Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

I’d rather ride – a brief history of my first automobile

Americans are such a car-centric culture that just about all of us gainfully employed adults have got at least one. “What was your first car?” is a common generic social question, and evokes memories of independence and one’s first taste of responsibility – usually including abusing it, though perhaps less so now as the consequences for doing so grow stiffer.

Mine was all of those, but also proved a rude awakening to the real costs these things can incur upon an eighteen year-old wage slave.

I hadn’t yet moved out of my folks’ place when I bought it, couldn’t drive a stick, and had no idea what a “Supra” was. I picked this off of an internet edition of the Oregonian’s classified section. This was before Craigslist, remember? It was listed as a 1984 Celica Supra, and it had a recently rebuilt engine, fresh paint, clean, etc etc etc, for $2,800. I’d anecdotally heard that Toyotas were pretty reliable, it had fuel injection, rare for its age, and seemed pretty good for the price.

Of course, I didn’t have the $2,500 that my feeble negotiating skills had reduced the price to, only about $750 of my own money from my grocery-store gig, and the bank wouldn’t give out car loans for that little money. Instead, I was set up with a $2,500 unsecured line of credit, leaving a little padding for, you know, groceries, and bought the thing from a guy in a nice suburban house in Hillsboro, Oregon. I figured it was a good sign that he had three other nice-looking Toyotas of a similar age, which he rebuilt for a hobby.

Then, of course, I had to get the thing home, so I brought along my father, who was surprisingly sanguine on my purchase of what was far more a sports car than I’d originally thought.

I’d never really driven around an eighties junker before, but this was clearly not it. Six cylinders with only 2.5 liters, dual overhead cams and all, the motor had a combination of revs and torque that I still admire. I’d imagine that a test-driver in 1984 would be hooked – after all, what the heck else was there back then?

My father drove it back to my house, then I practiced driving around the block, did one session at an industrial park, and I had wheels. I took girls out, I drove to downtown Portland, I drove to the beach, I stayed out late.

I was pulled over seventeen times. What did I expect? It was red, I had a ponytail, and was driving in suburbia at 2 in the morning.

I never got a ticket in that car. Somehow.

Within the first few weeks of owning it, I was getting onto the freeway on a cloverleaf onramp, shifted for fourth, and grabbed a handful of second. The tires locked up, and I steered against the slide, leading to my first full spinout. I hit nothing, and would later learn to drive the car with the rear end as much as the front.

The honeymoon didn’t last six weeks.

Leaving my friend Alex’s place in Portland’s west hills, the car stopped dead, simple as that. It’d crank, but no fire. Nothing.

A long tow later to the one shop I knew cost me seventy-five bucks, and the fuel pump that was the culprit cost a hundred and twenty – except that it was submerged in the gas tank, so the labor to remove and replace the whole deal cost nearly three hundred more. This stung, but I survived it.

A few weeks later, while driving back from dinner with a girl, I suddenly smelled a lot of burning oil. This turned out to be a seal from of the cams simply dropping out of the cylinder head, causing oil to flow out in arterial proportions. I probably damaged the bearings irreparably driving the sucker first to Jiffy lube to have them look below the car, then to the shop they recommended closeby.

That shop was a by-the-book repair place, and I felt gut punched when they told me the news – twelve hundred dollars. There was no way I had that much money, I hadn’t been able to pay off the debt like I’d hoped due to the initial repair. I’d no idea what to do, and I felt it a prison sentence to be returned to the heavy mountain bike my mothers’ ex had left behind.

It managed to rumble the two miles of train tracks that was the fastest way from my new apartment to the grocery store, I got a raise, and I learned of H&H auto, run by an Indian man with a strong belief in Karma. He fixed the car for five hundred dollars, though perhaps not as thoroughly as fictionally named Splendid Motors.

All was fine again, my pride, social skills, and interaction with officers of the law all returned, and I drove again to Nature’s Fresh Northwest for the seven to three thirty am shift. At nineteen, this seemed brutally early, but I grew to appreciate it.

This lasted a month. Then, the Supra got sick. Subtle at first, the motor began to weaken. Then, the thing began to cough, hiccup, and sputter as I shifted gears. It drove, but poorly. Somehow I did not take it back to H&H, nor Splendid, but the little garage attached to the 76 station (which, like all such garages these days, has been replaced by a convenience store) where my sister’s sort-of-boyfriend worked.

He pointed to two things – one, the exhaust system was plugged by backpressure, and, two, the ignition might have issues, but it was hard to say. HIS buddy worked at the exhaust shop down the road that has now become one of those doggie daycares, they were still open – I should take it down.

I now realize, of course, that he was taking as much advantage of me as those types of places typically do, and fixed the most expensive part first. I, of course, wanted to feel I’d come out better than before, so rather than paying a buck seventy-five to reuse OEM-quality parts, I shelled out three hundred for the high-flow converter and stainless steel muffler. I got a throaty roar – after I then paid something like a hundred for new plugs and wires, which had started the whole problem.

Another few weeks, and all seemed well in the world, until on a drive back from my mothers’ the engine suddenly, irrevocably died. I’d no idea what had happened, but it clearly wasn’t good – the whole car had come to a shuddering halt, and the engine wouldn’t even turn over.

That, of course, was because it was seized. I’d learn later it had slipped a bearing, and I did eventually get the thing back to life, good as new, with an imported, lightly used engine from Japan – they pull them from cars there after about 50,000 miles, doncha know. It cost me about a thousand. I had owned the car for about three months.

In the short run, though, the Supra taught me that cars were expensive any way you sliced it, by that point I was making okay-ish money and bought another cheap but highstrung car, spent more money on it, and learned that you can buy car parts on credit cards. Since I didn’t have a car payment, I rationalized that this was largely the same thing.

When I went back to college, I had to sell the Supra to help pay the bills. It sucked. I couldn’t even bear to look at it, and my father helped me basically give the thing away compared to how much money and time I’d invested in it.

Lately, as the week wears on, the sixty-something mile bicycle commute each day wears into my legs, and I think about how it might be nice to use motorized means of commuting from time to time. The idea of eating breakfast at home, leaving the house at seven instead of five thirty, and all the rest seems like it might be appealing.

If my first car experience had been less dramatic, both in its highs and its lows, I might be more inclined to try to make auto ownership work into my budget again. Certainly I could, if pressed, make it "work."

But, while my battery insists I wrap this post up, I wanted to point out that I feel a little traumatized by the whole ordeal -- I thankfully dodged the encumbrance of a car loan in my less wise late teens, and I certainly refuse to go down that road now -- and I fear that anything I'd buy now would be more of a burden than anything else. What will go wrong? How long will I have before I own an expensive metal umbrella? I'm not willing to invest that much time, money, energy in a machine again, not when it's in contrast to the simple, efficient -- to say nothing of affordable -- pleasure of a bicycle.

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