Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lucky Cars!

[WARNING: long post ahead! sorry about that...]

The title may be misleading. Maybe you thought I said "lucky stars," but I didn't. I said "lucky cars." Also, it's kind of a lie... I really intend to tell about my "unluck" with cars (but there's actually a lot of luck in there, too!). It all starts many years ago...

The year is 1978. I'm a wee lad of 6, turning 7 that year, and Alfa Romeo builds a vehicle that will eventually be my first car. It's their "Sport Sedan," basically the Spider drivetrain with a sedan body (you can see an example here - that's, I believe, even the same color as mine, but mine was a manual transmission; this was the same car that Ferris Beuler's friend comes to pick him up in at the beginning of the movie - the brown sedan, not the red Ferarri). Poor little car - it didn't get along well with my driving behaviors; that is, I didn't drive it on long enough trips to burn off the extra fuel the mechanical fuel injection system threw in the cylinders to start the thing, and it would foul plugs and injectors and then not start. About the third time we had it towed to the shop, my dad decided it was time to replace. Time of ownership: year or two.

Second car was French, a Renault Fuego... an engine and cooling system later (as well as a new glass hatch due to some, shall we say, less-than-gentle-shutting-in-anger) we eventually sold the vehicle to the local French specialist for parts. Time of ownership: year or two.

Next car that was mine was a 1985 Toronado... it got wrecked (multiple times; at time of disposal the driver's inner door panel would not connect to the door) and eventually was left to a junkyard for super-cheap (didn't want to take it with me when moving from South Carolina to Virginia). Time of ownership: a couple of years.

(Note that these first three vehicles were from my dad - totally free of charge; hence, the lucky! Plus, who gets to have an Alfa Romeo as a first car and a Renault as a second?)

Next was a 1984 Buick LeSabre (yeah, the big one). It was a relatively reliable car, and we got it at a good price - and owner financed - from my Grandmom B (and her husband, Irving, who - a retired Cadillac salesman - sold cars on the side). Can't complain about that one, except one time it did pop a ball joint and drop a lower control arm onto the interstate at 65-70 mph, which happened the weekend before we were supposed to go to sea. This left my wife (and kids) without transportation. (That car actually handled snow fairly well, as we found out the day we went to Wal-Mart in Virginia to get a bunch of stuff for the new place, just having moved there, and came out a few hours later to 3" of snow on the ground!) The LeSabre was joined by a 1991 Park Avenue Ultra (a gift from my dad) - and this is one car I don't recall ever having any problems with. These we owned for maybe 4 and 2 years, respectively (I don't recall exactly).

The pair of Buicks was replaced by a pair of Fords: a 1995 Ford Windstar minivan (traded the two Buicks on the Ford, difference paid for by a cash gift from my dad) and a 1987 Ford Taurus (gift from my parents - it was my mom's car, and she got a Mercedes to replace it: a fantastic 1990 300 CE coupe). The Windstar developed major transmission issues within a year and the Taurus decided to dump all its coolant at the drive through at Krystal on University Drive in Huntsville. Taurus made it home, but sat until I tried to pull the water pump; the last bolt snapped, and was of course in a spot where there was about an inch of clearance between the engine and the fender, making it impossible to get a drill in there to use a screw extractor.

The pair of Fords was replaced by a pair of Chevys: the Windstar traded on a 1998 Chevy Venture, probably the worst vehicle I've ever owned, and the Taurus replaced by my (late) Granddad B's 1977 Chevy C-10 pickup (a gift from my Grandmom B). The Venture had no transmission issues (one of the reasons I bought the Chevy: GM transmissions are among the best in the world), but had to have its engine replaced at 120k miles, always had the air bag lights on, windows didn't work (one "fixed" 8 times under warranty!), eventually had intermittent ABS issues, ate batteries and charging systems, etc. etc. etc. The Chevy truck managed to overheat and punch a hole in the #1 cylinder (I don't understand, fully: the distance back was the same as the distance out, from where I'd stopped it and left it, and it was cooler outside when I was trying to get it home). I tried to fix the truck's straight six (4.1L), but never got it running again (it was eventually sold to a coworker who dropped a 305 in it... still miss that ol' truck! "Sea-Foam Green" was the original color!).

During the Chevy ownership I also had a 1984 Buick Riviera (gift from aunt & uncle), and eventually sold that to a guy at church who needed a car. It had some choke issues, but not too bad.

After the Chevy truck broke, I borrowed a 1995 Ford Escort from a friend at church (actually, I think the act of borrowing helped create the friendship). Super-nice guy; you should check out his blog (but please come back when you're done!). Eventually I bought the car from him, and drove it until the clutch went out (along with the exhaust manifold) a year or two later. The Venture was replaced (yet retained) by a 1995 Mercury Villager - another gift from my dad. The Villager is a really nice minivan - very, very car-like. In fact, my parents still think it's the best riding/handling van they've ever had, and don't like the two Honda Odysseys that replaced it nearly as much. Alas, the Villager eventually developed a weird ABS issue, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the clutch went out on the Escort, I was nearing the completion of my degree at UAH, and we decided I could get a 2004 Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V as my graduation present. That was a fantastic car... which had its windshield cracked by a rock on the 6th day of ownership. But that was fixed by my insurance company (with a factory OEM windshield). A few months later I was run off the road by an 18-wheeler, but that didn't really seem to do any damage. I wish I hadn't done what I did next... which was to trade the Sentra for a Toyota Tundra (while my wife was away, no less). That was probably one of the worst financial things I've done in my life...

