COAL: 1996 Honda Odyssey – Chapter 25, What Is Not A Miata Or A Town Car for $500, Alex

Last week’s tale began with two drivers in our household and ended sixteen years later with two drivers.  Between that time there was a lot of activity around here, which included periods of three, four or five drivers.  Which required (say it with me) more cars!

We did not hold out long after our eldest got his driver’s license.  On the second try.  But that is another story that involved a deceptively placed (he said) sign.  We have never been the parents who wanted to provide each kid with a car as soon as possible.  I had bought every car I ever owned, and Marianne’s father had been in the car repair business, so it was convenient for him.  I figured that we could make do for awhile on the fleet as it was, with a kid asking to use a car from time to time.  But there was an important factor that changed my thinking – Catholic School.

Our kids attended Catholic grade schools and then began Catholic high school.  This is relevant because there are none of those big yellow buses that public school parents use to keep their personal fleets down to a minimum.  It was up to us to get our kids to school and back home again and we eventually settled on a system.  I dropped the kids off in the morning on the way to work and Marianne picked them up in the afternoons.  When the eldest hit high school that became two schools that each of us needed to hit – twice daily.  If another car could save us from that time-suck, well then, we would just need another car.

The ’93 Crown Victoria, it was decided, would be a fine car for kid duty.  Each of the kids learned to drive on it and it was old enough and cheap enough for decent insurance rates.  Plus, there was the benefit that with so few eggplant-colored CVs on the road, there would be little doubt whose car it was if someone we knew spotted some teenaged mischief in one.

But with that issue nailed down, I was once again in one of my favorite places: Needing to find another car.  Of course, most normal people would have gone out and bought another new car.  But you know by now that I am not most normal people.  I have always liked new cars, but anyone with a decent job and a halfway decent credit score can buy a new car – one that is just like every other new car of its kind.  Not just anyone can pick a gem from the (cess)pool that is the vast universe of used cars.  I have never been in the demographic that can afford truly special new cars.  But the next best thing is to find a car that is special for being a really well preserved specimen that is near the bottom of its depreciation curve.  So buying another new car would just be a waste of my superpower.

The last time I was in this spot I looked in the newspaper and ended up with a ’68 Chrysler.  But time had moved on and the newspaper was no longer where people advertised their cars.  It was the spring of 2009 and we were in the heyday of the List of Craig, so that was where I went.  In the past I had meandered around with no particular idea of what I wanted, but this time was different – I knew exactly what I was looking for, and it was one of two specific things, with no preference between them.

One option was a Lincoln Town Car.  One of these was, essentially, my ’93 Crown Vic with a longer wheelbase, leather and Lincoln emblems all around me.  I was very familiar with these and there were lots of them that had been owned by careful, elderly owners – the kinds of people who had preserved so many of my previous rides before I got to them.  The alternative was a Miata.  These hit the other end of my bipolar automotive spectrum and were equally attractive to me.  Why?  Because one would be great fun, that’s why.  I figured that with a Crown Vic and a Honda Fit in the fleet, I could get by with a zippy little two-seater for my daily use.  I spent a few days keeping up with new ads hitting the local listings, scrolling through endless Grand Ams, Tauri and Chevy pickups as I kept my eyes peeled for one of my choices.  Then came the day when I saw the ad for . . . . a 1996 Honda Odyssey?

I had remembered these when they were first out.  Why, I wondered then, would anyone pay a premium price for a minivan that was 1) too small and 2) badly underpowered?  Yes, Hondas were really popular, but one of these stickered for what a new Club Wagon had cost – around $24k for the mid-line model and about $30k for the high end.  Being the cars-by-the-pound guy I am, I found these just short of ridiculous.  The sales figures said that I was not alone.  But now?  I was intrigued.

This Odyssey fit the same pattern as all of my best used cars.  It’s owner lived in a very nice neighborhood, which indicated someone who could afford to give a car proper care.  The owner was a guy in his early 60’s who had bought it used and owned it for several years.  He was selling it because he just bought – an older Town Car, just like the one I wanted.  The Odyssey was really clean and straight and drove perfectly (if  slowly).  The problem?  It had a touch over 200k miles on it.

