought to fix up and drive until I could sell the car (hopefully at a profit) and buy another. But a couple were keepers. One was a 1963 VW that I stripped down and transformed into a budget street racer. Click Here to see a photo of the "Bug Bomb." I removed every ounce of "unnecessary" weight (bumpers, sound insulation, spare tire, back seat, etc.) and replaced the glass with plexiglass. I found a used 1500 cc engine at a junkyard, and rebuilt it with all the goodies I could afford from Scat and JC Whitney (big bore cylinder jugs, hand ported dual port heads, a two-barrel carburetor off a 389 Pontiac, a wild cam, high lift rockers, headers, Bosch 009 modified distributor, cut down flywheel, transporter clutch). The car was painted white with a blue stripe down the middle, and the words "Bug Bomb" hand painted under the rear side windows. The engine revved like a motorcycle and made the super light car extremely quick off the line. It was actually faster than my old Corvette, and I could beat just about anything at our local 1/8th mile drag strip (and on the street). My daily driver during this time was a cherry red 1968 VW with mag wheels. The engine was also with a modified but less powerful. Even so, the car could cruise all day at 90 mph. But like all VWs, these cars required constant maintenance and repairs. One day I sucked a valve in the Bug Bomb while racing a Lotus (the speedometer only read to 80 mph, and the needle was pegged all the way back around to zero!). After I rebuilt the engine, I decided I'd better sell it before I killed myself. I sold the engine to a guy who was building a dune buggy (who spun a rod bearing because he forgot to fill it with oil), and the body to somebody else as a "fixer upper."
Another crappy car I owned for about a year in college was a 1968 MGB-GT. It was a sporty looking car, but like all MGs from that period it had exhaust, battery, electrical and clutch problems, not to mention a lack of ventilation in the summer. The car had wire wheels, which were permanently frozen onto the hubs thanks to severe corrosion, and I had to partially pull the engine to replace the starter when it died. I was glad to see that car go.
For a while I also drove a 1964 Studebaker beater (a really crappy car) while commuting 45 miles back and forth to school. The car was a faded brown four-door with a six cylinder Chevy engine and 3-speed overdrive transmission. The clutch was slipping badly, so I replaced it only to discover I had installed the clutch disc backwards and it would not release. Once I got that problem straightened out, the car drove pretty well � until I rear ended a guy in a brand new Buick (I slid into him on ice).
My next car was a used 1973 Chevy Vega. I bought this crappy car because I thought it looked sporty, and the price was within my budget (which was rather meager at the time). Other than the rear-engine air-cooled Corvair, the Vega was probably the WORST car that Chevy ever built (yet it won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award when it was introduced in 1971. Go figure). My Vega was no exception. The engine had an unquenchable thirst for oil, emitting a puff of blue smoke with every gear shift. The overhead cam four-cylinder engine was also rather anemic, and all my attempts to "soup it up" with an aftermarket intake manifold, carburetor, camshaft and exhaust hedders accomplished very little. It was still a dog. After several winters of exposure to road salt, the body began to resemble Swiss cheese. I sold it, then bought another Vega.
I guess I'm a slow learner. My next Vega was a 1974 Vega GT. It was actually a show car a guy had built to show off his paint skills. The car was pure stock but had an absolutely flawless gloss red paint job with a completely detailed engine and painted chassis. This car was a work of art, and my intention was to replace the stock four cylinder engine with a 350 Chevy V8. But my limited budget prevented me from ever realizing that particular dream, so I used the car as my daily driver for several years. Eventually, the Chicago winters managed to penetrate all the layers of paint causing little bubbles to appear here and there. I knew it was time to say good-bye and move on to another crappy car.
My next daily driver was a very used 1983 Mercury Lynx (same thing as a Ford Escort) with 60,000 miles on the odometer (I'm a sucker for low mileage cars). After I bought it I learned why the previous owner got rid of it. The car had a nasty habit of not starting after it had been driven more than four or five miles. It would start and run fine when cold, but would usually not start after it had been driven more than a few miles. The problem turned out to be a bad TFI ignition module (hot short). Somebody had also replaced the cylinder head with one that had been milled (because the head gasket had blown, probably because the engine overheated). Consequently, the engine had too much compression and would knock and ping unless I ran it on premium gas. After a few months of this nonsense, I got rid of it.
Finally, I had scraped up enough money for a down payment on a NEW car, not somebody's second hand junk. I needed an economical car for commuting, and I liked the looks of the Chevy Cavalier. I wanted to buy the Z24 model but ended up with a base plain Jane fastback, 5-speed and no A/C as that was all I could afford. The car did get 35 mpg on the highway, but the engine started to leak oil after 5,000 miles and it was downhill from there. I bought some aftermarket wheels to dress it up a bit, but after a couple of years and many quarts of oil, I grew weary of the "Crapalier" and got rid of it.
The family was growing (2 kids now), so it was time to make the plunge and buy my first minivan. I found a used 1987 Dodge Caravan with low miles, and it became our new family car (replacing a Ford Fairmont wagon I failed to mention earlier -- which was our family car up to that point in time, and was another crappy car). We really liked the Caravan for family outings, and it proved to be very practical for hauling strollers, kids car seats, plywood, drywall, you-name-it. But the fuel pump reached the end of the road at 49,000 miles (leaving the family stranded in the middle of nowhere, Illinois on a cold winter night), and the transmission called it quits at 53,000 miles.
