Austin America

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Oft-rode vehicles

Back in the summer of ’05, I put up a post that ran down a list of all the cars I’ve owned. Since then I’ve added one more car to that list. Since it’s giving me trouble lately I thought I’d copy over and update the original vehicular C.V. and add a few more words of woe. Here goes…

On my 58th birthday, I find myself thinking, for no reason other than sleeplessness (it’s 12:30am), about all the cars I’ve owned. In rough order, the are:

  1. Black 1963 Volkswagen ragtop beetle. Rolled it in the Summer of ’66, when I was turning 19. That one had a 1200cc engine. A friend had a new ’66 with a 1300cc engine, and we were out doing time trials to see the difference. Mine lost, of course, but I didn’t roll it while racing, or anything close. Instead it was when we were just driving around the North Carolina countryside. Right after I realized that I couldn’t keep up with my buddy’s car, I slowed down, closed the cloth (actually, vinyl) sunroof, and entered a curve that bent right where a dirt road came in from the left. Gravel had migrated onto the pavement, and when the car hit the curve, the rear end spun out. As Consumer Reports said of the car (as best I recall), “slight understeer changes abruptly and unexpectedly to unstable oversteer, to the limits of tire adhesion.” The pavement came up to my window and disappeared overhead three times before the car came to a rest, right side up, I was a bit banged up, but okay. Oddly, both shoes were next to each other on the road, also right side up, also facing the forward direction, looking like I had just stepped out of them — about 80 feet behind where the car had come to rest.
  2. Black 1961 English Ford Consul II sedan. Piece of crap. Leaked oil from everywhere.
  3. Midnight blue 1958 Mercedes 220S sedan. Fast and solid. Had seats that reclined to make the whole interior a bed. Had a bizarre “Hydrack” transmission: four on the column, no clutch on the floor. Sold it after the Hydrack died.
  4. Blue 1963 Chevy Bel-Air 4-door sedan. 283 V8. Automatic. Great car. Sold it when the transmission began failing.
  5. Yellow 1966 Volvo 122s sedan. Straight 4. Stick. Solid car. Sold it because I needed a wagon.
  6. Dark green 1966 Peugeot 404 wagon. Stick. Would hold anything. Had screw-on hubcaps, among other design oddities. Rusted to death.
  7. Snot-green 1969 Chevy Biscayne sedan. 287 V8. Automatic. Looked like an unmarked cop car. Drove it into the ground. It was this Chevy, more than any other car I’ve owned, that made me a shadetree mechanic of GM V8 cars.
  8. White 1970 Austin America, with a black stripe down its middle. Belonged to my sister, then my father, then me, then my father. Brilliant design, front wheel drive, transverse 4-cylinder engine, manual-automatic transmission, quirky and way ahead of its time.
  9. White 1970 Pontiac Catalina sedan. 327 V8. 4 door. Automatic. Leaked water into the trunk. Failed often without reason. Real beast of a car.
  10. Dark red 1974 Datsun pickup. Straight 4. Stick. Father’s car. Had use of it for a year or so. Seat was so bouncy your head hit the roof. Had two sets of points in the distributor: a vintage Datsun “feature.”
  11. Sky blue 1974 Ford Pinto wagon. Straight 4 that was flat on one side and looked like half an engine. Stick. Piece of shit. Moved kind of crabwise, due to an earlier accident, before I got the car.
  12. Blue 1980 Chevy Citation fastback. V6. Automatic. Bought it from my aunt after her stroke. Like the Pinto, but more comfortable.
  13. Sky blue 1970-something Volkswagen squareback. Had to crawl under the back of it with a hammer to hit the starter. Parked on hills so I could start it by rolling a ways and then popping the clutch. Was found burned to the metal on a side road a few months after I sold it.
  14. Blue 1978 Honda Accord fastback. Straight four. One of the first “good” Hondas. Though this one wasn’t, turned out. Bought it from a dishonest mechanic, which I didn’t find out unti the engine failed after I sold it. The new owner came after me, however. I was then in California and they were in North Carolina. We settled, but both felt burned.
  15. Dark red 1985 Toyota Camry. Straight 4. Stick. First and only new car I ever bought. Also the best, by far. Towed everything I owned in a U-Haul to California in August ’85. All but failproof. Eventually gave it to my daughter, who finished driving it to past 300,000 miles, I think. Only car I ever had where the AC actually worked.
  16. Sand-colored 1992 Infiniti Q45a. Wife’s car. Got it almost new in 1994. Best-performing, most enjoyable car I’ve ever driven. More about it here.
  17. Dark red 1988 Subaru wagon. Transverse 4. Stick. Front wheel drive that goes to 4WD, which requires four tires of identical circumference, so it has never worked quite right. Bought it from Buck Krawczyk in ’94. Handy for hauling stuff. I beat the crap out of it, but it won’t die. If I need a nice car I rent one or drive my wife’s 1995 Infiniti Q45a, which is a good car but not the equal of her 1992 Q45a, which it replaced and I still miss.
  18. Black 2000 Volkswagen Passat wagon. 1.8 Turbo engine. Tiptronic automatic transmission. Comfortable. Outstanding handling. Great for hauling stuff around, too. Got this in 2006, I think. Bought it from a friend who was leaving the country. Cost me $5k. Had 111,000 miles on it, and needed a bit of work. I put about $3k into it before taking it across the country to Boston in September 2007. Since then It has had about another $10k of work.

