COAL: 1998 Plymouth Neon – The Accidental COAL

As I mentioned in my last COAL, 1998 marked my 30th year. While professionally and financially successful, I started to feel like something was missing. My brother had gotten married 8 years earlier, and now had two daughters. We had started growing apart as our lives went in separate ways. So to did my bachelor support network start to fray, as more of my friends were starting families of their own. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was waiting for my life to start.

Like many people in STEM fields, I suffer from a mild from of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. For those of you following my COAL series from day 1, this may not come as a surprise. But for those not familiar with Asperger’s, in brief, this means that I work better with numbers and machines than with people. While I dated occasionally, I never really bonded with anyone, despite heroic efforts of some of my female friends to “set me up” over the years. Then I met Kristen.

As an Aspie, the forms of social interactions that come normally to most people require mental work for me. Being around people, especially strangers, is literally exhausting for me. After an hour at a social gathering, I’m usually ready to leave. Being around Kristen did not make me exhausted. It felt natural being with her. She helped me develop my social skills (which I would need as my career took off into management), but never looked down at me or pushed me (too far) beyond my limits.

She was (and remains) my better half in every sense of the word. She helps me understand such difficult concepts as smalltalk, empathy and thank you notes (OK, I still don’t quite get thank you notes). At the risk of draining some excitement out of future COALs, Kristen and I have had a happy, loving, and productive marriage. If you like your COALs with a side of marital drama, you will have to look elsewhere.

An early picture of Kristen and me. My 1998 A4 is visible in the driveway to the right. Her father is standing to the far right.

When I met Kristen, she was driving 1998 Plymouth Neon coupe. Not even a Dodge Neon, but a lowly Plymouth Neon. If my A4 were the equivalent of a fine Cabernet wine, her Neon was a box of Franzia. But as they say, love conquers all.

I may have loved the driver, but I hated the car. I had never actually ridden in a Neon, much less driven one before I met her: Most of what I knew about the Neon came from the auto magazines. Perhaps it is unfair to compare an entry-level economy car with a $35K luxury sport sedan, and it probably is, but I will proceed to do so anyways.

Another early family photo. Kristen and I, my 1998 A4 on the left and her Neon on the right.

In truth, if you never actually drove it, Kristen’s Neon wasn’t that bad. It was a coupe, which was better looking and less common than the more prosaic sedan variant. The coupe must have been a slow seller, as the body style was dropped after the first generation Neon. Hers was a top of the line model, which meant that it had niceties like body color bumpers, power windows, and cruise control. It even had a power moonroof, and A better interior than many of GM’s cars at the time. The mouse fur on the seats was probably comparable to that of a Toyota or Honda.

However, all those good impressions evaporated like spilled gasoline once the engine started and you got underway. The 2.0L 4 was rough and crude: The car shook noticeably at idle. The frameless windows sealed poorly and let in lots of wind noise, as well as contributing nothing to the structural integrity of the car.

About that structural integrity: It was without a doubt the worst I’ve ever seen on a modern car. If the car was not parked perfectly flat, the sunroof would bind as it was opening and closing. One time the sunroof jammed so badly it required a trip to the dealership to free it up.

The 3-speed automatic transmissions was a dinosaur. By the late 90’s, Most cars already had four speeds, and a few companies, like Mercedes-Benz, were dabbling in five-speed automatics. While big Detroit V8s could get away with three or even two forward speeds, three-speed transmissions are a poor fit with small four-cylinder engines. First gear ended up being two tall for snappy acceleration, and the top gear was too short for quiet highway driving. The huge spacing between gears frequently meant that the engine was far from its power and torque peaks, giving the sensation that it was in the wrong gear.

Fortunately, Kristen and I almost always took my car when going out. One time we didn’t was on a weekend trip to Niagara Falls, and for some reason we took her Neon, a decision I would soon regret. It didn’t take too long after we got on the freeway before I noticed that something was seriously wrong. It was raining lightly, and I noticed that the wipers started moving slower and s-l-o-w-e-r. I immediately realized that there was something wrong with the charging system, and that the car was rapidly discharging the battery. Shortly thereafter the car quit running completely.

I rolled to a stop on the berm, popped open the hood, and my worst suspicions were confirmed. Where there should have been a belt around the alternator pulley was just a few tendrils of rubber. Kristen’s father had recently had some engine work done on the car, and the shop must have dented the drive pulley just enough that it started shredding up the alternator belt. After this, our luck took a surprising turn for the better: I had the car towed to a Dodge dealership at the next exit, and there happened to be a technician in the service department on a Saturday afternoon. They took my car in (without an appointment), pounded out the pulley, and replaced the belt for us, and within an hour or so we were back on the road and on our way. Major props to the dealership (Royal Dodge (now Ganley Dodge), in Mentor, Ohio) for taking care of us. We were able to complete the trip without incident, but never again would take the Neon on another road trip.

In spring of 2000, Kristen and I got married, and her Neon now officially belonged to me. How I hated writing the  monthly payment check for that car every month! I would get around to dealing with her car soon enough, but first I had other matters requiring attention. My family of one, would quickly grow to three, as Kristen was expecting our first child, Josh. Our one bedroom apartment would never do, so I needed to find a house pronto. Dealing with the Neon would have to wait.

We built a three-bedroom cluster home in the Cleveland suburb of Middleburg Heights, and moved in just before Josh was born (who must have been in a hurry to move in as well, as he was born 5-weeks early).

Kristen’s Neon, My A4, and my brother Andy’s Corolla in front of our new house.

The photo above shows our happy house shortly after we moved in, with bonus photos of the A4 and Neon to boot. This is also the oldest digital photo I have in my 20,000+ photo archive. According to the EXIF data on the photo, this picture was taken using a Toshiba PDR-M5 digital camera at 800×600 (a whopping .5 megapixels).

So now that I’ve gotten my life in order (for now), tune in next week to see what happens next.