By on October 27, 2013

Photo courtesy of: Rustingmustangs.com

It was all their fault, you know. Regular oil changes and the occasional tune-up would have prevented all this, but that hadn’t happened. The end result was a lifetime plagued with trouble. Little things mostly, but eventually they added up. One thing always led to another and now the car sat at the side of the house, grass growing tall beneath its body while the air leaked slowly from its tires. Forgotten.

Seasons came and went. In the autumn, leaves collected on the old car’s once fine paint. Winter a brought thick coat of ice and dirty snow; the spring, pollen and bugs. In summer, it was dust, hornets and a mouse nest in the air cleaner. One year bled into the next. The result was not really death, but the purgatory of slow degradation. The waiting was interminable, endless. As the old car sagged lifelessly on its suspension, the good times forgotten, the soul that imbues all mechanical things slowly died and in its place something darker began to grow.

Decades had slipped away by the time the overweight, middle-aged man used the edge of his hand to wipe away grit on the window. He peered inside, smiled to himself as he noted the stick shift between the bucket seats, then leaned back and looked over the old car’s body. There was some rust, he noted, but he thought it was mostly surface stuff as he probed the rocker panels with his foot. It looked solid. He and the elderly woman who stood beside him exchanged a couple of words and the man showed her several bills. The old woman looked at the money and shrugged . The conversation continued for a few more minutes and more bills were added. Finally, the woman smiled and accepted the offer. After counting the money, she disappeared back into the house while the man waited, returning with a worn envelope. The transaction was completed and later that day the man returned with a rented trailer.

Back at the house, the new owner beamed with pride as he played a garden hose across the old car. The car was in rough mechanical shape, he knew, but the body was solid so he had a good starting point. He threw open the hood, the trunk, and all the doors, then went to work with his shop vac. There was an amazing amount of debris in the car: mouse droppings, the chewed remains of insulation, bits of flaked off paint, deteriorated rubber, long dead cigarette butts, all sorts of trash. He unbolted the seats, pulled up the rotted carpet and continued his work.

Minutes turned to hours as the fat man worked and sweat poured from his brow. At the end of the day the old car was much cleaner but the real issues had yet to be addressed. Happily, he closed the hood, trunk and doors and pushed it into his garage. The car brooded for a week, untouched, but the following Saturday the man returned again and resumed his work.

Week after week, he chipped away at the stone. He purchased an engine stand and rented a cherry picker to pull the engine. It was a struggle to remove the bolts from the rusted motor mounts and he bloodied his knuckles every time the wrench slipped, but he persevered. The entire process took longer than he could ever have imagined. It certainly didn’t look so hard when the guys on Spike TV did this kind of work. He kept after it and eventually what had once been the old car’s living beating heart was pulled from its body and affixed to the engine stand.

With a rebuild manual close by, the man began the work of disassembling the engine. He tore it down bit by bit, inspecting and cleaning each part before laying it out in careful order on the bench. The heads came off and were sent to a machine shop for inspection and rebuild. Later, when everything had been finally been stripped away, the block followed. Replacement parts and new gaskets arrived in sturdy brown cardboard boxes. The work continued, money flowed out of the man’s bank account at a prodigious rate, the boxes kept coming in.

With much of the running gear having been sent out for professional work beyond what he could do himself, the man contented himself with examining the brakes, suspension and all of the steering components. They were beyond repair. He consulted on-line forums and determined that he would replace the old stamped steel parts with the latest, high-tech components. He spent more money ordering larger brake rotors and calipers, as well as new brake lines, hoses, master cylinder — everything it would take to make the car stop like a modern ride — and set to work fitting the new parts to the underside of the car. He piled them, still in their boxes, at the side of the garage when they arrived.

Little by little he chipped away at the project. He pulled apart the old and damaged bits of the car and ordered new and shiny pieces to replace them. He was not the most skilled mechanic; perhaps if he had been he could have saved himself some time and money by refurbishing or repairing some of the parts he had to purchase. But he was dedicated. He worked on it relentlessly. It went from a rolling wreck, to that place every project must eventually go: that place where everything has been stripped away and the car it is a true basket case. From that point on the, things could only get better.