Anyway, the Passat lately has not been turning off when I take the key out. The engine keeps running. Weird. For that I had the ignition switch replaced. That helped for less than a day. Meanwhile it often thinks I’m breaking into it when I’m not, going into honking no-start mode.

I’ll be leaving it with the mechanic while I head to Atlanta next week. Hope they can figure it out.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a car that was so completely well-made and trouble-prone. My old ’85 Camry was a thin-metal plastic-filled thing, and all but failproof. This Passat has great fit & finish, it’s tight mechanically, and drives like new. But man, it costs a pile to run.

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Reading through the comments to Loose Linkage, where I pionted to Jalopnik’s What’s the oldest car you’ve ever owned, I got to wondering if I could remember every car I ever owned, and what happened to it. Here’s a try:

  1. 1963 Volkswagen Beetle. Black. 1200cc engine. Belonged to my parents. Rolled it during summer school after my freshman year in college. In fact, it rolled over three times before coming to rest right-side up. I remember trying to hold onto the bottom of the seat, watching the pavement come up to the window and disappear overhead, over and over again. I was fine, but the bug was totaled. Still, it brought $425 at auction from a guy who cut it in two and attached the front end of it to the back of another one. New it was $1250 or so.
  2. 1960 English Ford Consul. Black. Leaked oil from everywhere. Bought it for $400, sold it for almost nothing, which is what it was worth. The low point came when it croaked in Hickory, NC, where it limped after the alternator belt blew up on the Blue Ridge and where no replacement could be found, so we had to hitch back to Greensboro. In the rain. As I recall no belts could be found to fit around the alternator pulley, and for awhile we used some nylon hose tied into a loop.
  3. 1958 Mercedes 220S. Midnight blue. Bought it for $250, needed new upholstery, which I put in. Had a “hydrax” semi-automatic transmission. 4-on-the-column, no clutch. The couchlike seats reclined all the way, making the interior into a double bed. This made it a very romantic car. Alas, the transmission went bad, and I sold it for $75.
  4. 1963 Chevy Bel Air. 283 V8. Rochester carb. My parent’s old car, and the first new car they had ever bought. Drove it to 125,000 miles, when the transmission started to go. Sold it.
  5. 1966 Pugeot 404 wagon. Bought for $500. Had dents in all four doors, and lots of stupid “features” such as screw-on hubcaps and spark plugs hidden down inside the valve cover at the far ends of bakelite sleeves that would break. Got rid of it after driving it from New Jersey to North Carolina, in the middle of which a resonator can on the exhaust manifold blew off; and, in an unrelated matter, large hunks of the floor between the front seat and the pedals fell out, so I could see the pavement under my feet, hear the engine noise bypass the exhaust system, and breathe the exhaust, all at once — for another 400 miserable miles.
  6. 1966 Volvo 122S. Bought it from my parents, who bought it new in Belgium . Great car, very solid. Ran out of oil once, however, and damaged the engine. Sold it with 110K miles on it to a guy who replaced the engine.
  7. 1967 (?) Austin America. Belonged originally to my sister. Loaned from my father, who later sold it for almost nothing, which is what it was worth. An early front-wheel drive, it had lots of good ideas but terrible construction. I think Pop sold it for $10.
  8. 1971 (?) Datsun pickup. My father’s, actually. But I drove it for awhile. It had two sets of points in the distributor. Very confusing. Mastering those helped me later when I had a girlfriend with a Datsun 610 wagon.
  9. 1969 Chevy Biscayne. Snot green. Black vinyl seats. Looked like an unmarked cop car. Developed leaks in the roof. Turning on the heat would steam up the windows. Don’t remember how I got rid of it.
  10. 1978 Volkswagen Squareback. Bought it from a buddy for $200, sold it for $225. Something like that. My buddy and I fixed it more often than we would have, had not beers been involved in prior fixes. A few months after I sold it, cops showed up at my door to tell me I needed to get its corpse out of the woods, where somebody had set it on fire. Still had my plates on it. Fortunately, I had the paperwork for the sale. No idea what happened after that.