Anyway, about 3k miles into Tundra ownership, I managed to pick up a screw in the sidewall of one of the rear tires, such that it was not repairable. That was about the worst thing to happen to the Tundra (except the time it got stuck in my own side yard... friend helped to pull it out). But the Tundra, wonderful of a truck as it was (but I still miss the old Chevy truck... it was after buying the Tundra that I sold the Chevy to my coworker), was too expensive for my income. So we decided to look for a replacement vehicle. I had pre-financing set up, and was looking for a replacement van as the Villager was beginning to show signs of wear, but we never could find "the right deal" to fit the parameters of the prenegotiated financing and lower our payment at the same time. Eventually, Driving 2000 of Huntsville (no longer open for business, I think) provided a solution: replace the Tundra with a Suzuki Forenza (2007). We also traded in the Venture on the Forenza.

That was in May, 2007. Made the June payment. July 4th of 2007 someone (identity suspected but never confirmed) decided it would be a neat "joke" to throw a roman candle in the car while I was asleep. Yeah, it burned up the interior. Two months later, after multiple attempts at "getting the smell out" by ServPro, the car was eventually totaled by my insurance company. That is, the car was totaled by an act of vandalism before the second payment was made on it. We ended up owing about 3k on it, but considering that we went in with a negative 5.5k trade equity on the Tundra, we actually came out ahead.

So, along comes my dad again, and we end up getting the 1994 Lexus LS400 that he'd bought used, then given to his mom, and she no longer drove it. The car was great (boring, but great)... until the power steering reservoir o-ring split and dumped power steering fluid all over the alternator, destroying it. About that same time the Villager developed its brake issue, which was this: somewhere inside the ABS unit it "locked" up... keeping the front left and right rear brakes applied at all times. Leaving us with zero working vehicles. After borrowing some cars for a short while from church friends, we eventually managed to 1) trade the Villager on a 2006 Kia Sedona (the whole amazing story of getting the Sedona, including the issues of the Villager in more detail, can be found at this earlier post); 2) fix the Lexus (details of *this* repair can be found at this post).

So far the Sedona's been pretty good; has a soft brake pedal right now, but we've put over 70k miles on it in the 3 years or so we've owned it, and haven't had much trouble other than having to replace one or the other headlight bulb every 3-6 months or so.

The Lexus... it let us down again. The amusing details can be found here. It was eventually returned to my dad to be used in a multi-way trade in which he ended up with a newer Honda Odyssey (his second), my youngest brother ended up with his first Odyssey (which had been my middle brother's before my dad bought it from him to help him out, which sent the Villager our way), and I ended up with my Grandmom B's husband Irving's 1996 Cadillac Deville.

Two months into owning the Deville the transmission went out (what was it I said earlier about GM transmissions?). I think it must've been due to having sat for long periods without being driven, then put under the strain of 60+ miles daily to and from Mobile. Or maybe it's just my luck with cars.

The Deville we traded on a 2010 Kia Forte (that my daughter uses... lucky kid!). I was driving the XG300, when my dad decided that despite the BMW 525 he was driving being the best car he'd ever owned, he couldn't deal with the four-door body any more. You see, he has back problems, and the BMW, being a sedan, has the back of the front seats behind the B-pillar (between the front and rear doors), forcing you to "twist" into the seat. That motion was killing him. So, he decided to get a Mini Cooper (people think it's funny when I say he sold me the 525 and bought the Cooper because of his back - but the Cooper's a coupe, so he can just "fall" into the seat, not having to twist into it, and while short, it's actually not any lower to the ground than the 525 - maybe even higher, due to the 525's having the sport package). So, I traded the XG300 on his Cooper and bought the 2003 525i for the difference between the trade value of the XG and the 525. (That is: I got a really, really good deal on it.) Note: back when he let me borrow the car last summer for a couple of weeks, after the first week one of the ignition coils went out and I had to drive it home running a little rough. I replaced the coils (and spark plugs) myself before he returned, and it was running as good as new.

That was back in September. The car now has ~145k miles on it. This past Friday my wife and I were driving on I-10 West, running 75 on cruise, passing a van. Faint noise was heard (tapping/buzzing), which we both thought was the tires on the van we were passing. It was getting slightly louder as we approached the van. About the time we got alongside the van, I noticed in the rear view mirror TONS of smoke coming out the back of the BMW... and looked down at the dash, and the temp gauge went to max; I think the oil light had come on, too. No buzzers or anything. Slowed, engine died when I depressed the clutch pedal, and we pulled off the road. Oil all over the driver side of the engine bay. Not good.

Firestone towed it to the local Firestone shop, and (a couple hours later) they called and said, "not good news: turns over freely (by hand), so zero compression, oil down one side of the engine, coolant down the other; basically, your engine's shot."

Today I had it towed to the BMW dealer in Mobile, hoping for (but not expecting) a better diagnosis (e.g., "it's only the head gasket"). Still waiting on the diagnosis.

Anyway... there you go. My "luck" with cars. Fortunately, my luck with parents is pretty good, and God has always provided (often through them). While being aggravated, I'm expecting no less (than the provision of God) this time around.

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