Photo courtesy of Cardomain.com

But it was there that the evil that had begun to possess the car while it had sat alone and unloved for so long began to reveal itself. As the project began to come together time and finances seemed to disappear. The fat man began to feel the strain of the project. The knowledge that his garage floor lay covered in so many parts and that there were so many different things to do all at once weighed heavily upon him. He realized that he had no idea how to proceed, but even so he tried to rationalize away his fears. He purchased more books on how to rebuild cars, sought advice from friends and family, and dreamed about the day the car would live again — but gradually a dark, cold foreboding began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

Unwilling to admit defeat, he struggled on for weeks. But as his account emptied itself, the old car demanded still more new parts. They were small bits and pieces mostly, those easily overlooked odds and ends that would ensure the larger pieces would fit together correctly, but they were essential nonetheless. Once in a while he needed to rent or buy a specialty tool and the money still flowed in dribs and drabs from his account. Each purchase was another small cut draining away yet another minuscule amount of the man’s financial health. Bad dreams came to him at night and he soon found that his chest tightened whenever he neared the garage. It wasn’t going to happen. There was no way he could do it. He had bitten off more than he could chew.

To make the old car work, he would need to spend more time and more money. But he knew he could spend no more. The car’s evil, that malevolent force that had crept into it while it had waited in that place between life and death, had brought its full force to bear. It killed the man’s enthusiasm and destroyed his desire. It imperiled his finances, toyed with his emotions, and strained the man’s relationship with his hitherto unmentioned wife. Its cycle was complete, its job done.

Know ye all that evil lurks in every project car. It awaits you in that piece of automotive history that you think about before you go to sleep at night, in that lost connection to your youth that you hope to one day reclaim and in that bit of rolling art that fills your heart with desire. Perhaps it lives, even now, in your own garage. If so, may God have mercy on your soul…

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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

21 Comments on “Sunday Stories’ Halloween Special: “Car of Evil” by Thomas Kreutzer...”


  • avatar
    Kenmore

    99% of examples I’ve seen taught me that “project” means:

    Predictable
    Results
    Of
    Jerks
    Endlessly
    Cobbling
    Technology

    And it certainly applies to more than cars.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    I’m currently being terrorized by a project in the basket case phase. But we do it because it’s a thrill. I 1st got into it because the cars I wanted were outside by budget. OK, I was dirt poor. Not full restos, but later models with blown engines or totaled out. Had a blast from the whole experience. Everyone should rebuild an engine and paint a car themselves, at least once. It’s not rocket science and I pulled it off with zero guidance or internet.

    • 0 avatar
      RayH

      “Everyone should rebuild an engine and paint a car themselves, at least once.”
      I agree, if only to be more compassionate toward people asking obviously way too much money for a restored or project car.
      I helped a friend for dozens of hours getting a 4 door Dodge Dart running and partially restored. He must’ve had over 500 hours into it and $6000 or more in parts installed or ready to be installed when he had to sell it.
      When he asked $7000 for a “90% restored” car, I certainly felt compassionate! From that point forward, I understood where those people were coming from. The $1500 he finally got for everything was sickening to him, to say the least.

      • 0 avatar
        DenverMike

        I tell people, “you really gotta want it”, because they will lose their A$$. At that point, it doesn’t matter, but even the pros are having a tough time breaking even. Too many “90% restored” out there. But if it’s your ultimate “dream car”, go for it.

        • 0 avatar
          noxioux

          Yeah, 90% beats my 25%. It’s amazing how fast the money can disappear.

          But it’s a labor of love, not financial gain. You do have to actually love the car, and want it pretty badly.

          My project’s going on several years. I may never finish it. But what the hell, it starts as many conversations up on the rotisserie as it ever did on the road.

  • avatar

    I don’t see how frequent oil changes and tune-ups do much to increase the real lifetimes of cars. Certainly, how they are driven and maintained otherwise has a great deal to do with it.

    I have torn down engines with 150,000 miles that were never tuned up and had synthetic oil and filters replaced every 10,000 or more and they were fine. The biggest problem that I see is consistently short trip driving with no chance to warm up the engine and stuck spark plugs. Otherwise, I think these are overrated concerns.

    I think that most of what we consider maintenance is overrated and much of what we seldom do is done enough even i the manuals call for them. Brake,ATF, and clutch fluids are generally not changed enough, for example, even by the same people who change their old every 3,000 miles. Just a thought related to your article.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Good point. An engine with poor maintenance will easily out last the car. But that’s usually not the case for a neglected radiator, master cylinder, power steering pump/rack and transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      TwoTone Loser

      Neglecting the fluids in the rear diff, transmission, power steering pump, even brake fluid, I would argue, has less impact on the vehicle health than some people think. Most people don’t think about those fluids though.

      But going too long on the oil is another matter. I have a ’91 Custom Cruiser in the driveway whose oil was religiously changed every 7500 miles(receipts), albeit with conventional oil, but the manual said that was okay if you were a schedule B user.

