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My Back Pages: The Worst Cars I've Ever Owned

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Unlike Jay Leno, I never owned a Chevy Vega. “When I first came to town, when I met my wife, I bought a Vega for $150,” he told Vanity Fair. “A horrible car. My favorite story about it is, my wife called me once, sounding panicked, and I said, 'What happened?' and she said, 'I went around a corner, and a piece of the car fell off.' Just a big chunk of the bumper." Clang!

Now that’s a sad story. But I’ve got sadder ones, most of which stem from the fact that I’m cheap and liked having fun with $50 cars. Here, in all their glory, are some of the horrible vehicles I’ve owned, and what they did to me:

Air-Conditioned VW. My grandmother never really made peace with her ’67 Volkswagen Squareback—she’d much preferred her oddball Borgward wagon (that one’s another story). So after several years and not that many miles, she gave it to me. I was 18 or so and thrilled—at least initially. Even though the VW was a low-mileage car, only about five years old and regularly garaged, it was absolutely shot through with rust. I could put my foot through the floorboards, and the battery box was only theoretically present. I drove the car with all the windows open (giving new meaning to the phrase "air cooled"). That was a survival technique, because the exhaust was leaky, and on startup (when it started; given the tenuous battery connections that was iffy, too) the car would fill up with carbon monoxide and I don’t know what else. Did Grandma secretly want me dead? I finally took the car to the boneyard when a friend of mine told me a vivid story of his VW battery falling out onto the highway at 70 mph, sending up enough sparks and toxic gases to rival a Vegas light show. Time mellows people about cars like this. Automobile Magazine calls the Squareback a "Collectible Classic." Now. Sure, if you live in Death Valley and the car never, ever gets wet.

My '67 Squareback was "air cooled" in more ways than one. (VW photo)A Vivid Volvo. I have this thing about ‘60s Volvos, and have probably owned 10 to 15 122S and 1800  (you know, the Saint car) models. Some were good, a lot of them bad—I even bought a wagon from fellow Car Talk blogger Jamie L. Kitman once. But the worst of the worst was a ’64 1800 sports car I bought for $200. I think it was a ’64, but it was hard to tell, since little of the original car remained—the sickly purple seats were from a Mustang. I actually bought it as a parts car, but then realized it lacked only a working starter to be a runner. I managed to sneak it past a distracted state inspector, who somehow overlooked the most comprehensive case of rust-out on any car I’ve ever owned, included the above-mentioned VW. With frame rails a memory, the body sagged so much that the doors no longer fit properly. And rust was the least of the car’s problems. It was an early model, made by Jensen in England, which explained the poor build quality. Not a single gauge worked. The clutch was on its last legs, as were the brakes. The only way to get it in reverse was to start it in reverse. The windshield was cracked. The heater didn’t work. The ignition system could only be switched off with a hardware store switch I’d installed. I must have had a death wish, because I actually put a lot of miles on that Volvo. It had one saving grace: a recently rebuilt engine, which after the tranny seized up for good went into my other 1800. I salvaged a bunch of other parts off that car, too, so all in all it was probably worth $200.

My Volvo was a lovely shade of rust, and three coats of peeling paint. (Volvo photo)Nasty Nissan. Why are people always giving me cars? My friend, Bryan, an artist, handed me the keys to his Datsun 510, a fairly sporty vehicle in its day. Mine had long since surrendered any claims to performance. Bryan had turned it into an art project of sorts, which included carved wooden bumpers, thick shag carpets and a chromed “foot” accelerator pedal. I’d wrestle the sporty shift knob against the last gasps of a dying clutch (a theme with me), and feel a surge of triumph when first gear yielded forward motion. “Take it to the dump when you’re done with it,” said Bryan. Remember that I said he was an artist? He wanted me to film the last ride. It was kind of dramatic, because the dear old girl decided to perform near-perfectly on her trip to boot hill.

The pride of the 510 fleet. Imagine it with varnished wooden bumpers. (Datsun photo)A Friend of the Devil. Another car, another $400. This one was a ’64 Valiant wagon that a pair of hippies had used and abused. It wasn’t a van, but it was still “don’t come knockin’ when it’s rockin’” time. The rear windows were blacked out, and a wooden platform had been installed and shag carpeted. The dome light had been replaced with a mini-chandelier. The ash tray was stuffed full of pot seeds. I don’t know what they did to the tailgate, but it would fall off if you attempted to open it. Still, I once took it camping and that platform made for great sleeping bag snuggling. Under the hood was a Slant 6, just like the one in my current ’63 Dart (also a Car Talk wagon), and the hippies’ neglect (it was dry of oil when I got it) eventually led to a rod coming straight through the block when my girlfriend was driving it. It takes a lot to kill a Slant 6.

Not my car, but a fair approximation of what it looked like before hippie customization. (Plymouth photo)Nova Nightmare. Now, you may conclude that deferred maintenance is more my problem, not bad cars. And you’re right to a certain extent. The problem with my ’66 Nova coupe, bought for $50 with four flat tires and no battery, was that I did try to fix it. I put tires on the car, bought a junkyard battery, and got it running. Fairly well, as I remember. I even compounded the flat blue paint and got a dull kind of shine out of it. It was one of the few cars I’ve ever owned that wasn’t rusty. I should have left well enough alone, but I decided to change the oil. I eventually became a fairly competent shade-tree mechanic, but that was in the future—I got through the oil and filter part OK, then cross-threaded the oil pan drain plug. The lubricant drained out on the way up the long hill to my house. The valiant Nova gave me plenty of warning that it wasn’t happy, but I thought it could limp home.

I could be that guy today, if I knew how to thread an oil drain plug. (Chevrolet photo)Wrong! It seized halfway up, and was towed by the smirking wisenheimers who ran the overpriced gas station near my house. I’m well aware that ’66 Nova coupes became hugely collectible soon after this. Here's a bunch of Chevy IIs for sale in the $30,000 range. Sigh, with not much work my car would have been as nice as the super-expensive coupe for sale in this video:



What am I leaving out? A ’76 Alfa-Romeo Spider with a bad rear end that I once tried to fix with a banana. A ’67 Plymouth Belvedere that I did horrible exhaust work on (attaching a clamp to the gas tank…) A ’60 Jaguar Mark X with picnic tables and a three-carb E-Type engine that I wisely left alone. A ’57 Mercedes-Benz 190SL that looked good from 30 feet and soaked me with every rain, despite a brand-new top. A ’62 Chevrolet Bel Air with shaky single-circuit brakes that gave way at a toll booth, sending me through at 60 mph and off the next exit at speed. I only stopped when I hit some garbage cans, 100 feet from Long Island Sound. It's a good thing I wasn't old enough to drive my father's Hillman Minx or, later, his Hindustan Ambassador. On that last one, the column shift came off in the chauffeur's hand.

Yes, you could say I’ve had a checkered automotive career, but I’d change none of it. In fact, right now I’m looking for a cheap and cheerful Mazda Miata, if you know of any candidates. As you can tell, I’m prone to ignoring certain glaring faults.

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