It happens so fast. One minute life seems a place of nearly unbearable normalcy, the next you are turned on your head (sometimes literally). It’s a difficult position to find yourself in: the forced decision to purchase a vehicle in a short time frame.
Sometimes the cause is a faulty head gasket; other times it is a faulty head. In my friend Gordon’s case, it was the latter. He was waiting patiently in his Mazda Miata for the traffic light to turn green (he has no other method of waiting, as he’s been accused of having “no concept of urgency” by some very close to him) when he was rear-ended by a Nissan Pathfinder (whose driver evidently had a very real sense of urgency). They both climbed out to assess the damage, went to the back of the car, and quickly realized that it did not look good for the little roadster. That’s it. Done. Game over. In an instant, he had to find a replacement.
I sensed what was coming next. He, in a momentary lapse of judgment, asked me to help him seek out another car. (I blame undiagnosed head trauma from the accident.) This tends to happen often when you’re pigeon-holed as a “car guy.” I’ve always found this a bit unfair since I also consider myself a guitar guy, motorcycle guy, dog guy, coal stove guy, Greenland kayak guy, and–most certainly–an boutique/vintage amp guy. Somehow people always seem to focus in on the car aspect of my limited knowledge base and attempt to employ me in their quest for The Perfect Car.
The whole concept of The Perfect Car is as different from one person to the next as fingerprints are. What you want, he doesn’t want. What he wants, she won’t appreciate. What she likes makes no sense to me. And believe me, she definitely does not want what I find appealing (which is–more often than not–built before 1990 and not her). To find The Perfect Car, I need to know what compromises you are willing to make, since choosing a car is based entirely on compromise. For example, you probably don’t want to plow snow with a Bentley Turbo R, nor would you choose a Willys MB jeep for a cross-country voyage. A list of must-haves is helpful to bring some order out of the chaos.
Gordon made his needs known: The Car would have to be relatively new, all-wheel drive, sporty, get good gas mileage, be rust-free, have a manual transmission, and cost under $5,000. I added “walks on water” to the list, just to be sure. I looked over the list and suddenly felt the need to sit down. I would have to tackle these criteria one by one and eliminate those that were either unnecessary or unreasonable.
How new is new? Gordon was fine with going back into the ‘90s, but he wanted lower mileage. This is reasonable. All-wheel drive was deemed necessary since his fiancée, (wife, by the time you read this), Brenda, is a home care nurse and her new Prius will prove worthless in the snow. This is difficult, but also reasonable.
Sporty? This turned out to mean “not a wagon or an SUV.” I decided to just eliminate all truck-based vehicles, which also helped with that gas mileage hurdle. And so it went as I whittled the list of potential candidates down to a very, very short list. Now the difficult point came: choosing the right one out of all of them (or, in the case of this list, both of them).
A few days laters Gordon gave me a call, relatively excited about a gem that he may have found on a dealer lot in the next county over. I agreed to head over with him and give it a once-over. At these times I always feel a bit like Mika, my Norwegian Elkhound; I consider it my duty to sniff out Unseen Evil lurking in the darkness. He got the key from the salesman, and I began my work. I start from the bottom and work my way to the top. My theory is that when most people look at a car they are swayed by shiny paint and glossy tires and have convinced themselves that the car is a complete jewel by the time they get to the important stuff.
From the ground I saw….nothing. Zero rust. No drips of fluids. No mouse nests dangling from above. The car looked really clean. I was skeptical. It was too clean for an Eastern car. Had it not been for the catalytic converter’s heat shield held in place by a combination of rusty wire and giant band clamp, I probably would have walked. It was almost too good. I checked the brakes: brand new pads & rotors at all corners (The cross-hatching was still present.). The doors all worked, too; this is a good thing. I checked under the hood. It was clean and had a recent tune-up. The head gaskets looked untouched, which was a bit of a concern. I had Gordon fire it up, and I kept an eye on the tailpipe for signs of water, oil, or small birds that might show up. Nothing was unusual. The heater and air conditioner seemed to work on cue (quite a change from my Land Rover).
We took it for a shakedown run. It shifted well, had no nasty clunks in the suspension, and the AWD system even worked as it should. No pinging or misfires under acceleration, either. In fact, the only flaws I could really find with the car was some major checking in the hood paint & wheels and a passenger-side window that didn’t always want to return from where it came. I consider items like these bargaining chips: $100 items. After a solid 12 seconds of shrewd tactics, a price was decided upon and Gordon had a set of wheels once again.
What troubles me most about finding a car like this is that–like a politician–once you put them in place to do their job, you begin to find the major flaws in them that were unseen before. What seemed like a solid choice (made through either logic or emotion) can often come back to haunt you for years into the future. You rarely know who the previous owner of the vehicle is, nor what they’ve done to it.
In the case of Nigel, my Land Rover, the previous owner was apparently an Old English Sheepdog who farmed. It also had a penchant for smoking fine cigars while taking long drives through the corrosive brine that is the Atlantic Ocean. My E30 BMW was lovingly garaged by a kindly gentleman before he decided to sell it to his nephew. In no time the nephew went about undoing his uncle’s good intentions with poorly-aimed wire cutters and scents & tacky add-ons found only in the Pep Boys’ “Accessories” aisle (or much of New Jersey). The stereo wiring in my E34 BMW was sorted according to what color combinations seemed the prettiest, with no regard for function or longevity. As for my Rabbit? The evils that lurked under that shell are best left unspoken here.
Previous owners aren’t always terrible ogres. When I went to pick up my Aprilia Futura from its former home, I knew I had found a winner. The bike was in a heated garage with all manner of tools, spares, and accessories neatly hung from pegboard. We talked about the bike’s thorough service history and the mechanic who performed it (with receipts to prove it). The real touching part was when the bike was tied down in the back of the Sprinter van and we were saying our good-byes. I shook Lou’s hand one final time and saw his eyes welling up with tears. That bike was loved.
It is with this mixed history of used vehicle that I meekly gave my blessing on Gordon’s Subaru Legacy Outback purchase. I sincerely hope it does well for them. Yet, I fear that I may have missed something and that something might cost them dearly down the road, but at least I know that I tried my best.
“So,” some of you might ask, “why not just get a new car and avoid the gamble?” Are you serious? Do you know what those dealer techs DO to those things before you get ahold of them!?