An unsellable car comes in many forms.
The three-door minivan. The stickshift attached to a non-sporty wagon. The Daewoo. The conversion van with design graphics rooted in sexual fantasy.
Then there is this car. A car designed in the Reagan era with a cheap plastic grille, an even cheaper plasticized interior, and a luggage rack on the trunk that would do Lee Iacocca proud.
God I love this thing. What the hell is wrong with me?
They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well that is true. But when you throw in a kindly old man with a love for old cars, it can get infectious.
This past weekend, I met this old fellow who wanted to get some witches brew to keep the transmission on his Cougar in shiftable shape.
“How many miles?”
“Oh, about 400,000 miles.”
“No, no, no… I take a lot of long trips. I like the seats and all I have to do is get it to 80 and let time take care of itself.”
Mark was about 80 years old and his life seemed to be the ultimate exercise in triumph in hardship. Five great kids, but not a lot of grandkids. A public pension, but not enough to handle the debts that came with esophageal cancer. A long marriage, and a recent death of a lifelong loved one. His Cougar had been the one enduring constant in his life for the last 17 years, and he wanted to keep it roadworthy for as long as possible.
“Hey, let me ask you?” He told me in a raspy voice that reminded me of the old boxing coach from Rocky, “Do any of these things work?”
A lot of you would assume that everything on the auto parts shelf related to improving a transmission is garbage, and over time, you’re right. There is no snake oil that can reverse the process of transmission wear.
But some of the solvents in these products (and many auto-trans and power steering additives) will soften and swell the seals to get the transmission’s internal seals to seal and hold proper pressure and shift properly.
At least for a while.
I told the guy, “Look, transmissions on these vehicles are as cheap to replace as a bad toupee. Here’s a site I use to find auto parts.”
I showed him the car-part.com site…. and it didn’t take. This guy was close to technology as we are to typewriters. So instead, I gave him three names and numbers to get a good used transmission. However, there was still a problem.
He didn’t have the money. Broke is broke, and at 80 years old, this guy simply didn’t have the means for those ends. I hate situations like this, but sometimes you just have to offer a temporary band-aid for a bleeding wound that will probably require further attention down the road.
“Let me buy this for you.” I pulled out some Trans-X. “If your mechanic tells you not to use it, then just return it.”
“No, no, no. I appreciate it. Really.” He gave me an aged smile and a pat just under my shoulder. “What you have already done is a mitzvah. Thank you…” and the rest of his words came out in a blur as I was too shocked to here a Yiddish word from an old man living in northwest Georgia.
I always like to kid about living somewhere between civilization and Deliverance. In truth, all my wife’s friends are smart. All my friends are experienced souls, and my old life was one that I ran away from in much the same way as those with tough childhoods and troubled pasts move in the search for a better life.
Still I missed a lot. That line of thought is for another day, but sometimes the search for a perfect life can lead to imperfect consequences.
Later that evening, I saw that dealer queen at the auction.
A swan song 1997 Mercury Cougar that would likely be the biggest creme puff of an old man’s car that I would see in the forseeable future. Five pictures rarely tell you the whole story.
After looking at the Carfax history (1 owner, no accidents, 12 service records) and the Autocheck (nothing weird with the title), I wrote the following on my Facebook page.
“Mr. Sajeev Mehta… I have just found the perfect car to compliment the Conti. 61,185 miles and yes, it is indeed an XR7.”
My timing was bad, and the car Sajeev bought was far, far worse. Thanks to a rare, almost incurable disorder known as, “The Lincoln Syndrome”, Sajeev had just decided to double his investment in one of the most heinous cars ever made in modern times. The 1994 Lincoln Continental. A car so bad that it needs two prestigious emblems to help you forget the fact that you got a gasket chewin’ 3.8 and a tranny slippin’ AXOD.
Then again, at $900 to buy, and a $900 double-down to bring everything back to day “fun” condition, it was too good of a buying experience for Sanjeev to pass up. Yes, his brother is a stakeholder as well in this hopeless pastime.
“There’s only one MN-12 for me baby, and I already got it.”
So the next day, I look at the Cougar. It’s a showpiece. Whoever owned it beforehand had it detailed at least twice a year and rarely took it out of the garage.
Someone would buy it.
I went to the sale that morning, and there was just a ton of weird stuff. A 2014 Chevy Impala Limited, old style, with about 13k miles that ended up selling for $14,200 plus the seller fee. A 2010 Dodge Challenger SE in Blue with some substandard add-ons that went for $15,800. An 04 Viper SRT convertible with 22k that had arbitrated for a bad differential at the prior sale. That one went for $36,100.
After the 8th Volkswagen and 13th minivan crossed the block, the Cougar was up for bid.
I made a fist and mouthed the word, “Fifteen” so that he would be in at $1500. I was betting that the other dealers would sit on their heels or try to lowball it at a thousand. Sometimes this tactic works. Other times, you’re in for a dogfight.
It didn’t work. Someone in the corner hit sixteen, a friend of mine went seventeen. I was hoping for the King’s Rule at this point where you look out for the other guy, and the other guy looks out for you. But with nearly a hundred dealers looking at one vehicle at a time, the market is too competitive and the King’s Rule doesn’t apply.
The auctioneer went back to me. A guy that I have known for 15 years and worked with back when I was on the auction staff at five different auctions. I was thinking about doing a big bump and flashing two fingers for a two thousand dollar bid. Then something happened.
In those few seconds, I was looking at a car that, to be frank, I truly didn’t want. I had already got rid of four unsellable cars the week before, and already had one brown minivan that I took on trade that wasn’t going to sell for a while. At $2k plus the $155 fee, I would be one major repair away from playing around with a car that had no profit in it. Ebay prices were already at play, and I would more than likely be stuck with what I call an “Almost” car. A car that everyone says they want on paper until they try to find the vehicle they truly love.
I didn’t bid. I walked. The surprise was that there were no more bidders, but even at $1855 ($1700 plus the seller fee), I was just out of love for a car that I never truly liked in the first place.
As I walked away, I realized something. Two guys had loved two Cougars. One had driven the car to it’s very limits of usefulness. While the other had kept it in a time warp and will hopefully pay it forward to another ‘keeper’ among the enthusiasts brethren.
The car world had a strange balance to it.
As for me, I now need to start shifting my own gears before I get stuck in my own version of a 17 year old Cougar. There is a squalidness that comes with shucking old and new metal. Somehow, I need to get away from buying one car at a time and applying myself towards developing a better mousetrap that will have a more enduring impact.
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