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Sunday, June 11, 2006


Off the Cheap End: 800 miles in a $900 car

This is a post in the AWChain.

The previous post in the chain was Peggy's account of a music - themed cross country trip. It sounded pretty enjoyable. Well, I thought I'd share one of my road trip stories. Here's one that was not exactly fun.

It was my senior year in college. The only car I owned was my 1966 Dodge Dart. It could certainly have made the trip from Atlanta to Cleveland; this was before I had started throwing so many mods at it that the poor car couldn't make it out of the garage. The trouble was that I didn't want to expose a car that was over 30 years old to road salt.

I didn't have very much money available. So I needed to get a car that was cheap and expendable, but practical enough to drive the 800 miles to Cleveland and somewhat fun to drive. Realistically, well, I wound up with three out of four. You can probably guess which one I missed.

A check of the Atlanta Journal turned up lots of cheap cars. I found a '89 Chrysler Lebaron, a red coupe with a 2.5 Turbo and manual transmission, advertised for $1,000. The car had no air conditioning and very bad salt corrosion - two things that would not go over well in Atlanta, but I wouldn't care so much about in Cleveland. Also, it was a Canadian car with metric gauges. I picked it up for $900 in cash.

The first problem occurred when I tried to title it. Seems the previous owner had not been paying his taxes on it, and they tried to hold up giving me a title because of that. Eventually they said they'd issue me the title and go after the previous owner later.

I'd noticed the low oil pressure light come on at the end of the drive home, but thought nothing of it. It seemed to run hot, so I flushed out the radiator and hoped that would fix it.

So, two weeks later, my father and I set out for Cleveland in my $900 K-car, with most of my posessions in the trunk and back seat, and a bicycle strapped on the trunk lid. It was about an hour and a half into the drive that I realized that I hadn't fixed the cooling problem at all. The temperature gauge headed for the red zone and stayed pegged. We were starting to smell the breadlike scent of antifreeze. And we were heading for the mountains - not exactly a good place to let the engine relax.

We nursed it along by running it at 45 on the hightway, often with the heater on to dump some of the engine heat into the passenger compartment. Not a fun way to travel in August. During one steep stretch of mountain, I had to pull over at a rest station and fill the radiator with water from a fountain using a McDonald's cup.

We decided to stop somewhere in Kentucky for the night, as I'd allowed two days for the journey. Did I mention we had no real plans for what to do if it broke, other than my father's motor club with free towing?

The stop in Kentucky was still somewhat interesting. We ate at a restaurant that had a sort of shrine to the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, which had happened in the areas nearby. We checked in to a local motel and called it a day.

The next day, as I was leaving the motel, I had to get the car over a sort of speed bump at the motel exit and discovered another problem with the car: The clutch was starting to go. I had to get the revs up a bit to get it moving, and when I let out the clutch, the engine just kept spinning and I started smelling clutch smoke.

Eventually, we limped it into Cleveland. My father caught a plane home, and I brought it over to the campus. There, I found that there was yet another problem: I couldn't get a permanent parking spot. It seems they have an official policy of trying to discourage students from having a car on campus, but their prime strategy for that was to create a shortage of parking spaces rather than making it easier to get around without a car. I did rent a space for a month, but when that pass expired, I just left it on the side of any road that didn't have a No Parking sign. I only collected one parking ticket for the whole year, but sometimes I had to walk a half-mile after finding a parking spot.

A few days after that, I swapped out the radiator in a parking lot. Cured that overheating problem - the old radiator had been turned into something crumbly and green by years of Canadian road salt. Wish I'd had the sense to do that before the trip; it took less than half an hour and maybe $150 or so. The overheating did some damage that eventually blew the head gasket, but that didn't happen until years later.

The only bright spot of the trip was that somehow, limping along at 45 mph in fifth with the engine running hot, I managed to coax a sustained 36 mpg out of it. Not bad for a car of that size.

I guess I learned a bit from this. The next time I bought a car for a three-figure price and drove it on a road trip of hundreds of miles... well, that's a story for later.

Next blogger in the chain is Jennifer Sando. If you are following the blog chain forward, this link will take you to the next post.

Thanks Matt; I've done my bit, too.
Can't wait to hear the next story!
It helps that you knew about cars. I know people who've tried the same thing and barely made it half way.

My wife's cousin married into the Hatfield family.
Yeah, my first car was like that, only it was cv boots. Er, I think. Replaced three along with two complete axles. Not all at the same time. :D
I would've blown the engine for sure just outside of Atlanta. No doubt. ;)

So which part of the restaurant did you sit, the Hatfield or McCoy side?
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