Image: IMCDB.com, a still from an episode of the X-Files. That could be Mulder behind the wheel.
By 1999, my trusty CRX was getting long in the tooth. It was beginning to blow lots of oil through the tailpipe, to the point where whenever I got on the gas I left blue haze in my wake. The A/C was inoperable, and it began to overheat in traffic, which made it unusable in the city (which was where I lived at the time). I had a ’78 Scout that started up and ran whenever I asked it to, but was really only meant as a semi-occasional driver and not a full-time commuter (14mpg and a 4-speed stick in Beltway traffic kind of sucks). Something had to give.
By chance, my mother was shopping for a new vehicle, and we came up with a plan. She was planning on trading in her Taurus for a new Subaru, but knew I was looking for a used car, and graciously offered it to me. The Ford had been the perfect car for her at the time, and built for her demographic: Big enough to feel safe, with four doors to carry the people she never drove, but small enough that it didn’t scare her to pilot around the parking lots of Putnam County. She was looking for something that worked better in winter weather, and an Outback wagon was aimed squarely at the Taurus’ core snow-belt market.
Image: Starfire-auto.com. I looked for examples of the Ford gray, but I think they’re all so bland that nobody ever took a picture of one.
What she had was an LX model with a 3.0L V6, which was a nice upgrade from my thrifty 1.3L 4-banger. This was the second generation, the one that sold like hotcakes before they redesigned it with the fishbowl windows. As the midrange model, it came with electric windows and locks. It had a bench seat (technically a split 60/40 with armrests, but a bench seat). It was a dull shade of gray with a gray interior, which made it invisible to the naked eye. Sadly, it was also a column-shift automatic.
This was the last vehicle sourced from the family repossession business she would own, and also the last repo I would own as well. As the economy shifted in the second half of the 90’s, a lot of large leasing operations took their repossession in-house and my father’s business suffered as a result. He wound things down in the second half of the decade, and was out of the business entirely by the turn of the century.
Image: Starfire-auto.com. What’s the point of the bench seat? Were they planning on making all of these police cruisers?
I sold the CRX and took delivery of the Taurus, driving it home from upstate New York in the fall. Over the next four years, it served me (and my future wife) well, if not anonymously. Even though it was almost double the curb weight of the Honda, it moved quickly when I got on the gas. It was a decent highway cruiser, but lacked any kind of lumbar support for drives over 2 hours in length. How its target audience of baby boomers found those seats comfortable still baffles me. The interior fittings were typical of that era: the plastics were cheap and dull, but at least they didn’t powderize into dust like those of the previous decades.
HULK SMASH BIG WINDOW BUTTONS.
Ford’s idiot-sized buttons were laughably larger than the Honda controls I was used to. They looked like Fisher-Price toys. Even though it was a 4-door, I found that it was surprisingly less accommodating than the CRX’s hatchback for things like bikes, oversized furniture, or drywall. The rear doors opened just enough to squeeze a person inside but not enough to fit anything else. Having a trunk was nice, even though there was no passthrough. (How was Detroit not offering a passthrough in 1993? I feel like most of its Japanese peers I’d moved around the repo lot had this as a standard feature).
Image: Barnfinds. Imagine this car, stuffed with art students, blasting the Dead Kennedys.
Another of my roommates in college inherited his father’s 1989 Oldsmobile 98, a far superior car in terms of quality, handling, comfort, and options. For a domestic sedan it had undeniable style and presence, in a country club sort of way, even as we used it to bomb around the Baltimore underground party scene with eight people stuffed in the back seat. At that time we christened it the Gray Ghost. The Ford, in contrast, was so unremarkable as to be invisible. It was as exciting as oatmeal. I named it the Tortoise.
The year I bought the Tortoise, I’d been laid off from my job, so I set about finding a new one and keeping busy: I rehabbed the bathroom in my rowhome, which required several loads of drywall. I picked up an inexpensive crossbar roof rack from Craigslist and became skilled at driving sheets of plywood home (slowly) strapped to the roof. Then I heard about a warehouse close by in my neighborhood that was being knocked down. I stopped over and asked if I could reclaim some of the brick they were hauling away, and they let me take as much as I wanted. (Why I didn’t use the Scout for this, I still can’t recall, but I suspect it was when the steel of the cargo bed was disintegrating).
This was my backyard, before and after. The Tortoise hauled all of the brick on the left side. The rest I had delivered.
I pulled the spare out and made several trips from the demo site to the alley behind my house loaded down with bricks. With these bricks I built a garden patio and increased the resale value of my house. This saved me a lot of money on raw materials but blew out both of the rear shocks, so the rear of the car handled like Uncle Buck’s Mercury. I never replaced them. My future fianceé and I mixed and laid all the bricks ourselves, and I put the deck in myself. (This past year I drove the alley of my old house to find the new owners had leveled my patio, ripped out the deck, and were using the backyard as a parking pad).
Image: Supermotors.net. Damn you, Vulcan, and your flawed cooling system!
I had few problems with it in the first few years, but as it reached the 4-year-mark, expensive things started breaking down. It began to have overheating issues, something I thought I’d sold off with the CRX, that manifested the exact same way: Sitting in traffic, the temp gauge would begin to creep upward, then suddenly zoom into the redline. My mechanic looked things over but found nothing wrong with the cooling system; even after flushing, refilling, and leaving the car running by itself for an hour, he couldn’t replicate the issue. This seemed to be an issue with the Vulcan V6.
I continued to have inconsistent, nagging problems with overheating, negating use of the A/C, and then the transmission began failing. It would suddenly slip out of gear completely, usually as I was turning at speed, which got tricky when I was on the Beltway. Or, it just plain refused to shift upwards out of second, leaving me screaming at 5,000RPM in the slow lane trying to make it to the next offramp. No amount of transmission fluid would help, and because we were financing as much of our upcoming wedding by ourselves as we could, I had zero dollars for a mechanic.
The last straw came as I was driving to pick up the catering for our rehearsal dinner. At this point the Scout was out of commission–the exhaust was missing behind the headers, so it was a moving noise violation–and the Tortoise was my main transport. Our caterer was situated at the 12 o’clock position above Baltimore while my house sat at the 7 o’clock position–about 12 miles’ distance on the Beltway. I made it up there OK, and with delicious barbecue for 30 loaded in the trunk, I started back to the house but got bogged down in afternoon traffic. The temp gauge started climbing. Alarmed, I nudged the car along until I hit the redline. Pulling over to the shoulder to let the engine cool down for a half an hour, I continued down the road–for a half a mile. Meanwhile, there were hundreds of other preparations I needed to be making at the house. Drive, heat, sit. This on-again, off-again voyage continued for three more hours until I was able to get it home, where I parked it, unloaded it, and probably kicked it a couple of times.
After we returned from our honeymoon, I spied a For Sale sign on a Jeep Cherokee in our neighborhood, and gave the owner a call. Once that deal was done, I called up and donated the Tortoise to our local NPR station for a tax writeoff. I was mad, though, because the tow company came and got it before I could pull my $50 roof racks off.