It was a cold day in January 1975. My fellow classmates could not understand why I was taking my driver’s test in January. The fact of the matter is, I was younger than everyone else since I was born at the end of December and my mom had chosen to send me to kindergarten as a four-year-old.
But nonetheless, it was time for me to take my driver’s test – in January. What happens in January? Well of course, it snows! It snowed on the day of my driver’s test, so the motor vehicle office postponed my test. And again, it snowed; except this time, there was no cancellation. I just had to take the test in the snow. Boy, did I get lucky with that. I took my driver’s test and I was able to pass it. Now it was time to look for a car. Somehow my budget for a car ended up being only $400; what was I going to get for $400?
I searched the classified ads (there was no Internet at that time). I found all sorts of cars for $400 – cars that didn’t run, cars that didn’t have engines, cars that needed a paint job, cars that didn’t have paint, cars that had no engine or paint. What was I to do?
It had power nothing. I mean nothing! No power steering, no power brakes, no power windows, no power seats, no air conditioning. It didn’t even have a radio. The manufacturer referred to this as a “radio delete.” I suppose delete meant that it was a feature. Believe me, there was absolutely no feature about this car.
So I found a car to buy, went to the owner’s house, turned in my $400, picked up my car and title. I then proceeded to drive around my hometown in my new car. By “new” I meant new to me. Believe me, it was the furthest thing from a new car.
Fast forward to the summer of 1975. Since I was a Boy Scout, it was time to go to summer camp. How awesome – I get to drive my new car to summer camp! However, what I didn’t know was that the car was about to become a real nudge.
I pulled into the camp parking lot to show off my car to my fellow scouts and camp leaders. One of my friends wanted to go for a ride with me. “No problem,” I said. “Just hop in and I’ll give you a ride down the road.”
While driving down the road I noticed the car started to run very erratically. Then the car began to shudder. Finally the car stalled. I figured, okay, I should just be able to restart it. Well, that didn’t happen. It turns out the car needed a carburetor AND a starter motor.
I couldn’t afford AAA insurance at the time, and cell phones hadn’t been invented yet, so my friend and I decided to push the car back to the camp. Except there was one problem: On the way back there was a hill that we had to get up with only two of us to push. Then I put my junior-mechanic thinking cap on and used my experience from working at my local Getty gas station. The car had a four-speed manual transmission, and it’s a known trick that a manual-transmission car that will not start can be started by letting it roll down a hill, putting it into gear, and popping the clutch. So we proceeded to push the car up the hill, jump into the car, put it in gear and pop the clutch. One more problem developed. Since I’d never done this before, I wasn’t able to pop the clutch quickly enough to ignite the cylinders and start the engine. Getting the car back to camp felt like it would become a major accomplishment, but the fun had only just begun.
As a mentioned earlier, I had worked at a Getty gas station, as a junior mechanic. I had done things like tune-ups, tire changes, tire rotations, oil changes, exhaust work and some brake work, among other things, but I had never changed a starter motor or carburetor. Now I was about to…
One of my friends drove me into town to look for an auto parts dealer. Finding a starter motor and carburetor for this car wasn’t too hard, as the car was only seven years old. And the adults at the camp owned a myriad of tools that they could lend to me. I do not recall there being any car ramps at the time, so we had to jack the car up and put it on jack stands to replace the starter.
After I finished installing the two parts, I was ready to roll. Imagine, I was ready to take out a date in my first car! We went to see a movie and eat at a diner so we drove to the nearest theater, some 25 miles away. Needless to say, the camp was in a very remote area of the state. So what movie did I take my date to see? Jaws. Probably not the best movie to take a girl to in the summertime.
After seeing the movie, we got back into the car and I was ready to drive to the diner. I paused for a moment, and out of complete shock I could not believe my eyes. I noticed coolant dripping from the bottom of my engine compartment. Don’t tell me I need a new radiator hose! Nope. It was my water pump. Now this car was beginning to get on my nerves.
Over the next few days I proceeded to take the same steps I did with the starter motor and carburetor, except now I had to buy and replace a water pump. Of course, they only sold new (not rebuilt) water pumps, so by now I had spent more money on replacement parts than I’d paid for the car itself.