This was a new threshold for me.  When I had bought my first car in 1977, something with 100k miles was generally considered to be one repair away from the scrapyard.  But by this time, I had lived long enough to break the 100k barrier several times and consider it normal.  But 200k?  Then again, this was a Honda.  One of the good Hondas from the mid 1990’s.  Other than the reading on the odometer, there was nothing about this car that looked or felt like it had over 80k on it.  I took a breath, talked to Marianne, and then reached an agreement on the price (I think it was a little over $2k) and bought the car.

This car suffered from the one feature I had never loved about our ’88 Accord. Honda’s four cylinder powerplant was a real honey, but that 4 speed automatic was a terrible hindrance, and the thing had not been all that fast.  Now, with the Odyssey, add a bunch of weight.  But in the intervening years, a funny thing happened – where once I would have been grumbling about how miserably slow this Oddity was, I reached a zen-like state of acceptance.  “Drive the car the way it wants to be driven” came the little voice from inside me, “not the way you want to drive it.”  That was all it took for me to fall in love.

I loved the height.  I loved the room.  I loved the flip-down rear seat that made conversion from people to stuff so painless, unlike a certain large van in my recent past.  The a/c worked (front and rear), the power windows worked, the CD player worked and the smooth Honda four never used a drop of oil.  I came to regard this car as the modern equivalent of those Fluid Drive DeSotos of the early fifties, with their underpowered but stout flathead sixes.  Just like those, this Honda was slow and not the least bit stylish, but made up for it by being designed and built to last seemingly forever.

I have always had an odd fascination with windshield wipers.  The opposing wiper design was really cool, with an odd articulation device on the passenger side that provided entertainment during every rain.  In general, the little Odyssey was a great answer for full-family errands, though I noticed some wheel bearing grumble from the rear when it got really loaded up.

I knew that a timing belt was a crucial service item on these, and I had been told by the seller that it was nearing time to replace it again.  After two or three months of driving I decided that the car was a keeper so I popped for the wonderful Honda timing belt service, which included a water pump and some other things while the tech was working in that area.  With those mechanical refreshments, my goal for the 200k Odyssey became 300k miles.  I had gotten onto an Odyssey forum and, without exception, these people loved their Gen1 Oddys.  300k miles was a number that seemed quite reachable, given the experiences being posted on the discussion boards.  And I was looking forward to that milestone.

Because my Odyssey shared a garage with a Gen1 Honda Fit, I noticed something intriguing.  The Fit, a design that debuted as a 2002 model elsewhere in the world, looked like an early Odyssey cut down to 3/5 scale.  The visual similarities were uncanny, from the sloping nose and the little fixed window up front to the general shape of the greenhouse design towards the rear.  There was, of course, little similarity in their driving manners, but they were plainly related to one another and it was fun to drive the same thing in two sizes and personalities.

The Oddy was in fabulous condition, especially for its age and miles.  The interior showed virtually no wear at all.  I wasn’t crazy about the odd (lack of) color that was some combination of silver and beige (sleige?).  The unexpected benefit from the color is that it never needed washing because it never showed dirt.  Probably because it was the same color as the dirt.  As I think back, I am not sure if I ever washed the thing while I owned it.  I think this also may have been the first Honda that almost totally vanquished Honda’s perennial foe – body rust.  Even in my climate, almost every old Odyssey looked as rust-free as this one.

The only thing wrong with this particular Oddity was that there had been a small dent in the lower part of the left rear door that someone had done an amateurish job of hammering out from the inside.  Someone (presumably that person) added a series of thin black tape stripes to the lower body that did a pretty good job of disguising the imperfection.  The only problem with those tape stripes is that every time I looked at my Odyssey, I saw a the stipes of a mid-90’s Oldsmobile Silhouette.  This association irritated me and I eventually pulled the tape stripes off.

The end of our automotive Odyssey came one evening in February of 2010 when Marianne and I ran out for some errands.  After filling up with gas at our nearby Costco we headed for home.  Our neighborhood is south of a four-lane highway with a 50 mph speed limit.  Most everywhere we go is north of that highway, and there is a traffic light there that we have experienced literally hundreds, if not thousands of times.  Maybe 3% of those times we catch that light at a green for our street and red for the highway.  It always feels a little like winning the lottery, given how many hours we have sat stopped at that intersection.

