Although I’ve written extensively about my burgeoning collection of antique cars, comparatively little has been said about my daily drivers. Honestly, there’s not much to say: I spend most of my time thinking about and spending money on old stuff; therefore, aside from regular maintenance, I don’t put too much thought into what gets me back and forth to work. In my 29 years of driving, I’ve only had six daily drivers, and only four in my name (not including my wife’s cars, which aren’t always in my name anyway). Perhaps the most memorable has been this unassuming Ford Escort wagon, which was an ironic purchase of the sort that wasn’t really ironic. That is, by the way, a fair summary of my life.
It’s unfortunate that our lives are inextricably bound to choices we make when we’re least qualified to do so. As 2001 began, I was 23 years old and had heretofore made exactly one smart big decision – asking out the girl I later married – and even that was a decision on which only a few months had elapsed. I was otherwise a typical American lack-of-success story: liberal arts degree, living at home with my parents, driving my dad’s ’94 Thunderbird. Although I had a part-time job, the guilt of freeloading on my parents’ bottomless goodwill was rightfully weighing me down (maybe not enough, not to mention how THEY must have felt).
During this time of introspection, I decided that I didn’t deserve to drive not one, but TWO cars that belied my precarious station in life. I therefore told my dad that he should sell the T-Bird and I would buy an older car to drive in the winter, so that the family heirloom ’65 Mustang (a rehabilitated rust bucket that bore all the marks of the amateur doing the work, i.e. ME!) could avoid the ignominy of rusting into the ground twice in its tortured life. As with all my wayward plans, I dove in not really understanding the limitations of my conscience, and so I began the search for a cheap old car, and by old, I meant sixties, not eighties.
For example, I found a ’63 Riviera with chalky paint and cheeseball pinstriping for three grand, thus initiating my lifelong fixation with that brand of hallowed machine. I test drove a very rusty ’64 Mercury Breezeway that was listed for $1900. It was akin to helming a Herman Melville short story: It was a winter day, the road rushing by through the open floor with swirling flakes of snow, the ship listing, the wind buffeting. The most painful near miss was a Mayfair Maize ’65 Ventura hardtop with eight-lug wheels that was simply too nice and rust free to drive in the salt: The asking price was $3500 and I could have certainly talked the owners down to three grand. My heart said yes to all but my head said no; how could I knowingly send an old car (or myself, in the case of the Mercury) to its doom?
Thus, the year passed, the T-Bird was sold, the cold settled in, and I was using the Mustang as a daily driver, against what better judgment I had. Luckily for the Mustang, my sister decided to move to Arizona and left her Escort ZX2 behind; I drove it until December, but her plans would require the use of her car after that. For some reason, I decided that an Escort wagon would be a fun, cheap car for a guy with very little to haul around, a car that I would laugh about owning but secretly enjoy. Although I don’t look like a prototypical hipster, my ironic-ironic stance renders that label not inaccurate.
Dad and I began our search in earnest. I called about a low-mileage ’93 with a stick, but the owner returned my call a month later, claiming that he had been out of town. Uh, OK. Dad spent as much time combing the lots as I did the internet, and he pulled in one snowy day with MY wagon, a silver ’93 with an automatic (unfortunately) from the local Audi/VW dealership. He did a little wheeling and dealing, which included a new muffler, and I was on the road for $2100. The silver wagon had 113,000 miles and a remanufactured transaxle that was, to be fair, problematic, although I didn’t know that at the time.
Oddly, I didn’t take many pictures of the wagon, although we had many adventures together. When I proposed to my wife outside on a rainy day (with no real ahead-of-time plan), the wagon was there. On the day after Christmas when I called up my best friend and asked him if he wanted to drive up to the Upper Peninsula to get a pasty (a six-hour round trip), the wagon awaited. The back seat was perennially folded; I carried a sled in the back for impromptu winter hills. A bike rack sat cleanly on the shelf-like rear bumper. The aftermarket CD player played my favorite songs, and only skipped about 28 percent of the time.
The wagon Escorted me to countless car shows and museums, camping, everywhere. It would be a lie, however, to say that it was trouble-free. To be fair to the Escort, my life changed to some extent after I bought it, and I was soon commuting up to 100 miles a day for my new full-time job. The first thing I noticed was the “Escort Dance,” a strange diagonal gyration that every Escort I ever drove performed at higher speeds in the snow. That was a quirk more than a problem, but the problems came soon enough.
First, the transaxle would lose drive randomly. I would be merrily cruising along at 70, and it would slip into neutral. I’d wait, and wait, and coast down, and check my mirrors, and pray to the gods of internal combustion, and by about 50 mph, it would slip back into gear and we’d be on our way. I changed the fluid and filter a couple times, and one day, the problem fixed itself (for me, anyhow…more to come). It never lost drive again for the 56,000 miles during which I owned it.
