COAL: 1987 Ford Taurus MT-5 • Tragedy, An Unexpected New Car, And Two Midlife Crises

Not my car, but identical the one I had—right down to the pitted chrome on the bumper.


When I left off, Rick and I were living in Washington DC and driving a 1987 Toyota Celica. It was a great little car: fun to drive; sporty, and spot-on reliable.  It was primarily Rick’s car, since he had no easy public transit access to his job at the hospital, and every two weeks he was working a 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM shift, which meant either he had a long wait at night for a bus to the subway, or I had to come get him.  So most of the time he drove to work and I took the subway or the bus to my job downtown.

About this time, I joined a BBS called GLIB (for Gay and Lesbian Information Bureau). A BBS (Bulletin Board Service) was a dial-in multiuser system where folks could exchange messages; engage in real-time chat; send emails, and post about different topical issues of the day.  Think of it as a text-based Facebook, but without annoying ads and spam and friend requests from Russian women looking for a sugar daddy. It quickly became quite popular, and was an online community for DC-area LGBT folk.  We’d have regular happy hours at a local watering hole where we could actually meet in person and connect a human being to an online user name.  It was at one of those happy hours where I met ‘DC BEAR’, known in real life as Chip Manuel.

Typical Chip—mocking himself while he gave a presentation to his co-workers

Chip was a big guy—6’3″ and 250 lbs with a full beard, hence the name “Bear”.  We hit it off immediately, and began hanging out after work and on weekends.  Rick really liked him—Chip had a way of putting me in my place when I got too full of myself.  Soon we were fast friends.  When Rick was working Chip and I would do things after work or on weekends.  He grumbled that he always had to drive because Rick had our car.

Chip had a 1987 Ford Taurus MT-5.  If you’re not familiar with this model, here is an Auto Trader article about it.  It was a base model, with an 88-hp nonturbo four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission.  It was advertised as having a “taste of performance”, but it was more of an amuse-bouche than a taste, for it was something of a slug.  It did have a “touch of class”, meaning a real tachometer and mouse-fur cloth seats.  Chip’s was maroon with grey interior.  I asked Chip why he bought the MT-5, and he said that he wanted the Taurus because it looked cool, and added “With the last name of Manuel I had to buy a manual”, and the MT-5 was the only model to offer a stick shift.  I remember Chip lead footing it around the DC area, rowing back and forth on the stick shift.  The car did its best to respond, but with so little horsepower it did so with a whimper instead of a whinny.

Chip was a brilliant computer programmer who worked for a DC-area tech firm.  He lived in Riverdale, MD about 12 miles northeast of DC, but worked in Fair Lakes, VA, which was a LONG trip around the DC beltway at rush hour.  If Riverdale is at 2 on the clock, the exit for Fair Oaks is at 45 on the clock, plus another 10 miles on choked freeways.  So he’d often break his commute by stopping at our house in DC for dinner before heading home. When I met him he had ripped his home apart for renovations, and inside it was basically a shell, so he spent a lot of time bunking at our place. Or possibly for a nice meal we had cooked up.

In 1989 Chip went to Boston for a three-month work assignment.  When we got home we were horrified; he had lost a ton of weight and looked very gaunt.  Rick, being a nurse, dragged him to see the doctor where we got the dreaded news: Chip was HIV positive, and had progressed to full-blown AIDS, which is why he lost all that weight.  Rick and I were crushed; back then, with no treatments available, an AIDS diagnosis mean you’d most likely die within a year.  Chip took the news as well as could be expected.  But over the next few months, as his health deteriorated, he began spending more and more time at our house.  Some days he couldn’t drive home to Maryland, and some days he couldn’t even get to work.  Finally Rick and I moved him into our spare bedroom so we could make sure he got adequate nutrition and care.  We put a high-speed modem (all of 9600 baud!) on our computer so he could work from our house.  We spent weekends and nights working to put his house back together so he could at least have food, a comfortable place to sleep, and a full bathroom.

In February 1991, the three of us went on a cruise together, a repeat of trip we took in 1989.  Chip was crabby the whole way, probably because he sensed it was his last vacation.  In April we finally got him back into his house to live, and he stayed for a month before he went into the hospital for the last time.  He died in June—blind, deaf, and a skeletal shell of his former self.  Even though it’s been three decades since he died, Rick and I still call our guest bedroom here in Seattle “Chip’s Room”, a tribute to his memory.

Shortly before Chip died, I went searching for his will at his house.  It was nowhere to be found.  I thought it might be on his computer there, but the hard drives had been erased, along with the backup tapes and floppy disks (presumably by his sister, who wanted to make sure she got his house).  I wrote up a will using a computer program leaving everything to his mother and sister, except the Taurus which was bequeathed to me.  I figured that would be what he wanted.

So, via Chip’s bequest, we became a two-car family.  I spent some time detailing the Taurus; it was a mess, because taking care of cars was not something Chip did.  The old bull cleaned up pretty well, and gave us good service for three years.  It had a few glitches:  The passenger door lock was broken when someone tried to break in one night.  The gas gauge stopped working—it would register “Full”, but stop at “Half.”  So I got used to keeping the car topped up.  It was nice having two cars:  I got a parking pass at work with a new promotion, so I splurged and drove the four miles to my office.  It was a great relief not to have to slog eight blocks in blistering humidity during the summer to get to and from the subway.

The gas gauge in ours broke so it wouldn’t go below half full.


