After two years of hard wrenching and scads of hard cash, it became apparent that my balky VW van was never going to be reliable enough to adventure with. As the van sat hyperventilating with a pending transmission code after huffing and puffing its way to the top of Highway 35, my wife and I talked it over and decided the VW experiment had met its end.
Hondas have a reputation for being bulletproof. Could a used Honda Element with 125k miles on the clock handle a 5,000-mile road trip right out of the gate? What could go wrong? What, me worry?
In some ways, an Element is the perfect panacea for the disgruntled VW enthusiast. The familiar boxy, toaster-like shape allows for maximum cargo utility, and the foldable seats that turn into a bed, can be pinned up or removed altogether to make for a veritable hotel on wheels.
Add the cabana tent option to the tailgate, and two people can sleep tightly in the back.
Like the Westfalia, another option is to add an eCamper for a poptop roof, which looks rather organic on this particular car, and has spawned a cottage industry for conversions in Portland and San Diego.
Once I had got it into my mind that an Element was I wanted, the search commenced. At first, it appeared as if there were a half dozen ridiculously low mileage ones for sale around the Bay Area, but these ads turned out to all be placed by one individual scammer who kept posting them as fast as I could flag them. Finding a good one with fewer than 150k miles turned out to be a lot harder than it looked. The few nice examples had astronomical asks from delusional sellers.
And then there was the plastic cladding…The cladding is rather a turn-off to some people, myself included. When the Element debuted in 2003, it sported four plastic fenders that made the car look like it was some sort of Frankensteinian abortion resurrected from the Pick n’ Pull. Worse, the plastic didn’t age well and oxidized easily. This feature turned out to be not only aesthetically unpleasant, but a shortsighted trend that dated the car considerably. Fortunately, starting in 2006, Honda began offering monochromatic Elements with painted fenders as an option for an extra $500. They look way better in my opinion, but holding out for one prolonged my search further.
After searching unsuccessfully for about two months, I located a 2008 tangerine metallic Element about two hours away. Particularly enticing was how the seller had tricked it out as the ultimate adventuremobile: This Element featured a Gobi safari basket that spanned the entire rooftop, a Goal Zero solar setup with a generator and roof mounted solar panel, ladder, hanging cabin lantern, and Dometic cooler.
Also included were a tow hitch and a shovel and crowbar that locked to the rack. Finally, the seller was throwing in memory foam bedding and the Honda tailgate cabana tent. All these toys were hugely enticing, and I felt most grateful to get a shot at this Element before someone else came and snatched it away.
I arrived early, and once I saw the Element, it was apparent that it had been well cared for and loved.The paint shined with a factory finish, and the tangerine sheen winked at me in the midday summer sun. Once the seller opened the doors up, though (including the rear side ones that cannot be opened without the front doors being open first), I started to see the flaws. The Element was packed to the gills with crap and looked as if it had been lived out of. The owner had been abroad for a few months, and the car had sat parked. After a long cranking time, it started, but I made a mental note that the battery might be shot. With the rear seats pinned up and the long, heavy sections of memory foam haphazardly tossed into the rear, I could hardly see out of the back. Worse, the whole car stank of rank cigarettes. Sitting down in the driver’s seat, I was blown away by how cavernous the interior felt.
I sensed that I was sitting really low, but the seats would only tilt up or down in the front or back, but could not be raised. I backed out gingerly, tested right away by two tight concrete pillars in the shotgun carport. The next thing I took note of was the massive blind spots created by the most enormous A-pillars I’ve ever encountered.
The seller commented on how many near-miss collisions he’d had just as I nearly creamed a passerby coming out of a shopping center on my left. Yipes! The seller also warned me that the Element acts like a sail on the highway and advised me to make sure I kept both hands on the wheel when doing freeway driving. Well, this thing was going to take some getting used to!
Under the hood, things looked tidy but dirty; the owner was not a hands-on enthusiast. I noted that the serpentine belt looked like the ends were fraying a bit. The tires had cornering marks but tread aplenty. The VAG-COM code scanner I’d kept handy from my VW days revealed no problems. The Element drove smoothly, and the engine hummed along like a sewing machine, just as Hondas should. This Element has the nearly indestructible 2.4 liter i-VTEC engine, much like the smaller one in my wife’s Civic, and hers I’ve tinkered with a bit over the last three years.
The seller had a very protective mother who was also on the car’s title. Buying the car meant meeting her at the bank, verifying my cashier’s check, and then going straight to the DMV to register the car and deal with the paperwork. The mother flashed an overstuffed manila folder of receipts of everything ever done to car, but she refused to give it to me, instead only offering that I could look at it, but that all records were rightfully hers. Imagining this to be vigilant rather than paranoid, she was determined to hang on to all the service records, and it wasn’t any use to argue.
I got the Element home uneventfully and further assessed it. The memory foam was torn and missing chunks in a few areas and was, on the whole, smelly and disgusting; into the dumpster it went. I scrubbed the heck out of the seats and the headliner with a Rug Doctor, but I couldn’t get the cigarette funk out; only time would do that. The solar generator needed a new battery, so one was promptly ordered online.