That evening we approached the intersection and I was excited that we were going to make the light on a green.  I was driving about 35 mph, or maybe a bit more.  An oncoming car made a left turn in front of me, but I was far enough away that it wasn’t an issue.  Then the pickup truck behind that car made the same left turn.  It was not an immediate threat, but was close enough to me that I backed off the gas.  Then came the problem – an older lady in a red Honda Accord was following that pickup.  She must have figured the way was clear, but she couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see her.  Until we we saw each other heading for the same piece of road.  I stood on the brakes and steered right, but there was no avoiding some Honda-to-Honda contact.  Fifteen years earlier I had experienced this in my ’83 Colt and felt the 3-point belts give me a bear hug.  This time I got to experience the sensation of air bags going off a split second after I heard the loud “BANG” from the impact.  At first I was afraid something was on fire, but it turned out to be the byproducts of the exploding air bags.

I knew right away that the Odyssey was toast.  It had always been the color of toast, but now it was as useful for driving as a piece of toast.  Over the next few days I was right back to where I had been when the Colt got totaled.  The Odyssey was a car that I had become really attached to and that I expected to drive for quite awhile, and now it was gone after a mere 11 months.  Also like with the Colt, I had to fight the other driver’s insurer.  The accident was clearly the other driver’s fault.  “No, I don’t want a compact car as my rental.  Your insured wrecked a minivan, and I want a minivan.”  I got my minivan.  In keeping with the toast theme, this was my first experience with a new toaster-style Town & Country.  The bigger problem came settling on a price for my wrecked Odyssey.  The insurer wanted to pay for an average, high mile Odyssey.  My Odyssey wasn’t average, but was far, far nicer.   This time it took hiring an appraiser to negotiate value with an insurer I will not name but which I would not use if I could buy their policy for $3 a year.

By now I had learned a thing or two about buying older used cars.  You never find an exceptional older car (the only kind that interests me) by looking for one.  You only find them by the stumble-upon method.  I checked every source I could find for an Oddy like mine.  A Honda dealer a county away had one.  We drove there and looked at it.  I had no idea what the smell was on the inside of that car, but my long-deceased mentor Howard Shideler’s words came ringing back to me – “If something is wrong and it was easy to fix, the dealer would have fixed it.”  Another candidate was at a small car dealer on the near south side of Indianapolis.  The thing was in terrible shape, only soldiering on because of the innate goodness Honda had baked into them.  I had never bought a used car in an alley and my new rule said never buy a used car from a little lot in a crummy part of the city.

I had given it my best shot, but I knew I could not wheedle much more rental car time out of the insurance company.  I also knew that I was going to have to get something that was not a first generation Odyssey.

This is another vehicle that I will still occasionally see.  Every time I see one I get some serious pangs of “I really want that.”  But every time I see one, it is either not for sale or when I have no use for another car and cannot justify dumping what I have.  The last time was about a month or so ago – a really clean white (of course) 1995 with 155k on it where the owner was asking $4,400.  At this stage I had now owned three Hondas.  Every single one of them had been an A+ car.  (OK, maybe the Fit is just a regular A.)  Each had minor faults, but most of those were more about lacking what I really want in a car and not about the car itself.  “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Maybe I have matured (I hope so) but I had reached the point where I understood that relationships are a two-way street.  Each of my Hondas was willing to meet me more than halfway and I reciprocated by showing the love, support and loyalty that the cars deserved.

It is true – my cars are still a relationship thing for me.  And as we get older, we get more and more comfortable in a long, solid, stable relationship.  Marianne and I will be married 33 years this May and I expect that we will be married until one of us reaches the goal line of life.  I don’t expect a car to last me that long (at least not yet, ask me in another 15 years) but once settled in I become a happy and supportive partner.  I would have been a happy and supportive partner to that Odyssey for a long time, but its premature death made that impossible.  Which meant that I was back into the car-dating pool.  And quite unwillingly.