All You Ever Need To Know About Cars

Now that my third car in six months has bit the dust, and I am once again carless, I thought that I would share with the world everything that I've learned about cars in the past half-year. Most of these lessons told here are common sense, or so you would suppose. But somehow, in the mess of it all, something just got lost, and I found myself stranded in the snow on a mountain in Vermont in the middle of the night, staring at this smoking car, waiting for it to cool down enough so I could push it that little bit further to get it within AAA's 100-mile free-towing limit, while the friendly state trooper runs my expired plates so he can discover that the car is registered in someone else's name 900 miles away. Huh. "How did you get here," you ask? Read on:

1. Do not buy a car at a car auction if you don't know what it is, and you cannot actually see the car because your view is blocked by a huge mass of people, all of whom are not bidding on the car. This was my first mistake. I'd done huge amounts of research on car auctions, attending a couple across the state, including one at the location that I was actually bidding at. But when I went to this one, I panicked. I had written down the mileage and condition of every car on the lot that I was actually interested in. I came in to the bidding room, amped up beyond belief, accompanied for moral support by my older brother and his wife, and his old college roommate and his wife. The five of us stood in surprise as the first few cars went by with no one bidding for the low bid of $75. Seventy-five bucks! How can you not buy a car for seventy-five bucks? So, as my brother's roommate whispered in my ear, "just put up your hand, warm up a little bit on these early cars." On the next car, I stuck up my hand, just as someone else did. "Seventy-five, one-hundred!" called the auctioneer, pointing at me and slamming down the bit of rubber tube he was using as a gavel. And then it was done. The car drove away, we only saw a glance of it - "It was white, I saw some white! I think it was an old Oldsmobile or something!" I went and paid up for the car, an '87 Pontiac Bonneville. $100 plus a $75 fee. $175 for a car that drove. What a bargain!

"Coupla good tires," said my mechanic. That was all he could come up with for positives on the car. It was well beyond repair - alignment outta axis, suspension shot, engine on the verge of death. I sold it to a junkyard for $25 a couple weeks later.

2. If you don't know how to paint a car, and you really want a new coat of paint for the car, don't just get some spraypaint and start going at it.

No one thought this was a good idea. Heck, I didn't think it was a good idea. But the '90 Honda Civic I'd just bought from my parents for $550 was baby blue, and having put up with all the jokes through high school, I wasn't gonna go through it again. I was gonna paint it all sporty. Two-tone. Black and bright blue. With decals. Fake rims spraypainted chrome. Fuzzy dice. Floormats with "NOS" on them. And one of those exhaust tips. I only roll in style.

Three days in, I'd invested hours upon hours upon hours. The first coat I put on bubbles. I scrape some off and start over. Even worse. Now I can't get it off. I try rubbing it down with paper towels. No good. I try sanding it down. Worse. Now, having inhaled too much paint fumes in a small garage ("Did I have a paint mask," you ask? The mere fact of you asking shows you haven't been paying attention), I make a last ditch effort. I try hosing down the car with a garden hose to take off all the paint.

I'll leave the result up to your imagination.

3. Do not buy a '87 Mercury Topaz off a local at the school you go to for $650 and assume that "I can probably drive this baby 1000 miles home before getting it inspected. It's got low miles. It'll be fine."

When a car has less than 75,ooo miles and you get it for $650, you ought to be more suspicious than I am. But I, ever the optimist, figure, heck, it's running fine now - what could go wrong?

Here's a list of what could go wrong:

  1. I notice the car's battery goes dead and needs a jump a couple times the weeks before I leave. Huh.

  2. I let a friend at school borrow the car a week before we ("we" being myself and two overly-trusting friends of mine who come from the same general area) leave to go home. He calls me from the cell phone, noting that smoke is coming out from under the steering wheel. Huh. "Just drive it home, I'll take a look," I say. When he gets back, I take a look. It looks like a car.