In addition to cleaning the car up, I ordered and programmed two new keyless remote fobs. Next, I turned my attention to the nonfunctioning radio. Tinkering revealed that the antenna worked and everything in back was hooked up properly. After pulling a good deal of the inside paneling and dashboard apart, I finally found the problem: the wiring had separated from an extension harness plug way up in an inaccessible spot between the nether regions of the glove box and underneath the dashboard. Because I couldn’t reach the frayed connection, I opted to bypass the factory antenna and solder in a new windshield mounted one.
Next, taking the wheels off the car revealed that the rear brake pads were rather low. The rotors had been resurfaced several times and were likely original to the car, so I ordered pads and rotors and did that job myself one hot afternoon, celebrating with a beer. Finally, after changing most of the major fluids, I declared that the Element was ready to go!
A buddy of mine was selling his home in Boise, Idaho, and I decided to come pay a visit before he moved away. Taking off from the Bay Area in CA, I drove through Winnemucca and the Nevada desert along I-80. It was a punishing drive: hours and hours of absolutely nothing led to hazy mirages and road fatigue. On my way out to a BLM campsite in Nevada, along an unpaved road, my dashboard temperature gauge showed the engine temperature starting to climb past the point of comfort. It never hit the red, and I don’t think I was in any real danger of overheating, but I decided not to push it, and instead rented a room in a fleabag motel in town. I could have stealth camped in the Element, but it was almost 100 degrees that night.
The next day, I drove through the smoky detritus of what would be, sadly, the first of several fires in the Pacific Northwest this summer. I made Boise by early afternoon and spent the next few days biking, drinking good Idahoan microbrews, and roaming around downtown Boise.
It’s a rapidly expanding city, and it has an interesting mix of rustic cowboy roots and cosmopolitan chic. You could see a stark contrast in the buildings that were two hundred years old standing right next to newer and taller contemporary structures.
I was amused by all the California expats there; my California plates barely seemed exotic at all in Boise.
On the way back home, this time, I drove through Oregon, and while it took me twice as long, the scenery (any scenery!) made it much more tolerable. In one incredibly long day of driving, I got all the way from Boise to the north shore of Tahoe. I pulled up in front of the (unoccupied) former home of a friend that has since become a rental, blew up my inflatable mattress, and at 5’10”, with the rear seats removed, had just enough room to sleep comfortably in the back of the Element.
I returned home the next day and scarcely had time to clean all the crud off of the car before it was time to hit the road again, this time with my wife and our Labrador retriever. Our itinerary was to get up the Oregon coast and then out to Eugene and Bend. We spent some nights tent camping and others in hotels or AirBnBs.
In the pastel town of Mendocino, we sipped wine by the campfire, and we weaved in and out of the coastal blanket of fog the next day as the Element ate up the miles into Humboldt without complaint. Along the picturesque Avenue of the Giants, I pulled the car into a turnout, and we cooled off by splashing around with the dog in a rocky creek.
We camped out north of Gold Beach along the Oregon coast and enjoyed some hiking along with the company of my friend who drove out to meet us. The next night, we stayed at a lovely hotel in Newport. It was around this time that I started to notice how many Honda Elements are plying the streets of Oregon. There are plenty in California too, which is interesting, considering that the Element has been defunct for seven years, with the oldest models being 15 years old, but along with the ever-present Subaru, it’s a real popular choice in Oregon.
We headed inland after Newport and up to the storied Timberline Lodge near Mount Hood.
You may recognize the lodge, as its exterior was immortalized in The Shining. The interior is a beautiful mélange of woodsy chateau, Indian art, and Paul Bunyan murals. I parked the E next to a beat, 1970 silver VW hightop bus, wondering how the hell the old VW made it to 6,000 feet without overheating. I guess old air-cooleds are a completely different animal than the Eurovan I gave up on.
From Mount Hood, we headed back down and paid a visit to the Curbside Capital: Eugene.
We stayed near to downtown in a very cute AirBnB that, unfortunately, didn’t have an adequate A/C system. Poor Charley was panting on the hardwood floor, and I’m sure he was glad to get back into the air-conditioned cocoon of the Element the next morning. After breakfast, and on our way out of town, we took him up to Skinner Butte. Would there be any Curbside Classics hanging out at the top as there always seem to be whenever Paul goes there?
If Elements are common in Eugene, they have to be the official vehicle of Bend. I guess the 4×4 is a huge boon if you’re going to drive in the snow.
Just outside of Sisters, a pickup in front of me sent a small rock hurtling into the windshield, leaving me with a spiderweb crack to match one that was already in there on the left side. Oh well – in 5,000 miles that was the only damage I incurred. From Bend back to the Bay, just as it had done for the entire trip, the only thing the Element demanded was gas.
When I sold my VW van, I did so with a heavy heart. But, upon my return home, after vacuuming out all the dog hairs and washing 5,000 miles of crud off of the car, I knew in my heart of hearts that moving on to the Element was the right choice. This extremely versatile vehicle had driven me though four states, serving at times as my transport, hotel, dressing room, kitchen and more. I recall that when I sat down in the Element for the test drive, the previous owner had said to me, “once you drive this, you’ll forever see ordinary cars as a waste”. I know now that he was right. Summer 2018 is almost in the books, but I can’t wait to hit the road again.