Well, at that point I was beyond believing the car was a mere nuisance; I was beginning to think it was a real lemon. I wondered why they called bad cars lemons–perhaps it was because of the sourness of the lemon or perhaps the annoying yellow color. Or maybe because the lemon will burn you if touched, not unlike the way I was burned by my Opel. Not sure which one applied, but it became clear to me this car was a lemon.
One would think that starter motor, carburetor, and water pump failures were bad enough. What I proceeded to experience over the next month I would not want to wish on my worst enemy.
The next thing to go went on a one lane highway with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour. I was actually going about 65. I put on my left directional signal and proceeded to make a left turn before the next oncoming car reached the intersection.
Upon making my turn, I needed to brake somewhat so that I could slow down to a safe speed. Except there was one problem – I had no brakes! Well, I panicked. Realizing I was not slowing down enough despite downshifting, I pulled up on my emergency brake as hard as I could. I think if the emergency brake was not made out of steel I would’ve snapped it in two. I pulled up on it so hard, my car went into a spin. In fact, it went into approximately three spins – I think I did three 360s! I know from being good at math that that’s over 1,000 degrees!
Now I was convinced that I owned a lemon. But what was still to come would top it all. You see, in a car that has rear-wheel drive there is something that connects the transmission to the rear axle, called a drive shaft. And what allows a drive shaft to maneuver is called a U-joint. Why is it called a U-joint? Because when it fails, U are screwed.
Anyone who has experienced a U-joint failure knows that the car can only be driven backward. Now imagine this: You have 25 miles to drive to get to the nearest mechanic. On a country road. BACKWARDS. That was the most terrifying incident I’ve ever experienced in my driving career. You think not seeing where you’re going during dusk is the most dangerous part? No. Actually, it’s trying to steer in reverse.
At the time I owned the Opel I was living with my mom. One Saturday morning, we needed to buy groceries but I also knew that I’d had a recent problem starting my car. So I took out my voltmeter and confirmed that the battery needed to be replaced. Since I was selling auto parts at Sears at the time, I simply walked into the back room, selected the right battery size, and proceeded to pay for it using my employee discount. I then brought the battery home, installed it in the car, and proceeded to go to the local Shop-Rite with my mom. The experience that followed only happened to me once before in my lifetime, which happened to be prior to having received my driver’s license.
I took my mom to the local Shop-Rite, which was about three miles from our house. After loading the car with the groceries, I proceeded to make a left turn out of the parking lot. After about a ½ mile of driving I noticed something unusual taking place. THERE WERE FLAMES FLOWING OUT OF THE COWL OPENING IN THE HOOD. Apparently, when I connected the positive cable to the battery I didn’t tighten it enough. The cable came loose and shorted the battery on a piece of the frame in the engine compartment. I yelled to my mom to get out of the car–FAST. I, too, exited the car and quickly removed the air cleaner with flames now blazing from the opening of the carburetor. I bent down, grabbed a handful of dirt, and tossed it into the carburetor opening, thereby destroying my car–or so I thought.
A few months later, I was driving my mom to visit my sister, who lived about 30 minutes away. We were about two-thirds of the way there, driving down a nicely wooded area, when all of a sudden the entire car started to shake furiously. It was as if a freight train had just barely missed hitting the car. Actually, I was in the process of losing one of my wheels.
As the wheel started to come off, my mom began screaming, “What the hell is happening?” I told her that I thought it was related to a recent tire rotation that had been done by a local mechanic. Next thing you know, the wheel flies off of the car and collides with the nearest tree. Don’t you know, after getting out of the car, I look down and see all five lug nuts sitting on the side of the road? Apparently, the mechanic didn’t tighten the lug nuts–AT ALL–on that one wheel.
In the end, it wasn’t the starter motor, it wasn’t the water pump, it wasn’t the brakes or the U joint, nor even the fire that finally did in the Opel. Nope, that dopey-looking red car with the black interior, no air-conditioning and power nothing…was done in by ME! And was I ever glad to finally get rid of that piece of junk.