At the back of the car lot was death row. It was there where the real “one foot in the grave” cars were lined up, where desperate men with cold hard eyes gave the deadbeats serious looks, weighing the options while nodding gravely to themselves. Whether I wanted to be or not, I was just such a man.
Poverty and I went way back. Thanks to my mother’s generosity I hadn’t been homeless during our first brush, but I knew well the psychological toll that the inability to support oneself takes on a man. To end that extended period of unemployment, I had rolled the dice and taken a dead-end job teaching English in Japan and now, after two and a half years, I had come home with money in my pocket. But without a steady job and with no prospects on the horizon, I felt poverty’s familiar presence close at hand, and the old feelings of inadequacy had returned with shocking intensity.
As sure as if we had shared a secret handshake, the man who emerged from the ancient travel trailer that served as the car lot’s office, recognized my situation at first sight. Despite all the stories that swirl around salesmen at this type of small independent lots, the man seemed sincere in his desire to help and he knew his inventory well. As we walked through the lot, he spoke about how this or that car had found its way there, hinting that some cars might be better than others but holding out little hope of any diamonds in the rough.
At the back of the lot, I took a quick look at the lowest of the low. I was just about to leave when I saw it. Wedged in sideways behind the last row of cars, up against the unpainted plank fence that marked the edge of the property, I caught a glimpse of a triangular rear quarter window and a once expensive aluminum wheel. Always a lover of cars, I recognized it at once, a mid-80s Nissan 200SX. “What about the little Nissan?” I asked.
“That one.” answered the man rolling his eyes, “That one was a mistake. I took it in trade to help some people. It runs bad, the alternator is out and I think it needs a turbo.” He paused while I craned my neck to see. “I won’t make any money on it if I pay to fix it and I can’t sell it on the main lot the way it is. If you’re interested, I’d sell it as a mechanic’s special for $500 but I’m telling you it needs a lot of work. Don’t get mad and throw a brick through my window if you buy it and can‘t fix it.”
I needed a closer look. Together, the salesman and I pushed the car out from the shadow of the fence and into the harsh light of the mid-August sun. It was filthy and its grey paint was well oxidized, but the car’s sides were still dent free and its lines were still razor sharp. With the help of a battery box we started the car and I climbed inside to cycle through the readings on the digital dash board. The oil pressure was good and, after the engine warmed, the temperature gauge stayed solidly in the green. True to the man’s word, however, the volt meter showed no bars at all.
I climbed out and gave the car a long, hard look. The car met my gaze with a whirring turbo and an uneven idle, but it seemed somehow unapologetic for the fast life it had led. Thinking hard, I walked behind the car to check the tailpipe for smoke and, as I did so, caught a glimpse of my serious, scowling face reflected in the rear glass. The sight stopped me cold. How many times had I seen a hiring manager wear that same expression before rejecting my application out of hand? Unpleasant memories and repeated disappointment welled up inside me and flashed into anger. It wasn’t right. Not long before, everything had been so promising but it had all come undone so quickly. I looked at the Nissan and realized the same could be said for it. We were the same. We didn’t deserve to be here. My emotions got the better of me and, without further thought, I turned to the salesman and struck the deal.
After swapping the dead battery for a fully charged one, I drove off the lot in fits and starts. On my way out of town I stopped for oil, filters and tune-up supplies and then limped the six miles home to the sounds of occasional backfires and the shrill whine of the turbocharger, its pitch rising and falling as I worked the accelerator.
Once home, I raised the hood and made a long, close examination of the engine bay. Years of neglect were evident but at the very least everything was still there, Moreover, nothing had been modified. Filth was everywhere, with one exception – the alternator was obviously new. I ran my hands over the part checking for trouble and soon found it, a broken wire connector. It took less than ten seconds work with a crimping tool to fix and upon starting the car I was greeted by a stack of green digital bars on the volt meter where previously there had been none. Score one for us.
Clearly, the car’s prior owner had a problem with wires, I thought as I listened to the engine‘s lumpy idle. Back under the hood I took a quick look at the spark plug wires and found that they, like the alternator, were not so old. I researched the firing order and, sure enough, two of the four cylinder’s eight plug wires were switched. The repair was simple and the engine sprang to life and idled smoothly when I turned the key. Confident I was in the right track, I completed my tune-up and ended by changing the oil and filters.
With the mechanical work completed, a test drive was in order and on the street, the difference was immediately apparent. With the misfire corrected and fresh oil coursing through it, the engine ran smooth and strong as I accelerated through the gears. The oil change also helped to quiet the turbocharger. Boost was clearly evident as it kicked in at higher RPMs. I relished the feeling, and my test drive stretched into an hour long back road blast. Together, we had turned a corner.
Later, back at home, I washed the exterior and worked on the paint with an old can of TR-3 I found in the garage. I didn’t get the dramatic results Mr. T did in the commercial, but when I was done the car did look better. I finished up by shampooing the carpets, cleaning the glass and fitting some inexpensive seat covers to make the cabin a more pleasant place to be.
The completed project was not a show winner, but neither was it the near total write-off that the salesman had thought. My modest efforts were rewarded by a fast, eager little car with great handling and from the day I brought the little Nissan home, my life began to improve. A week later, I landed a job in a local warehouse and began to slowly beat back the specter of poverty. I was still driving the little car when, a few months later, I landed my dream job and was called away to a new life on the East Coast. Sadly, I was forced to leave it behind.
I know that cars are only tools, but in our short time together the little Nissan was my faithful companion on a thousand speedy adventures. Our spirits had nourished one another. When the car had a problem, I repaired it. When I had the blues, the car banished them with its boundless energy and enthusiasm. It was a relationship unlike any other I have ever had with a car and together, we were more than the sum of our parts. If machines have souls, then surely we will meet again.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.