COAL: 1998 Honda Civic LX – Chapter 30, Hey Look, I Found Another Car!


From the start of this COAL series lo those many months ago, something has been bothering me. It was that I have owned 29 cars. Something deep within me craves both order and symmetry, and something about ending a series at 29 cars just seemed wrong. I needed to find car #30, then the world could be ight again.


I thought that this was going to require an outlay of money (and time), but seem to have avoided all temptation – despite the occasional tempting ad on Craigslist – like the 1995 Honda Odyssey or the gold 1975 Chrysler New Yorker. (Who says I’m not broad-minded?) I had included the Lacrosse that my son has owned, but only because I actually owned it. I had not included the other son’s 1989 Grand Marquis because although it sometimes felt like I owned it (like every time something broke or needed attention) but I never actually did.


This was also why I had not planned on writing about the 1998 Honda Civic that was my daughter’s car until very recently. But when she finally sold the car a couple of months ago, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a certificate of title that was jointly in her name and mine. And if my name was on the title, my lawyer-brain says that it counts, and so here we are – car #30! Does this make you feel as good as it makes me feel?

My mother-in-law Helen stopped driving soon after she got married in 1956. She did not start driving again until her middle-of-five kids was taking driver’s ed in high school. She never liked driving the rusty VW at her disposal, and after the end of her marriage she bought a perfectly wretched little Chevrolet Spectrum (Isuzu I-Mark) which she drove for several years. In the summer of 1998 my brother-in-law Bill did a wonderful thing and decided to buy his mother a new car. Bill picked out a Honda Civic because it was small. It had air and power steering (which had been absent from the Spectrum and were the driving force behind the idea) and was silver because Helen liked that color.

Helen drove it to church, to the grocery store, and to the homes of her nearby children. As she got older she drove it less and less, and after she accidentally drove into the front of the CVS store (something she never told us about) she decided that she was done with driving. Bill then kept the car, and used it as his daily commuter car to preserve his Toyota Avalon. This was the same Bill who had used Marianne’s old Plymouth Colt before we got it.

The Civic almost expired when someone rear-ended the car while Bill had it. The car was in the gray area between being totaled and being repaired, and Bill elected to get it fixed. I may or may not have had selfish motives (out of a possible desire to own it someday) when I added my two cents that the car should be repaired because it was in such wonderful condition otherwise. Bill got it fixed and kept driving it. Then, in January of 2016 we got a call from Bill who asked us to pick him up at the Honda dealer and drive the Civic home because he had bought a new Pilot. Only the drive home was to end with keys in our daughter Maribeth’s possession, per Bill’s instructions. Everyone should have an Uncle Bill in their lives.

As noted above, I had always harbored the desire to own that Civic when Bill had finished with it, and at first felt like I had missed out. But I did not, because I became heavily involved in Civic life. Like in getting the wet trunk fixed (the body shop had neglected to seal a seam). The car ended up jointly in my name when I accompanied my daughter to the BMV (something I had forgotten) because it could stay on our family insurance policy.

During a visit to her at college about a year into her ownership, Maribeth asked my why the inside of the car stunk. Maybe, I replied after examining the situation, it’s because both the trunk and the rear carpeting are soaking wet and have been for some time. I spent a few weeks with the Civic at home, getting the thing dried out and solving the leak problem – which turned out to be water working its way under the trunk weatherstrip. I bought some weatherstrip sealant and ran a bead in the weatherstrip channel before reinstalling the rubber strip onto the welded metal seam, which solved that problem.

I spent the entire summer of 2018 with the car when Maribeth took my newer Honda Fit to North Carolina for an internship assignment in recreational therapy at a university hospital there. I wrote about that experience here (and also here). It was around the middle of that summer when I decided that I was happy with how the car situation had worked out – Me with my Fit and She with the Civic.

The Civic was far superior to my Fit as a highway cruiser. It was quiet and comfortable, and felt larger than what I was used to. However, in almost every other situation I preferred the little white Fit. The Civic was nearly as low as the Miata, so it was a bit of a chore to get in and out. And it was not as much fun when in the driver’s seat – for two reasons. First, it brought back memories of why I never liked four cylinder cars with 3 speed (or 3 speed + overdrive) transmissions. Second, the steering was far slower and much less sporting than the Fit’s. In short, it was a nice place to visit but I was happy when we traded back at the end of August of that year.