The end of the road came in 1994 when I was driving down the George Washington Parkway in Virginia.  The timing chain let go, and the engine stopped. I coasted to the shoulder and wondered what to do.  Fortunately, another friend from GLIB “Navy Bear” happened to drive by and saw me standing by the car.  We used his AAA account to have the car towed to a Ford dealer.  I dumped some money into getting it fixed, but Rick and I decided it was time to start looking for a new car for me. With my recent promotion we had put some money away, so we felt we could indulge in the luxury of new second car.

There was only one car I seriously considered: I had fallen in love with the new 1993 Chrysler LHS.  I had just turned 40, and my small sporty car days had evolved into a desire for a big luxo-car. Call it a midlife crisis, if you will.  There was just something so magnificent about it—the crouching stance, the interior spaciousness, the cool curve of the rear window that evoked memories of 1950’s Jaguars.  So off we went to the local Chrysler dealership in Alexandria, VA.  I really wanted one in a brilliant teal blue or maybe raspberry red, but all they had in stock was white.  I’m terribly impatient, and didn’t want to special order one, so I decided on the white one.  They gave me a decent trade on the ’87 Taurus, and I signed a three-year lease.

(these are pics from the Internet, not my actual car.)

When I got home I parked the car outside our house.  Later I stood at the window upstairs and just stared and stared at it.  It was so damned gorgeous.  It looked like it was moving, just standing still.

The LHS/New Yorker were the large versions of Chrysler’s LH platform:  Chrysler Concorde; Eagle Vision, and Dodge Intrepid.  These cars made a clean break from the Iacocca-era K-cars that proliferated like rabbits.  They came with an all-aluminum V6 and front wheel drive, with the engine mounted longitudinally rather than transversely.  The LH cars were, in fact, heavily based on the Eagle Premier, a legacy of Chrysler’s takeover of AMC in 1987.  In a clean break from Chrysler’s past, the team that developed the Premier was put to work updating it for a larger vehicle, using the same basic drivetrain design but Chrysler rather than Renault/AMC underpinnings.  As I understand it, Eagle Premier sedans were used as test beds for the LH cars.  In the hierarchy of Mopar, the LHS was the flagship, intended to replace the K-car Imperial.  The difference is obvious:

Like night and day.

My car had tan leather seats that were nicely button-tufted. A high-end sound system gave great sound, and for the first time I had a car with A CD player!  One of the advantages of the LHS and the cab-forward design (which moved the wheels out to the edges of the car) was a cavernous back seat.  Compared to the base New Yorker, the LHS had somewhat firmer suspension, and the handling was nice and crisp for a car that size. We took the LHS on several road trips with a couple of friends who were quite tall and large, and they were perfectly comfy back there. They christened the car “The HMS Crutchfield”, and joked you could carry a Miata in the trunk instead of a spare.  In the three years I owned (leased) the car, I had absolutely NO problems with it.  It was the most trouble-free car I’ve ever owned.

Speaking of Miatas (or is it Miatae?):

Ours was this color, only with a tan top instead of black


About this time, Rick decided that since I got a new car, he should get one, too.  Despite being four years older than I, he too had a midlife crisis and decided to trade his 1987 Celica in on a Mazda Miata.  He chose a new 1994 model with the upscale trim, which included tan leather seats; good sound system, and a nifty tan top.  The previous summer I had rented a red Miata (with an automatic!) on a business trip out west.  Although I had to stick my luggage in the front seat since the trunk is so small, I found that even though I’m six feet tall I could fit comfortably in the driver’s seat if I put the seat all the way back. Getting in took a bit of contorting, but once inside it was quite comfy.  And a definite blast to drive.  Rick is 5′ 7″, so he was able to get in and out with ease (though he kvetched at me for moving the seat back and not returning it to his setting).

So Rick had his first new car registered in his own name.  He loved that little car.

Ours had a tan top like this one


Now, granted, we didn’t put the top down all that much because driving around town in muggy DC summer weather is awful.  One time we were in the car on a terribly hot and humid summer evening when President Bush and the visiting President of Mexico were taken from the White House to dinner.  Which meant all of downtown DC was shut down for security.  Traffic was inching along, just enough so we couldn’t get out of the car to put the top up.  So, despite the AC blowing full bore we were quite uncomfortable.  And a couple of times Rick got caught with the top down when a sudden DC thunderstorm hit, and he had to find a place to pull off the freeway so he could put the top up.  But during spring and fall zipping around town or through the Blue Ridge mountains with the top down was a joy.

The Miata was wildly impractical, but we loved it.  If we needed to have passengers or luggage or large purchases we always had the LHS for that.  So for awhile we were a happy two-car family.

Then, in 1994, a new family member arrived in the form of a mountain cabin in WV.  Our place was 125 miles west of DC atop a mountain ridge with five acres of land.  It was almost heaven during the summer, but in wintertime the snows hit.  The Miata was useless in snow, and despite being hefty with front wheel drive the LHS didn’t do well going over the mountains and up 1 mile of steep dirt road to our place.  So a four wheel drive vehicle was in order.  More on that in my next installment.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret

COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car

COAL № 4: 1967 Datsun 1600 • The first car that was legally mine

COAL № 5: A Pair of Pintos

COAL № 6: 1983 & ’87 Toyota Celica • What’s the Plural of ‘Celica’?

Further reading:

Curbside Classic: 1986 Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable – At This Moment, You Mean Everything

(The Not Often Seen) Curbside Classics—William Stopford’s take on the Taurus MT-5.

Curbside Classic: 1996 Chrysler LHS – Lost Hopeless Soul—Brendan Saur’s take on on the LHS.