At the time of writing, I have owned eleven cars in eight years. While I freely admit, not all of them were daily drivers, the majority of them were. In 2020 alone, I went from driving a 1961 Chevy Corvair Monza to a 1969 Chevy Caprice Sport Sedan to my current daily driver, a base model 1985 Ford Escort Hatchback. Many times, I’ve found myself when bored typing “used car dealership” into my computer and spinning that wheel to find if my meager budget will tolerate my dreams.
My adult life has been a wild ride of classic cars, breakdowns, late-night wrenching, and a mountain of stories worth telling. My automotive odyssey came of humble origins, however. Speaking as someone who has loved cars most of her life, I didn’t even want to look for my first car, happy to let it be done by other people. Join me now as I take you on the first step of an eight-year journey. It’s one of apathy and stupidity in equal measure. Ladies and gentlemen and those betwixt, allow me to introduce…
Rocket: Hurst, We Have a Problem…
Disappointment. I was looking at my first car, my very own set of wheels. Rolling freedom, and all I could think was…this is it? Parked in the driveway was a 2000 Honda Accord sedan. Painted grey, with bubbling tint on the windows, it sat out of phase with the rest of the cars in the neighborhood on the street that night. It felt both present and nonexistent at the same time.
The shape of the car was so utterly bland, so devoid of any styling that to this day, I struggle to remember the entire car in my mind’s eye. As I stepped out of my Mom’s SUV and looked it over, I was handed the keys and opened the door. My gaze fell upon an equally grey cabin with the swoopy, blobby shapes that era was known for in car design. The seats were cloth, and the shifter had a silver button on it. The keys were heavy, but the plastic cover at the top of the key felt worn and cheap.
The car was 16 years old at the time and was indicative of every used car I had ever seen or ridden in from this time period. I was happy to have a car, but it was as if my parents had gone out of their way to find the single most boring vehicle in existence. Though I couldn’t blame them, I’d said I trusted them to find me something, and they did just that.
A few months prior, I had just turned 16. My Mom and I had just moved to Texas from New Mexico, and I was having to get used to all the things that came with it. I had a brand new high school in a brand new town full of people I knew nearly nothing about. So concerned was I about simply trying to find my way in this new landscape after living my whole life in Albuquerque that when it came time to find my first car, I couldn’t have cared less. A couple of months went by with me apathetically scrolling through Craigslist, never committing to anything. Finally, my folks got sick of the whole business and just asked if I trusted them to find me something. I said I did, and we all ended up with a headache on four wheels.
My step-father and I discovered that the Accord was hiding a dirty little secret that would become the source of many issues. I found out the standard oil filter wouldn’t fit the engine, and that prompted some digging. It had been the subject of an engine swap. Someone in the car’s sordid past had decided to drop the engine from a 1996 Prelude between the shock towers.
There were two major problems with the little swap. Number one, it was a JDM engine, meaning it was a nightmare to find parts for stateside. Number two, it made too much power and quickly led to the whole car falling apart around the engine. When we first got the car, for example, the transmission was failing. Every downshift was like being kicked by a horse, as the whole car would buck. After taking it to a transmission shop, I was informed that the transmission was so ragged out that it was a miracle it had ever made it in. That was the first of a few thousand dollars that car would devour during my year of ownership with it.
During the months of peace in between its many trips to the shop, the car was entertaining to drive, as long as one was going straight. You’d put your foot to the floor, hear the little four-banger tach up, wait for the poor transmission to catch up, and you launch forward with the front of the car raised up a couple of inches, front wheels scrambling for purchase the whole way. You’d be pressed into the awful cloth seats, and for just a few moments, that dire grey cabin became the controls for a spaceship at launch. That led to it getting the name Rocket, which I promptly spelled out across the leading ledge of the hood in stick-on chrome letters. They were crooked, but they gave the car some sorely needed character. I still feel embarrassed about how I decorated that poor jalopy.
Before You Are Young and Wise…
You must be young and stupid, as the proverb goes. Boy, did I ever meet that! I treated that car like a rented mule, flogging it from my job at Whataburger and later a concrete yard, all the way back home. Every time I turned the key, it was even odds if it would start up at all. Nothing was worse than driving along and seeing that shiny orange light pop on and knowing that I was about to have another massive dent in the pocketbook. I felt cheated. I felt sad. Most of all, I felt angry. Pure and simple. I was angry at myself for neglecting to find myself a car I actually wanted, I was angry at my parents for buying such a lemon, and I was especially angry at the seller who’d convinced them it was a good idea!
Sometimes you have to know when it’s time to cut your losses, but it isn’t always that simple. I needed the car to get to my job, so I could afford to buy another car in the first place. It was like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a colander. It was always going to be a losing battle. I was left borrowing thousands of dollars from my father to keep a car I didn’t want in the first place around long enough to replace it. Eventually, I did manage to palm it off at a Honda dealership as a trade-in to a 2003 Honda CRV, which was another mistake all on its own. That, however, is a story for another day.
As I look back on my automotive timeline, it’s nice to know I’ve learned how to keep a car running on my own. I’ve learned to take my time looking for the things I want and be proactive about it. Sometimes, finding the perfect car is all about being in the right place, at the right time, and knowing what you’re looking for.