My spouse is beautiful and sensible, a rare combination. In her opinion, this screaming neon blue machine (that at one point sported cow print seat covers) is, hands down, the greatest car she’s ever owned. So what if the competition involves Escorts, Centuries, and Impalas?
I met my wife in 2000, and we finally got married in 2005. In between, we lived 50 miles apart. Considering she worked a “mere” 20 miles from my house, she most often visited me; therefore, I was changing her engine oil every 6000 miles, six times a year!
In 2001, her 1991 Escort looked like a refugee from a Jason Statham movie; it was well ventilated from the usual Michigan rust, but the final nail in the coffin was provided by an 83- year-old in a Grand Marquis, who stated to the officer that my wife’s stationary car cut in front of him.
Enter the Crap-o-lier, as I called it. It actually wasn’t that bad for a then nine-year-old J-Body. It had obviously had some front end collision repair, and the pieces of busted windshield that danced from the defroster vents could not tell a lie, but it was rust free and drove nicely. It had (according to the odometer, and who knows if that thing was accurate or not) 55,000 miles on the venerable, power-filled 2.2 liter pushrod four.
It ate through the cheap tires my wife bought (one set a year, give or take). It would warp a pair of brake rotors every 6,000 miles (I never did figure out why—the rear brakes were working fine, and I wasn’t the only one to perform brake jobs on it). Other than that, it was almost perfectly reliable. I flushed the cooling system twice and serviced the automatic transaxle once. I never touched the ball joints or tie rods. All was well in the world of cheap, small Chevrolets.
Until it hit 180,000 miles. She called me from work one day—it wouldn’t start. I showed up with my tools and dirty clothes and diagnosed a no-spark condition. Since all four cylinders were dead, I figured the ignition module was a dead player. Whoever decided on the location for that infernal piece of solid state electronics was a lifelong fan of sadism. It’s on the back of the block, only readily accessible from under the car.
That’s no fun in the parking lot of an art center.
Needless to say, I got it running just in time for our nuptials. We moved in together, and that eye searing remnant of grunge era General Motors moved in to our new driveway. Five months later, I received a phone call asking if it was OK to drive the car home spewing a copious amount of steam from the tailpipe. I asked how far away she was…half way home was her response. I answered in the affirmative; go big or go home, I say.
I hate the fact that cars often decide to mechanically fail on the coldest day of the year. I was out in my unheated garage in 15 degree weather pulling the head from the 187,000 mile Crap-o-lier. Not only was the head gasket blown, but the machine shop found a crack in the head, just a small one, but a small one is all it takes for you to become suddenly underwater in your 14-year-old compact.
Luckily, one of the local auto parts stores sold remanufactured heads for under $300. Sold! Another day in the garage and it was purring like a kitten.
Until it wasn’t. The next call informed me that the dashboard just lit up like your dog’s face when you get home from work. This time, after an $80 flatbed ride home, I diagnosed a bad belt tensioner, which undoubtedly couldn’t stand one more flex when I had removed the head. For those of you who have never worked on a Chevy 2.2, the tensioner was designed by the same person who placed the ignition module—the devil. I pretty much had to remove the front of the engine again to get it off.
This was a week after I had replaced the cylinder head. I had had enough. I told my wife that this thing was going to become my worst enemy, and it was time to say goodbye. The door bottoms were separating from the inner doors, and selling it would just about cover what I’d put into it in the last month or two.
So we did, for $900. Considering that she paid $3000 for it five years earlier, it didn’t owe her a thing. She still talks about how great a car the Cavalier was, and the car we replaced it with was no dreamboat—a 2000 Buick Century with a smashed back bumper and a transmission that shifted like a Super Stock Belvedere, but only after you drove it for a half-hour or more.
At least the Century only had 99,000 miles on it, and I replaced and painted the back bumper that summer, but we dumped that beige “early-bird special on wheels” two years later, with 147,000 miles on it. It just couldn’t live up to the greatest of great ones, a 1992 Cavalier. Up until about two years ago, I still saw that Cavalier bombing around town, and it was even up for sale again at one point, for $700, with over 200,000 miles on it. I thought hard for about 30 seconds, ultimately deciding against it. After all, it was about 15 degrees outside at the time.