I needed another car for myself, and had the hots to buy a new Mustang GT with a 5.0L engine. I went to the Ford dealer with every intention of buying a new Mustang on the spot, but a brand new Ford Probe GT caught my eye. I test drove a new Mustang GT, then drove a turbocharged Probe GT. There was no comparison. The turbo was much faster, and compared to the boxy Mustang of that period the Probe was sleek and sexy. Unfortunately, the dealer would not negotiate and I had to pay full list price for the Probe. In retrospect, my 1989 Ford Probe GT turned out to be one of the BEST car I ever owned. In fact, I still have it (actually my son has been driving it for the past year). The car will pull away from most V8s on the road, yet gets 33 mpg on the highway. The only repairs I have had to make over 18 years of ownership and well over 100K miles of daily driving are the usual things that wear out such as tires, batteries, brake pads and mufflers. I think I am on my 6th or 7th "lifetime" muffler now. The car is also on its third alternator. But the car still looks and runs like new thanks to being garaged most of its life, and having regular oil and filter changes.
Back to the Caravan. It was now 1992, and time for our aging Caravan to find a new owner. I traded it for a used 1991 Plymouth Voyager. We kept this van until the transmission failed at 72,000 miles. This was the first year for the electronic transmission, and Chrysler had not figured out all the bugs yet. It kept going into "limp in mode" which meant it would only drive in 2nd gear. If I stopped, shut the engine off and restarted it, the limp-in mode would reset and it would work normally again for awhile. I took it to the Dodge dealer numerous times for repairs. They finally replaced the controller and the transmission, but failed to eliminate the glitch. They basically told me, "Sorry, we cannot fix it." Thanks a lot. Time to trade again. This time I said no more Chrysler products for me. I traded it to an unsuspecting Ford dealer for a used 1995 Ford Windstar. I forgot to tell the salesman about the transmission problem. But as it turned out, the joke was on me.
The 1995 Ford Windstar I bought turned out to be a lemon. At 27,000 miles, the transmission died. Luckily, it was still under warranty so that repair was free. But the next was not (a new fuel pump for $600 at 51,000 miles). Then the head gaskets started leaking at 48,000 miles. The head gaskets cost me $1500 to replace, but fortunately a LOT of other 1995 Windstars with 3.8L engines had the same problem because of a poor OEM head gasket design. Ford eventually reimbursed me for the repairs, but it was time to get rid of the minivan before something else broke.
Our next family vehicle was a used 2000 Ford Windstar (do I ever learn?). No head gasket or transmission problems yet on this one, but a dead fuel pump at 60K left my wife stranded at the mall, and a faulty MAF sensor keeps turning on the Check Engine light (cleaning the sensor fixes the problem for awhile). The struts have been squeaky since day one (there is no way to lubricate the upper strut mounts and I am too cheap to replace the struts to get rid of the annoying squeaks), and the van has enough miles on it now to need new spark plugs. I was able to change four out of the six, but two on the backside are virtually impossible to reach. Guess they will stay there until the next owner discovers it.
My latest set of wheels is a 2004 Nissan Maxima. I have had this car three years as of this writing and knock on wood have NOT had a single problem with it (yet). So far, it has been as great car (it's about time!). Maybe it will last as long as the Probe. I certainly hope so because I would like to think I am done buying crappy cars.
What Have I Learned?
I have learned that ANY can turn out to be a lemon no matter what the experts say about it, or how closely you inspect it.
I have learned to NEVER sell a used car to a friend or family member. You will hear about that car for the rest of your life if anything ever goes wrong with it (which it will). Better to trade it to a dealer or sell to a stranger who is moving out-of-state.
I have learned that preventive maintenance does not always prevent bad things from happening to your vehicle. I have always been religious about regular oil and filter changes (every 3000 miles), replacing spark plugs, timing belts, coolant, rotating tires, etc. But maintenance will not prevent defective factory parts from failing prematurely, or a rusty muffler from falling off, or the brakes or tires from wearing out. Auto repairs are an unavoidable consequence of vehicle ownership unless you can afford to trade or lease every two to three years.
I have learned that late model import cars and engines are a lot better than their domestic counterparts. Japanese cars and engines seem to go a lot more miles than anything built by Chevy, Ford or Chrysler (except Buick 3800 V6s which seem to last forever).
I have learned that most people keep a vehicle until it starts to cause them problems, then they sell it or trade it. Consequently, when you buy a used car you may be buying somebody else's problem. Most dealers only fix the obvious faults before they put a car on the lot. CarMax, on the other hand, seems to do a pretty good job of checking out and repairing any faults that are found. I bought a used Saturn from a local CarMax store for my daughter and it has been a pretty good car (except for a crankshaft position sensor that was causing some starting issues, which I fixed for $15).
Finally, I learned NOT to recommend any particular make or model of vehicle to friends, family members or anyone else. If you are shopping for a different vehicle or a new car, check the ratings in Consumer Reports, read reviews in car magazines and new car websites, check for recent recall notices, then ask somebody else for their opinion. You will probably end up buying a vehicle that catches your eye or has the features you want, or appeals to your ego. So why pretend you are making a logical buying decision? Just buy it.