  11. 1969 Pontiac Catalina. “Big White.” Bought if from my uncle. The trunk would fill with water in the rain, making it useless for carrying stuff in there. Not sure what happened to that one, either.
  12. 1980 Chevy Citation. The famous “X car”, created to compete with Chrysler’s equally bad “K car”. It had front wheel drive, which was new in those days, and a roomy sloping hatchback. But it was crap and didn’t last long. Gave it up in a divorce, in trade for my ex’s old Pinto.
  13. 1974 Ford Pinto wagon. One of the worst cars ever made. This one had been in an accident at some point in the long prehistory before I came into possession of it, and the frame was bent, so it moved crabwise down the road. Every once in awhile it would start to veer wildly out of control, even on the straightaway. It did this once on the boulevard between Chapel Hill and Durham, hooking bumpers with another car, sending them both spinning. Fortunately, the Pinto’s bumper bent completely while the other hardly had a dent, which was both strange and amazing. The lady driving the other car wanted money anyway, and I paid. At some point the car just died, as best I recall.
  14. 1979 Honda Accord hatchback. Very nice, smooth-running car that went completely dead on a winding coastal road in the black of night, and then produced light in the form of a flame coming up from between my legs. I slowed to a stop as quickly as I could while feeling the shoulder of the road like I was reading braille through my right tires. When I fished a flashlight out of the glove box and got out of the car I found the car had come to rest exactly one foot from a parked car in front of it. A look under the dash revealed a hot lead (from the + side of the electric system) to Everything had been cut at some point in the past, spliced poorly and wrapped in gooey old black electric tape. As the splice came undone, electricity passed through an ever-narrower path until it turned into an incendiary thread, set fire to the tape and then fell apart. So it was easily fixed. But the car, in a very un-Honda-like way, was cursed with problems. I sold it to a young woman for whom it performed fine until the engine blew up. She contacted the mechanic who sold it to me in the first place, found that he had misrepresented the car (saying the engine was original, for example, when it wasn’t), and then sued me rather than him, because I had sold her the car. It was a small claims case in North Carolina. I was by then living in California. So I settled. By then, fortunately, I had bought my…
  15. 1985 Toyota Camry. Basic model with a stick. My first new car, and the first that had working air conditioning. Best car I ever had. Gave it to my daughter when I got the Subaru in the early 90s. I think it went way past 300,000 miles. It may still be working, somewhere in Santa Cruz, which is where she gave it away.
  16. 1986(?) Subaru 4Wd wagon. Tried to drive it into the ground but failed and gave it to a friend earlier this year. It’s still going.
  17. 2000 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Bought for $5k from a friend who was moving out of the country. Put another $3k into it, to bring it up to top shape. Wish it was a stick, but otherwise it’s a great little car. [Summer 2009 update: I have since put another $10k into it. I've never known a better-made yet more repair-intenstive car.]

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few, but that’s an outline for countless stories.

[Later...] Fun comments below. By far the most entertaining (or frightening, or both) pointage out goes to the Head Lemur’s list. Wow. Reminds me of Hot Rod Lincoln, one of the Great Gassed Insanity Songs. Those linked lyrics, by the way, are from the Commander Cody version. The Commander gives the definitive performance of the piece (I just went through the karaoke exercise supported by the audio at that last link, and The Kid said he was glad “nobody was here” to hear it), although full props go to George Wilson for writing (and living) the original.

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