Second, one day on my way home from work, the temperature gauge spiked. I pulled over and opened the hood to find the overflow canister overflowing. We all know what that means, but a few minutes on the side of the road cooled it down and it was fine for the rest of the trip. The next day, it blew the head gasket about 10 minutes into my commute. Dad came around and swapped cars, and I spent my evenings that week swapping a head gasket and (I believe) the timing belt while it was 20 degrees in the garage. The water pump (which is driven by the timing belt) had already been replaced, so I left it alone. The Ford 1.9 may or may not have a reputation for blowing head gaskets, but mine did so with probably 140,000 miles on the clock, so keep that in mind if you’re Escort shopping.
Third, the parking brake mechanism was prone to sticking, and I’ve found that to be the case on all second-generation Escorts I’ve had to deal with (my wife and I have owned FOUR – what is wrong with us?). Once a year, I would disassemble the rear brakes to clean everything up, but it didn’t matter. It would start sticking, something that was exacerbated by my predilection for emergency-brake drifting in the snow, and I would have to kneel in the slush, taking it all apart again. With only 88 horsepower, any added friction was counterproductive, so my maintenance schedule in that department was rigorous.
Fourth, the rear springs rusted out right where the coils meet the struts. Deeming that unsafe, I found a low-mileage Escort in the salvage yard and bought the entire rear spring and strut assemblies for about fifty dollars. That was one of the easier jobs I encountered.
Fifth, the electrical system was finicky. Below 35 degrees, all bets were off on whether the dome light would work (Escorts had very cheap door switches; I cleaned them often to no avail). The dash lights burned out (I think I finally pulled the cluster to replace them). It had those awful, awful passive restraint seat belts that would occasionally stick in their tracks.
Worst of all, however, was the power. My goodness, this was the most underpowered car I’ve ever driven. I had to plan for hills by making the most of gravity and momentum. I’d put my foot down for a downshift, and the poor engine would be screaming as our speed gradually dropped. Anyone who lived in a higher elevation area must have been continually terrified behind the wheel. If that weren’t bad enough, the fuel mileage wasn’t spectacular, with most tanks averaging 30 miles per gallon or even a little less.
Needless to say, the Escort and I plugged along for a few years, but our relationship ended on my wife’s parents’ dirt road one November evening. A deer plunged into the left front fender at full tilt, rolled onto the hood, and smashed the windshield before I could even hit the brake. As I stopped, I got out to survey the damage. The deer, standing in the headlights’ glare, rolled off the hood, stared at me while silently cursing me with its black deer eyes, shook off the surprise of it all, and ran off into the field as if the Escort had never been. The Escort, however, had been: It had a dented fender, a misaligned headlight, and a busted windshield.
The next day, I filed an accident report and had the windshield replaced by my local friends at the glass shop, before using duct tape, zip ties, and a fuel hose to approximate an accurate headlight alignment. The insurance company totaled the Escort (I had comprehensive insurance), and I decided it was time to move on. I had a friend, however, who needed a car (his nickname was “Car Killer”), so I sold him the wagon for the same price it cost to buy it back from the insurance company, around $300. The transmission immediately started slipping out of gear for him, so he sold the wagon to his younger brother, who had no problems with the transmission at all. Eventually, my friends’ dad donated the car to charity: I saw it once after that, and then it was gone from my life forever.
I mentioned earlier that the Escort was an ironic-ironic purchase, and that’s something that I should explain. My whole life, I’ve taken things up ironically that I actually enjoy earnestly. For example, I became a fisherman one day after watching Bill Dance Outdoors a few times – something about the fisherman lifestyle appealed to me as our paths crossed. I bought a “Bass Fever” bumper sticker for the Escort, in addition to a bunch of fishing tackle and equipment, and did my best to emulate a real fisherman. In that guise, I enjoyed fishing with my dad and friends for years before realizing that I’m just a crappy outdoorsman who doesn’t like killing things (hence my pals calling me “fish poison,” an apt moniker for my relative lack of success in the craft). Being a fisherman’s a projection, a thing I want to be but really am not, but something I can fake long enough to learn something new and have some fun.
The Escort was the same thing. I didn’t see myself as an Escort wagon guy, but I tried it on, and found out that I really am kind of an Escort wagon guy. Sure, I used that same rationale when I bought the Dirty Dart, which fits me better than the Escort ever did, but trying something different as an inside joke with myself turned out to be a pretty fun time.
There’s no sugar coating it: The Escort was not a good car, and I don’t miss it as much as I miss the anxious excitement of being a young adult who got a bit of a late start. But it got me through that transformative part of my life and it made me smile as much as it made me grouse. My dad would laugh every time I pulled in the driveway; he called it “America’s workhorse.” I still don’t know why he used that appellation, but the Escort made him happy, too. I traded it for a Blazer, which was a taller and more powerful wagon, then another Escort, and finally, a modern Escort – my 2012 Focus. At this point in my life, I can only hope that I’m done with actual Escorts for good, but I’ll never say never about that.