Thursday, May 9, 2013

On Old Car Memories and 24 Hours of Lemons


By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco

Ah, the exhilaration of success, the pain of loss. All from the same story.

After more than a decade for sale, someone has at last bought my old Mitsubishi Eclipse. The thrill of victory, the angony of defeat. It's all there.

I bought it new, owned it longer than any other car, drove it to school when I attended UCLA, gave a ride to a certain fellow student who was starting to become a moderately well known actress/model/host and got how many other classmates spreading the rumor we dated as her fame was starting; plus I did far more in it.

Last chance to clean out under the seat brought me an old wristlet of a type that I can remember an old girlfriend always wearing numerously. How long ago was that? Think she finally managed to grow up?

A good many memories drove away. I first bought that car at what I knew to be the end of a good run workwise, when I'd been working a lot and not worrying about money. I'd graduated from college into a bad economy but managed to get going for awhile, but by this time there had been too many years of bad presidents (Sound familiar) and I thought I should go ahead and get a car to last me while I could.

The salesmen at the Mitsubishi dealers were determined to sell me anything but what I'd come to get. I was the one deciding so there was no sale until I wound up with a black 5 speed with the normal wheels that would not require $200 each replacement tires.

And the 1800cc engine instead of the 2000cc, much better gas mileage, 25/37mpg, but no noticeable difference in performance until maybe I got well out of town in the desert and really went to work driving crazy.

It was sitting in the garage while I was trying to sell my old car when I went to help a newlywed couple move to a new apartment and met the wifes' coworker who lived in the building, leading to a semidate as the four of us went off somewhere days later on 4th of July in my first trip anywhere with it and the woman in question being a little too impressed with what she mistook for a Ferrari (It resembled Sonny Crocketts' first car on 'Miami Vice.') It was a bad time to have her thinking I was going to be one of those guys with too much money.

This cost barely more than a Ford Escort or Hyundai Excel at the time. I did enjoy telling people it was a "Ferrari Eclipse" after that, though.

At UCLA, where so many poseurs try to pretend they're really a "Working Professional" just taking a few more classes, the fact it just didn't look like the cheap little car it was kept people thinking I was the real thing, maybe my puny little jobs at the time for the Anaheim Stadium big screen, etc. really did add up to something.

It also helped that I'd worked for 'Good Morning Vietnam' creator Ben Moses, whom I'd also given a ride in the car. Oh, let's not forget the one old girlfriend around the time, I called her 'Princess' Stephanie. I drove, a friend of hers remarked "This must be serious, she lets him drive her car." Can you believe she had the identical black Eclipse?

Yes, she WAS that touchy about her car, it sort of bothered her I had the same thing. As though I was supposed to give mine up or something. Only one example of why I gave her up instead. I'd had it about an even five years that day when the traffic slowed on the 10 freeway into LA, leading to me slowing with it. There was the traditional "Cathrump" as I was pushed back into the seat.

My foot came off the brake and I was now going as fast as the car that had just rearended me. By the time my foot was back on the brake it was too late. The crack in his windshield suggested he'd hit his head, but when he got out saying "I broke my phone," I figured all questions about why he hadn't slowed in time were answered. The van in front of me had just a bent up bumper, but I had broken parts on both the front and rear.

I ventured a guess the book on the car was about $7k, but my mileage was already over 100,000 at the time and that would drop it a bit. Here he was driving an expensive car that didn't have plates yet and he was insisting he had to get out of reporting this to his insurance. From that I'm guessing the broken phone was about as new as the car.

He offered me $4k to just keep the basically total loss car; since I couldn't afford a new one right then I went for it. The rolled up hood had to be removed to be flattened back into shape, there was certain other pounding to be done, new headlights and miscellaneous plastic, wires to reattach to the sockets, etc. I patched the Eclipse a bit and drove it over a year while I got together enough to buy a four year old fox body Mustang, then some 6 months more while I tried to sell it.

Luckily I was in it that fateful winter night. . . . It was raining rather late at night, but that 10 freeway around USC and the Convention Center is always crowded. As I went around that eastbound curve I could see on the access ramp alongside that a car was going maybe 40mph with what appeared to be a taxi gaining quickly at 70mph. I was thinking this would be a good one when the taxi locked up its' brakes, throwing water and skidding some roostertails as it barely avoided plowing into the rear of a car that had almost spared me what was coming next.

Some 30-45 seconds after I'd thought I'd left them behind, here came that "Cathrump" as the car slid to the left, my headlights catching what looked like that same taxi as it flew past in the lane to my right, which of course was in front of me that moment. I snapped the car back but it didn't stay in a straight line, the rear tire had been flattened and I just spun around in the opposite direction. Facing the wrong way, noone would hold up and let me turn around, so I sat there a good half hour waiting for the next reckless fool to come that curve and hit me head on.