I got the car back when the shifter was freezing up. I disassembled the console and lubed the shift cable, which seemed to fix that. I also replaced the battery when I got a call one evening that the old one had died. Oh, and the hood release cable after the old one got so stiff that the plastic handle broke. Otherwise, the car spent much time after September 2014 out of sight and out of mind.

Things went downhill when Maribeth ignored one piece of driving advice I had given all of my children: If an animal runs out in front of you, grit your teeth, hold on and hope for the best. When that situation actually happened, my animal-loving daughter sacrificed the passenger side of the Civic to save the dog. It was only dumb luck that she hit the tree with the car’s side than with the car’s front – something that would have caused much more severe damage. We discussed her options and decided to leave it as it was. She was insured, but the car’s value was low and she was young, so her insurer (she had her own policy by then) would have jacked up her rates and gotten its money back fairly soon. I thought about a couple of replacement doors, but the rocker panel was pushed in just far enough that I thought it best to leave well enough alone with a door that opened, closed and sealed.

Marianne’s unease with the aging Civic got more serious when the speedometer got wonky (fixed by our mechanic who found a bare wire under the hood) and again when Maribeth got stranded at the mall with a dead battery. Yes, the relatively new battery. Which should have made me dig deeper. I got a call in September that she was stranded again. This time, a jump start struggled, then the car fired with an ear-splitting squeal – until the frozen-up alternator started turning. We got the car home and I gave her the Fit for the weekend. I tried to get it to the mechanic Monday morning, but the belts were squealing AND the car would stall when I removed the jumper cables. Even Honda alternators will eventually fail after 25 years. And this one failed in a spectacular way.

Marianne was becoming insistent that Maribeth needed a new car. Maribeth (and her new husband) agreed. Me? There is a part of my brain that I refer to as the German farmer. My mother grew up on a farm and her father (who died before I was born) was named Keck. Albert Keck kept a 1935 Ford V8 sedan going as his only vehicle (for both family and farm) until 1951. Even then, his oldest daughter got it and kept it going for another year until they traded the old girl for a new 1952 Ford Crestline hardtop. My German farmer brain says that these were among the best damned Hondas ever built, which makes it one of the best cars of all time. If not for the body damage, I would have thought seriously about working out some kind of trade for my Fit.

The situation remained unresolved until an evening in early December when the car was parked in downtown Indianapolis and some vandals (don’t they always roam in packs?) hit the back window with a baseball bat. The repair cost would be just a few dollars under her $500 insurance deductible, so decisions had to be made. A trip to CarMax yielded an offer, but one way too low to consider. A quote from a junkyard was better, but I hated to do that. Once again it was Curbside Classic to the rescue.

I have said before that one of my favorite things about this place is the connections I have made over the years. Some of them have been local to me – like longtime CC contributor Jim Grey. Another is the fellow known hereabouts as gtemnyk – a mechanical engineer by day and a car nut the rest of the time. I met him over lunch when I bought some unused insulation matting from him, and we have kept in occasional touch. He has an appreciation for cars that are kind of like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree – ones that need a little love. One email to him and the result was a reasonable as-is offer.

I got another good visit and conversation out of this transaction, knowing that he would give the Civic some needed love before finding a new home for it with someone who will appreciate its virtues. I expected him to make a little money at it, which is as it should be – everyone will come out of this deal a little better off than they were before. Maribeth has some cash (and avoids paying for a window), the buyer makes a little money after a small investment of money and time (it cleaned up really nicely and he made some progress with the dent), and the one who gets the car from him gets a solid (if dented) example of one of the best cars ever made that still has a lot of miles left in it. (If we can set Marianne’s opinions aside for a moment.) And me? I was the catalyst for making everyone happy by making it all happen through a CC connection. Plus, my daughter thinks I’m a magician.

Best of all, this sorry situation has reminded me that I have owned 30 cars and not just 29. This is the place where most COAL authors sum up their experiences, but I think maybe I will do that in a stand-alone post next week. We started this series with a prologue, and my appreciation for order and symmetry says that it needs to end with an epilogue. Just like those episodes of television shows like The F.B.I from my youth. So at that, I will offer an invitation to join me for one more Sunday and we can discuss what we have learned from this experience. What? You were not expecting a quiz and failed to take notes? OK then, we will discuss what I have learned and you will free to chime in with anything you think is appropriate.