Up until this point in my car history my wife and I were the proud owners of two cars, one for her (generally) and one for me. We did tend to swap cars periodically (especially when the one she was driving was out of gas), but our fleet was exactly the number of cars we needed. Until 2004, that is, when an opportunity to expand our fleet presented itself.
Not long after I purchased the Maxima from last week’s installment, I was scheduled to attend a technical conference as part of my day job that dealt with advanced transportation technologies and alternative fuels. For a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this conference was a major draw for industry and government representatives to learn about the latest automotive technologies and how to incorporate them into regular fleet operations. For the 2004 edition of the conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the organizers decided to hold a mini government auction of some GSA-owned alternative fuel vehicles, including a set of Ford Taurus flexible fuel ethanol vehicles. As it was in Florida, my wife took some time off work to accompany me to this conference.
The conference organizers had sent out a list of the vehicles in the planned auction with their year, make, model, and overall mileage, but no other details (no photos, no condition descriptions, not even model designations). That list got me thinking – it would be nice to have an extra car in case we needed it (to lend to a visiting family member, or to drive if one of our regular daily drivers was being repaired, etc.). Because the conference attracted a relatively limited number of people relative to a regular GSA auction, I figured I might be able to snag myself a bargain. Those following this COAL series may remember the saga of my first Taurus and may be wondering why on earth I would consider another one. I was taking a gamble that whatever problems my 1996 GL might have had were fixed by the time these 2000s were made.
When I got to the conference the auction cars were all set up in the trade show hall. These particular Tauruses were 2000 model SEs that were a bit nicer than the basic fleet specials that companies bought by the hundreds. Ford had equipped this generation with more conventional styling on the basic 1996-1999 platform, eliminating the oval rear window, headlights/taillights, and interior panels. The foldout console/center seat combination was replaced by a more conventional console with cupholders. The SE model was reasonably well equipped with keyless entry, aluminum wheels, power windows and locks, and a cassette stereo (no CD), which was a nice surprise as I’d expected to find the base-model Taurus (steel wheels, basic AM/FM radio, no other options) in this fleet application. The cars came with the basic 3-liter 2-valve V6 powertrain making around 150 hp, so power was adequate but not stellar.
One car in particular in the display was interesting to me. It was a green Taurus GL with 17,226 miles on it (the lowest of the bunch) and seemed to be in really good condition for a four-year-old government fleet vehicle. The car had been assigned to the Department of Energy’s Savannah River site in South Carolina, so it hadn’t been exposed to any harsh winters, and was inland of the ocean so it hadn’t been exposed to salt air. The undercarriage was very clean as was the interior. The exterior had a few bumps and scratches that one would expect from a fleet vehicle but was pretty good overall. And that was the extent of what I could learn about the car before the auction – as it was in a large trade show area of a convention center, driving it or even starting it up was impossible. But I signed up to bid anyway – can’t hurt to try, right?
Much to my surprise, the auction didn’t draw that many attendees from the conference so when the auctioneer came around to this Taurus I was the only bidder. My opening (and winning) bid was $5250, as I recall, which was probably two-thirds of what the car would have been worth on the retail used car market. I’d not brought any checkbook, but luckily the auction company took credit cards. We already had money saved up, so we were able to pay off the card when the bill came due, but it still maxed out that card. (It gave me the bragging rights to say “I bought a car on a credit card” though.)
So, I am now the proud owner of a low-mileage Ford Taurus that I’ve never driven or even heard run (and probably really didn’t need to have), and I am more than a thousand miles away from my home in Maryland. This is when I realized that the car was sold to me “as-is, where-is.” I had no idea where to get a temporary registration, and I wouldn’t have had time to arrange for shipping even if I knew at the time how to do that. The auction company said that I should be OK with just driving the car home as long as I had the paperwork from them to show I owned it. As I am not the kind of person who is comfortable breaking or bending rules, this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. Remember too that I’d never driven the car and I wasn’t an expert in used car inspections, so I had no idea if the car would even make it back to Maryland – I figured since it was low-mileage and not that old, that wasn’t a huge gamble, but a gamble nonetheless. This was not exactly the kind of adventure I wanted to have.
My wife and I were experts for long car trips, having made 6-7 trips each year between Maryland and Akron. On this trip, though, the 6 hours and 325 miles we were used to traveling to Akron only got us barely out of Florida, and we still had five states and 7-8 hours to go before home. As I’d never driven to Florida before, it never occurred to me how long that state is…
We set off from Fort Lauderdale the next day before the sun came up in an effort to get home as quickly as possible, driving sensibly and blending into traffic (which was actually pretty easy in a low-powered fleet Taurus). As I recall, we stopped about a mile from the convention center to get gas as a local police car drove into the gas station, which made me more than a bit anxious. Needless to say, this was a pretty stressful trip for me. The biggest “oh no” moment came somewhere in North Carolina where a state trooper merged onto I-95 right behind us and stayed in our lane for a number of miles. Apparently our temporary window-mounted paperwork gambit worked, as he exited the highway after a couple of exits without paying any attention to us. Even though we had no problems either with the lack of plates or the mechanicals of the car, I was unbelievably relieved when we pulled into the driveway 14 hours later.
A state inspection disclosed that the car was in really good health, needing only a fuel system cleanout to eliminate a check engine light issue and a parking brake adjustment to pass muster. This car, despite having the same 3-liter V6/4-speed automatic powertrain as my ’96, exhibited none of the transmission woes of that much-hated car from my past. On the cosmetic side, a few hours in the garage cleaning and polishing the car brought back the paint to near-new condition (as the photo shows, the paint was in really good shape).
I found the third car to be really handy. I tended to use it for trips to places where I knew parking would be a problem (like downtown Baltimore, for instance) and for snowy days, thus protecting my newer cars from dings and dents (which I was super-touchy about at the time). Instead of my standard front-end mask, I just invested in a hood-mounted wind deflector to ward off the major dents.
The car was perfectly acceptable to drive and was quite reliable during the 18 months and 5,000 miles I had it, with the only major problem being a dead battery. Luckily for me, the dead battery occurred in my driveway so the car never left me stranded. The only other problem I recall was with the HVAC system’s fan knob – the fan was controlled by a D-shaped pin in the dash, and the barrel of the fan knob developed a crack that meant that the fan knob would no longer fit and would sometimes fall out. A search on eBay and a couple of bucks fixed that problem. Otherwise, the car provided reliable transportation when I wanted it and left me with virtually no recollection of the car’s driving experience, good or bad, unlike the first Taurus.
About a year and a half after I purchased the car, my wife’s oldest sister was in the market for an inexpensive new family car to replace her ancient Ford Escort. The Taurus was a perfect candidate for her to carry her two daughters around, so we made a deal and the car was hers. She used that Taurus for almost a decade afterward, selling it on just a couple of years ago. Not bad for an impulse decision in Florida. This car did, however, put me on the path to having more cars than I needed, as we will see in a number of upcoming COAL entries.