Why people insist on driving 85mph in the rain is beyond me. Luckily an ambulance showed up and put his lights on to clear the way. That sort of signaled the end of the daily driver days for the Eclipse, but at least the Mustang had been spared a crushed quarterpanel and broken wheel. I stopped waxing it so the clearcoat broke down on the paint. It just looked worse and worse. But I became more and more attached.

The old smog tests I saved in the glove compartment showed I had been driving it less than 10,000 every two years. I'd forgotten that once the DMV accidently skipped the test requirement until the 3rd year. Oh yeah, they keep PERFECT records. And I still enjoyed driving it more than any of the other cars I would have in the coming years. Somewhere about that time was the infamous incident that I'd posted in a Hollywood Wannabee forum (And was reposted into a number of others and much discussed) of the plastic end of the carkey breaking off to be lost and me having to run some five miles home at a point where I was still recovering from a temporarily crippling accident and ride back on a bike with a spare key, only to realize that the wrong key had been mixed in with the others and I grabbed just that key.

The further escapades on the second round trip included an 18 wheeler running over my bike as I barely got away, a seemingly escaped prisoner from the nearby courthouse, an encounter with a woman from my past who had already tried to kill me (And would try again) and more that I told them may sound like a film students' graduate project but did indeed happen to me, all in one day.

The Eclipse was indeed the car I needed to recover. I remember when I was trying to bring Alex back to the reality of a certain situation but he wanted to go on daydreaming of getting off easy; him then storming out of a mutual friends' house and backing into my car, tearing up his own bumper moreso than mine. He said it was an accident, but there was noone in front of him to make him back up. . . . Ah well, how nice that I'd driven the Eclipse that night, again in the rain as it so often protected my regular car from such risks.

How nice to just tell him 'Don't worry about it.' He still had it in front of him to face the truth of what I was telling him. He bent my license plate mount, I bent that back. It was over for me, anyway. I've had a new Jeep Cherokee and my current 2012 Mustang since I bought that Eclipse. Plus a used Mustang, Plymouth Neon, VW New Beetle, Plymouth Sundance, Chevy Van, Chevy Silverado; not to mention I still had my Dodge Daytona and VW Rabbit at the time I first bought it.

As a freelancer forever driving in different directions and never a permanent job to move close to, I've always made sure I had a spare car. Missing a day of work when you don't go there much is a bad thing. I've only got up around 40k miles in a year once, don't think I quite made it. There's been several I topped 30k, nothing unusual about 20k in one year.

That's not including driving rental cars, or the government vehicles with the City of LA, LA and OC County offices of Education, etc. If so many miles hadn't been in traffic I might not have minded, I love cars and driving is great. I might reach 1 million miles driven in my lifetime, if so the Eclipse will still have almost 20% of those miles. But in 2004 some road junk broke the exhaust.

It took some work to get it sealed well enough to have pressure for the smog test. Two years later I could no longer patch it well enough and now I was at risk trying to drive it anywhere unregistered. For almost 7 years the car rarely ventured from my driveway, never farther than the nearby grocery store. I was having no luck finding an old exhaust, the car itself was old enough to be slim pickings at junkyards. I had made plans to build the LoCost, a replica of the Lotus 7 where you tear apart some worthless leftover for parts for the build, but somehow I just didn't have the heart to do that to THIS car. It was about that time I first heard of what some people call "Beater racing."

Ah, but stockcar racing was born in America's junkyards. Rising from the ashes of so many derelict driveway idols was the 24 Hours of Lemons. The idea was to add a rollcage and safety equipment to a $500 car and try to outlast your adversaries in their fellow nonroadworthy wrecks. While you can't invest over $500, (Safety equipment excluded) you can certainly sell off your interior, radio, windows, etc. to recover the initial purchase price and then RESPEND. And yes, you can sell enough unneeded parts off these cars to cover the purchase price, as they really aren't going to sell for much.

These are car nuts doing the work themselves, including homemade parts. I just kept imagining the car in one of their hands. (As the original owner, I'm not eligible to say "But it's only worth that NOW." Someone else has to actually BUY the car cheap.) When Matt came to buy the car, he kept saying NOTHING was as bad on it as he expected. I was only asking $300, the funny thing is in California a car that can pass the current smog test couldn't possibly be worth less than $1,000, even if it's otherwise ugly.

A junkyard exhaust, maybe $75, would get that car through smog, but with the factory no longer making the original I sure couldn't bring myself to spend $500 or more to have it custom built. This car had a little something tweaked just about everywhere, I guess you could say I'd got my use out of it. Sometimes I'd be driving on location in an oil field or a forest, sometimes there's kids playing in the street where I park and things happen.

Sometimes the potential dangers are being carried inside, although they're only a danger to the interior. And I was good about using this one to protect the others, which only adds to the charm of it, at least for me. It's been there with me through a lot. All sorts of little things added to the big problems this car had. Yes, I've seen some really bad cars and heard what people daydream of getting for them. Myself I'm just glad it went with someone talking about going racing with it.

I rather think if I'd KNOWN someone would indeed race it I'd have just given it to them. I actually handed him the paperwork and keys and nearly forgot to even ask for the money, he convinced me it was going where I wanted it to. In fact I'd posted the car at Chumpcar.com and 24hoursoflemons.com. He was the first of the responses that actually showed up, in this case he didn't even want to drive it first, it was sold the moment he looked at it, if not before he came.

He has parts left over from a previous Mitsubishi racecar that suffered a fate I hope this one will be spared. It wasn't easy, though. I waited until the morning he was coming to get it started, any car that sits is reluctant to start again. I'd suffered a dislocated rib about 2 1/2 years ago leading to a lot of shoulder and neck trouble, just trying to get into such a low to the ground car was painful and I'd quit looking for an exhaust or even starting the car, possibly for the duration of the 2 1/2 years, I don't remember starting it once.

I had to pump up the clutch for it to self bleed. It struggled with a jumpstart and didn't want to idle at first, but I've brought such phantoms back to life before, cars for others and motorcycles for myself, so I wasn't concerned. I'd not put gas in it for a long time to keep there from being a tankful of 'Old' fuel that smells bad when the car runs, I think the gallon I put in from the can was more than half what was in there. The battery wound up taking a charge, it's old but low mileage.

What a mess underneath when I backed it out of that spot, (The oxidated brake discs squalling as I stopped) I found a few things I was missing among the leaves. I wanted to just take off and drive around the neighborhood one more time before it was gone, but that might have made the parting even worse. To say nothing of that was a lousy time to get caught and get some $200 fix it ticket on the registration, I wouldn't be able to do anything about it once the car was gone.

It had been running some by the time he and his mother headed off, I was caught by surprise by the sudden blue smoke that billowed out as they did, that usually only happens with a long nonrunning engine when it's first started. It really sounded good. Hasn't quite made it to 200k miles yet, bet it would have made over 300k as a daily driver.

How many times had I tried to buy another Eclipse? I'd gone to buy one at the dealership that was once located on Harbor Blvd. here in Fullerton, but they never had an English speaking salesman available for me. Once there was a group of them talking and uncharacteristically disinterested in a customer, so a sure sale walked away. That lot wasn't there long, was it?

I EMailed the Anaheim Auto Center dealer about one 5 years later, resulting in a psycho internet sales person sending me a string of bizarre hate mail in maybe an hours' time and making crank postings on Craigslist with my EMail address (Why? I guess because I refused to run down and buy the NON stick shift car she was demanding I take) right up to the moment when the general manager walked in on her after I'd drove down there to tell him that either HE stops her or I call the police and they do.

There were also some used Eclipses I might have bought were it not for the characters who were selling them. Oh yeah, lots of memories. One of my relatives didn't have a car during her divorce when she came to live with me and drove mine some while I sold the van and got some money together to buy something for her.

She's had four of her own since, she says she plans to just rebuild the one she has now. She's probably going to be surprised to hear I still had the original of the family, she left California years ago and hasn't seen it. But she wouldn't have recognized it, she left before the first wreck. If you could have back any or all of your old cars, which would you take? I don't really miss my old Cherokee.

The New Beetle was a disappointment, but I see the current owner driving it in my neck of the woods all the time. My first car, the $100 Rambler, even AFTER all the work I did to it to drive it was worse than the Eclipse is, as was the $200 Dodge Colt I'd had as my original second car just out of college. Ah, but I'm a car nut. I'd take them all.

Where would I park them? Even so I couldn't turn them down. But if I could have only one, it's that Eclipse. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of it without the supplies I was offering with it on the hood. I did a good job of keeping it from looking so bad, I must say. Geez, why did I sell it?

Well, really, I had to do something with it. I couldn't just let it sit there while nature reclaimed it. Even though that was happening. And it made it easier to think of the guy racing it. That took the funeral feeling out of it, the car has a whole new life ahead of it. Lemons is endurance racing, you're required to have a number of codrivers.

Maybe in a few months I'll see if he needs any teammates.

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