      Long story short, it looks like a charcoal grill exploded inside the motor. Not the gummy sludge, more like alien burned crust that makes you exhale sharply upon the removal of the valve cover.

      You never saw so much oil come out of a dipstick.

      It’s gonna be okay, but I have been working on it nightly for three weeks.

      MORAL: Choose a car with either a perfect body and a bad running gear,
      or a bad body and a good running gear. Not both.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Well written Thomas ;

    Al though my first few vehicles managed to make it from the field back to the road , along the way to becoming a Journeyman Mechanic a few succumbed and were sold off as unfinished projects full of boxes of parts .

    Sad but I hope the next owners saved them from the crusher .

    I even sanded and painted my ’46 Chevy 3100 pickup truck , that taught me I can fix many things but I’m no painter ! .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      Grundle

      I agree with you nate. Even getting it up and running imperfectly is pretty damn motivational. I did that with my Met when I got it. Ran like crap, nothing worked but brakes, barely. Didnt shit into 3rd, ect. But being able to roll around the block in it fueled me to tear in. Runs like a champ now, plus I am much more familiar with the components, so when I need to dig deeper to fix things Ill be more comfortable.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        With a bit of luck , I’ll get the front suspension parts in and assembled in time to attend the upcoming Carrera California through Borrego Springs .

        Hopefully the front end rebuild will preclude any more broken wheels .

        -Nate

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    At least if you buy a basket case it is obvious that you are in for a lot of work. I bought a car that is complete, has shiny paint, a nice interior, and ran well enough to drive 350 miles home with no issues. Even got a decent report from a local shop. But the more I dug in, the more deferred maintenance I found (and the car had obviously seen very little use in a very long time), and the costs have mounted up nicely. “Porsche tax” – believe in it! And the tax rate is higher on the water-cooled cars than the air-cooled ones. Just a new radiator, hoses and waterpump have been well over a grand. Sigh.

    It will be nice when it is done. I may be done first though.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Hold the phone here.. while there is evil in projects, that evil gets a whole lot of help from stupidity. So many hopefuls see something on the picture-box and think they can do it too. Sorry, you can’t buy a rusted out Hemi Cuda for 10 grand (in pieces no less) and think you will be out driving it in three months on a shoestring budget. Or the myriad of guys that will take nice, old classic bikes and chop them up trying to cafe-ize them.. then sell them in pieces on Craigslist. That one really grates me.

    I too, had big dreams about owning a classic car but knew the outlay would be high and the return on money spent next to nothing. That is why I chose the lesser of known evils (at the time) and went with a gently used and mostly rust free four door Chrysler.. Oh well, it is not a Mustang/Camaro/Challenger or other Mecum darling but it is bullet proof reliable and cost very little to get on the road and enjoy.

  • avatar

    Hey Thomas! Just so you know, I haven’t been commenting much as of late and I’ve only been skimming through the articles that call my attention, but your name on the by line always makes me stop and read.

    This is one of your most wonderful pieces yet. I enjoyed it immensely. Kudos for resisting the temptation of going off on some flight of wild fantasy. That could’ve been good too, but the restraint shown here speaks volumes of your story-telling ability and, to be honest, of your growth as a writer.

    Loved it. Thanks.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the kind words, Marcelo. I dashed this off Saturday morning while the kids were at their Japanese tutor’s. I didn’t really exercise constraint, I just wanted to do something silly that was quick and easy to read. It’s not prefect, as I go back through it I cans ee stuff that is repetetive or could use changes, but the whole idea was to just throw it up and let it stand this time.

      At the very least, I’m glad people are having some fun with it.

  • avatar
    luvmyv8

    What’s scary is this could be me…. really any of us.

    Last summer I was extremely tempted by a ’78 Datsun 280Z that appeared at a towing place near my apartment. It was at night and I saw this tangerine orange Z. I pulled over and took a look, it looked pretty good, intact. Stick shift and for sure a later one, it had the gigantic ram bar bumpers and hood vents, I already knew a L28E would reside under the hood.

    I came back to it the next day in the afternoon to better observe it. it hadn’t been registered since ’94, the passenger side interior door trim was gone, the tires were flat and dry rotted and there was a bit of rust in the quarter panels and on the rear hatch door (yes cars do rust in California- it is an older Z car after all) not bad enough to be a real problem, but it would have to be dealt with at some point.