  3. A group of friends and I drive out to catch "Ocean's Twelve." Smoke starts coming out from under the steering wheel. Huh. I go into panic mode. I slow the car down. Things clear up. Then the battery light comes on. Huh. There's smoke again. Huh. Well, I guess it's best to know this now, so I can get it fixed, right?

  4. Both my friends' parents, who are obviously very wise, buy them plane tickets home, since I don't know when I'll be able to get my car fixed. I'm on my own.

  5. I get the car fixed two days before I leave. My alternator belt has snapped, it'll cost me $65. Ah, I can afford that. I've got $300 in the bank squirrelled away for the trip home.
  6. Thursday morning. I'm on my way home when I notice smoke coming out from under my steering wheel. A lot of smoke. Huh. I pull off and find a mechanic. So far, I've made it seven miles.

  7. A couple of hours later, the mechanic says I'll need a new heating coil. $200, and he'll have it done for me in four more hours.
  8. 150 miles in, I pull off for some lunch. Well, the sun's gone down, so probably dinner. I don't have a clock in the car. As I park, I notice smoke coming out from under the hood. Huh. It's coming from the radiator. I call my dad, who says it's probably just a slow leak in the radiator. Buy some antifreeze, turn up the heat, open the windows, and drive. 10-4, good buddy. Will do.
  9. Every 50, 60, 70 miles, the car starts doing something funky - hesitating, shaking, or I'll start smelling antifreeze awfully strongly - so I'll pull over and give it a rest. Often there's smoke under the hood after I pull in. Huh.

  10. I make it across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and most of New York without too much difficulty, though the going is slow. As I'm a mile short of the rest stop in Albany that I'd planned at stopping at, though, all the air in my car suddenly goes cold. Huh. I pull the car in, let it cool down, and check out the situation. The car now has two antifreeze leaks, one of them leaking quite quickly. I call home to tell my family that "I'm making a run for it." Filling my antifreeze container the rest of the way full of water, I set out to make the last 200 mile sprint.

  11. 3 miles in, it's stop-and-go traffic on the highway, and my car is already smoking. I keep pulling over and refilling it with anti-freeze. Every 30 miles, it overheats, and I have to let it sit for a while before refilling it with anti-freeze and pressing on.

  12. And so, I end up on that mountain in Vermont with the cop late Friday night, standing next to my dead car in the snow, wondering how I got here, all my money spent.

It took 38 hours to cover the thousand-mile trip. I could actually have arrived home quicker on horseback.

4. Pay the man. My Civic blew it's timing belt, mashing the valves. The engine was done. But the mechanic could put in another engine for about $1000, counting the work he already did. "Too much," I said. "I can't afford it." I paid for the non-refundable part that he put in - $125. Then I bought the Topaz - $650. Then I put in the alternator belt - $65. Then the new heating coil - $200. $125 + $650 + $65 + $200 = $1040 for a '87 Mercury Topaz with no tranny that I have to junk later this week.

5. When all else fails, go out in a blaze of glory. The Civic was dead. It needed a new engine. Since putting in a new engine was too much, I decided that I should smash the car up and make a movie about a car accident, writing the script backwards from that point. So I did. The night we filmed was as cold as Kentucky ever gets, we were outside without heat for 7 hours, and none of the lighting worked, so I had to use car headlight from the Topaz, which began showing it's first inclinations of having the battery die at every available opportunity. When we pushed the Topaz out to jump it from another car, we lost control and accidently rammed it into another car parked there. The blood we used on my leading actress had laundry detergent in it and burned her face for days (though she never complained once), and the battery on the zoom in the camera ran out, and no one had a clue how to replace it. We had to push my car up a hill in order to send it back down to crash and die, and it almost killed us. We only had one take when we rolled the car down the hill, and we blew it.

And it was awesome.

In conclusion, you haven't learned anything from this. You knew better than this to start with. You'd never spraypaint your car, or try to take a flyer on a car for a thousand miles, and you certainly wouldn't buy a car sight-unseen. But look at these experiences! Memories that last a lifetime. Would I trade all this back just to get another chance at that auction?

Lemme think about it.