Misery Is in the Eye of the Beholder
Make no mistake, I think the brain trust at Car Talk Tower has performed a service by posing this question to those of us in its Ministry of Blogs, but as a serial owner of older cars since the age of 14, the question makes me reel. Having owned at least 100 cars in my time (I lost count a long, long time ago), my familiarity with machinery that might qualify for many as worst-ever material is voluminous and my insight into the diverse ways that a car might let you down or otherwise annoy or offend verges on the encyclopedic. But so, too, do I understand the inherent vagaries of a question that, in my view at least, admits of no ready answer. What exactly means “worst,” white man?
Because, as with so many things, misery is in the eye of the beholder; just as people are complex mixtures of qualities, good, bad and indifferent, so are cars and the answer to the question -- which one is worse than the rest? -- must necessarily be a complex mixture of purse and purpose, need and desire, set and setting. In other words, what makes one car the lousiest really depends on what you were expecting and what you got. And my expectations, for old cars, at least, are, necessarily, extraordinarily low.
For instance, some people might tell you that the 1962 MGA 1600 Mk. II roadster I brought to New York City during my sophomore year of college in the late 1970s was the worst car I ever owned, because it leaked in the rain, had the defrosting power of a recently poisoned social insect and often required push-starting owing to a pair of chronically weak batteries (yes, two six volts, in sequence, annoyingly accessed from under a large metal panel behind the MG’s bucket seats, that was impossible to lift out when the cumbersome top was folded down in place, directly on top of the panel.) But I don’t think my MGA was even close to my worst car, because once it was going, it almost always got me there, whatever the weather, even if chunks of Bondo were flapping in the breeze and my left trouser leg was often drenched.
Another observer might call out as my automotive nadir the 1969 Lotus Elan S4 roadster I used as my daily driver through three Boston winters while attending law school in the '80s. Its brake calipers used to lock solid while was I driving sometimes, thanks to an intermittently faulty master cylinder whose replacement could not be bought for love or money, halting progress pretty effectively once they’d first super-heated the brake discs a glowing, inferno orange. Other times, the engine would boil and hot steam from the cooling system would wet the distributor, creating another no-go situation and an unexpected opportunity to visit the side of the road. Sometimes both things would happen at once. It was with this car that I became expert -- a veritable black belt -- at coasting safely to the sides of roads after losing power, a skill I recommend to all who would drive old cars.
The Lotus had much, much more in store for me, however. The rusted front suspension towers of this mostly fiberglass car were discovered during a routine service and repaired before they could jeopardize my wellbeing. But there was a time the plastic T-junction between its two carburetors split during a blinding rainstorm, causing me to spill nine gallons of gas in twenty-five miles of night driving, that probably would have caused the car to explode and kill me if it wasn’t raining so hard. Silly me, I’d just assumed the falling needle of the fuel gauge meant it was shorting out.
Then there was the memorable occasion when the always-finicky driver’s side electric window refused to rise one wintry eve as I pulled away after paying a toll along the Massachusetts Turnpike. Pondering my misfortune on this 13-degree night, I glanced to my left at the slow-moving truck with flashing lights I was passing on the right, only to realize too late that I was staring a highway department salt spreader and its spreading apparatus in the maw. Before I could muster a delete-able expletive, I’d been pelted in the face with road salt and force fed a mouthful of the briny stuff -- no doubt further cosmic punishment for using my first semester’s tuition to buy such a shitty automobile. Fortunately, I had to sell it in order to settle my tuition bill and graduate.
Still, I will never forget the night when I couldn’t believe how poorly the sweet-handling Elan had suddenly begun to behave on the I-93 coming into Boston following a high-speed blast down from Vermont, drifting back and forth across four lanes of traffic at 70 miles per hour. Seemingly it had begun hydroplaning, a vice the skinny-tired thing had never shown me before. And come to think of it, it wasn’t raining. Slowing down and scratching my head, I made it to my apartment, and as I backed into a parking space out front of the Jamaica Plain triple-decker where I lived, the entire right-side front suspension collapsed. Scary. But, I’m not one to hold a grudge. At least it didn’t happen earlier while I was going 80 mph down a Vermont back road. And when it was right the Elan was sublime – fast, economical and incredibly agile – one of my all-time greats, despite the fact that it had an infinite capacity for sucking.
As you can see, I’m a pretty tolerant sort, at least when it comes to old cars that appeal. For me, the greatest automotive crime a car can perpetrate is to bore me. And I could name lots of new cars I’ve driven in my years as an automotive journalist that have done just that, but not one of the few new cars I’ve ever bought since my first – a 1981 Fiat X1/9 – has bored me, even a little. (Rounding out the new car list for those keeping score at home: 1985 VW GTi, 1987 Peugeot 505 STX, 1991 Mazda Miata, 1991 Peugeot 405Mi16, 1994 Alfa Romeo 164, 1995 Land Rover Defender 90, 2005 Lotus Elise.)
Come to think of it, there was one old car I bought that broke so often that it bored me -- a 1971 Rover 2000TC, bought sight unseen from a Rambler collector in Milledgeville, Georgia, where I went to pick it up. Milledgeville is the long-standing home of a major state mental facility. I mention this because on the ride home, my new Rover broke down even more incessantly than the one I’d sold in order to enable its purchase, owing to an alternator mount bolt hole in the engine block that had stripped, which allowed the alternator’s mounting bracket to loosen and shift, thus causing the Rover to shed fan belts with the gleeful abandon of Madonna losing her outer garments in concert. While still in Georgia, people would see me with this broken down oddball of a car they’d never heard of, and as I’d explain, covered in grease, that I was coming from Milledgeville, they’d back away, climb into their cars and speed off, having not unreasonably concluded I was an escaped mental patient.
And I might as well have been. The faulty alternator mount led to constant fan belt issues which led to several overheating episodes, and even more undercharging incidents. How’s 14 unscheduled trips to the shoulder, and the purchase of four new batteries to make it home to New York grab you? Oh, and one alternator, when the alternator fell out completely outside Atlanta. After two days and a sleepless night I made it home and slept the sleep of the dead. When I awoke, the Rover wouldn’t start.
Over the course of the next five years, it never ran right, never charged right, had countless flat tires, leaked in the rain, lost all its brake fluid, needed its brake boosters rebuilt twice, broke its throttle linkage, often leaked gas from its twin carburetors, puked its transmission oil, and had a small engine fire. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and traded it to Boston-area Lotus specialist Don Tingle, in exchange for a convertible top and a spare wheel for a second Lotus Elan I’d bought. After this Rover, a Lotus seemed comparatively reliable transport, even after a dashboard electrical fire while jump-starting it took me off the road for a while.
I was still happy to be rid of the Rover, even after I heard Tingle, a Harvard-educated astronomer turned Lotus mechanic, had diagnosed a pair of subtly crossed wires from the harness to the alternator, solving its persistent charging problem just like that. Not long after, though, the Rover was purring like a kitten when it threw a rod through the side of its engine block, ending its days. As you’ll have gathered, I grade on a sliding curve, but I guess I’d have to say that was the worst car I ever owned. For now.
Because about seven years ago I bought the 2000TC’s more complicated, more powerful sibling, a 1970 Rover 3500S. After several years spent in Maine getting its aluminum Buick-designed V8-engine rebuilt and hotted up, plus its lame three-speed automatic replaced with a five-speed manual conversion, the 3500S has been up and running for short periods but it’s showing signs of giving my other Rover a run for its money. Unreliable, you bet. My worst car ever? Not yet, but no record lasts forever.