    I left a note with my contact info, but as luck would have it; it rained later that night. Probably was an omen. So it was for 2 weeks driving by this Z. One day I caught the garage open and I asked about it, they weren’t sure if it ran; they thought it was the fuel pump, needed brakes all round, no battery…. and they wanted $1700.00 for it. I walked away and the car later appeared on Craigslist for the price I was quoted and it was sold not too long after. I would have jumped at $500-$800 for it being a car that they weren’t sure ran. I wanted it to be a commuter for my new job (that I didn’t have then, but do now) so I could save miles on my 4Runner, plus I love vintage Z cars, I want to build the Wangan Midnight ‘Devil Z’. This would have been the wrong Z though. Hopefully the orange one found a home. It would have been a great project starting point for someone.

    Also too, I do have a project car waiting in the wings; I inherited my dad’s ’72 Corvette. It’s been sitting since ’79 with a damaged 350. However I wont touch it until I’m ready and financially able to. Though complete and unmolested, sitting 30 years will not have done it much favors.

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    yeah, this hits close to home for me as well. IMO, the guy should have at least tried to start the (at the time complete) car and get it running, instead of dragging it home and tearing it apart.

    engine rebuild? its always cheaper to get a rebuilt engine, in time and money, or a clean junkyard engine. unless he was going for matching numbers.

    taking something apart you know nothing about, to do a “full” restoration is never a good idea.

    in my case, it was a 72 vespa 125, after many years of owning japanese scooters. it was $50, mostly complete but not running and the first thing i did was rip it apart.

    if i was smart, i would have bought a new battery, changed the fluids/plug/filter/cleaned gas tank and tried to get it to run first.

    but i ripped it apart, spent about $500 on new parts, put it together “90%” over a few years, realized some parts were way too expensive or not available, and it STILL didnt run right- kept popping out of gear!

    when i got the condo, i sold it to a guy on ebay in texas for $500, for a loss of $50 or so, and invaluable education about 2 stroke vespa scooters.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve learned similar lessons over the years. What you are saying is exactly right. I’ve had a lot more luck getting things running and then tackling the little problems one at a time. It takes a lot of planning, experience and skill (I have none of those) to take something all the way down and bring it back up again.

  • avatar
    mkirk

    I think everyone should do an old truck as a first project. The simplicity of the interiors go a long way towards making things simple. My 68 cougar project died at the interior. My next project was a rough 90 Miata and it went well since the Cougar taught me what not to do. I would add to look at it not as a single project but a series of smaller projects and to order stuff as needed. I bought a garage of parts for the cougar and by the time I got around to using them there were better and cheaper parts I could have gone with. Plus that wall of parts was there, taunting me every time I went in the garage. I still find random bits and it has been gone for nearly a decade.

  • avatar
    CougarXR7

    Every time my elderly mom and dad hijack my weekends and vacation days for one of their crazy home and garden projects, I have nightmare visions of what Thomas wrote above.

    Being the only child of aging parents can cause serious problems for a hardcore gearhead. My ’68 Cougar and my ’85 300ZX Turbo both paid the price. The Z was traded in on an ’01 Crown Vic from a dealer, and this past summer, I finally had to cut my losses and sell the Cougar- after NINE YEARS of disruption.

    I love my folks, and I’m glad they’re still around, but their heavy reliance on me has fubared every single car project I’ve ever had my entire life. I just hope they don’t give me a heart attack or drive me to alcoholism one day :( .

  • avatar
    hands of lunchmeat

    I spent time being one of ” the pros” I suppose you could say. And whenever someone would invariably ask why a project would cost so much, I’d usually reply “plan on spending a thousand dollars on bolts”. Superlative yes, but when you buy a crate motor it doesn’t come with motor mounts, that fancy new trans needs a release bearing and slave cylinder, and nothing ever fits coming out of the box.

    The look of defeat when guys would show up a year or two later with their ‘car in a box’ either to attempt to sell, or see if I was still interested in taking on their project was just proof that everyone wants to write the book, but no one ever wants to read it.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • TimK: “There’s only one planet earth and 8 billion people better learn to share.” So to prove your sincerity for this...
  • TimK: @Greg H: “Shortages of goods only happen in capitalist countries. In communist countries, there is never a...
  • Socrates77: The world is shrinking, only idiots think the capitalism is the way to go. Tge time for competition has...
  • manu06: I’ve downloaded an app called Radio Garden. It accesses thousands of radio stations around the world with a...
  • Carlson Fan: “GM had an airbag system to cover all 3 front passengers going back to the last of the Fleetwood...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber