For most of us, that first car is a shitty car. It’s the best car you can afford at the time and, at the time, the best is usually pretty shitty. Back when Dr. Wife was Dr. Girlfriend, she spent a summer working and saving money to buy the best damn shitty car she could find. Because she had family in Oregon and because Oregon doesn’t have sales tax, she decided that the best damn shitty car she could afford, the mythical “great deal on an awesome ride,” was waiting for her half a day’s drive North.
Thus began a weird, terrifying, trip down an automotive wormhole. The spiral into hell began innocently enough, as most hell-spirals do. We made a plan to fly up to Bend Oregon, buy a car and drive it home over the course of a few days. We planned to camp a little and take it easy. I imagined a pleasant week cruising down the coast in some kind of used 80’s Japanese four door. Nothing special, but reliable. That is not what happened.
We were met at the airport by Dr. Wife’s uncle, who “knows a lot about cars” and was supposed to help us crazy teenagers make good decisions. He brought along the Sunday paper classified ads (That’s what we used to call Craigslist for all you kids out there!). She had just over two grand in the bank to blow and, despite it being the most money we would have in the bank…ever, that narrowed our selection immensely. After pouring over the paper we pared the list down to a couple high mileage Hondas and Toyotas, but nothing that really did for Dr. Wife. Then she saw it:”White 1970 Porsche 914, Runs great! Must See $2000.” They left out “evil, wretched, money pit.”
We asked her uncle what he thought. He scratched his head and shrugged. “Well, it’s one of those poor man Porsches…Which might be a good thing because it’s got a VW bus engine in it, so it should be easy to work on.”
I now understand that “easy to work on” is a term that appeals to someone who likes to work on cars and has the skills to do so. As opposed to people who just want to drive them places without waiting in abject fear for the next “project.” When someone tells you a car is “easy to work on,” it means you’re going to have to work on it. A LOT. And the only saving grace is that it’s not quite as difficult as working on a jet engine. These people are usually mechanics and see car trouble as a fun challenge, rather than an insurmountable pile of suffering and burnt cash. Do not listen to these people.
As Dr Wife looked the car over, you could almost see the little cartoon hearts popping over her head. It was a cute car, and she looked a helluva lot better in the little white Porsche than in the powder blue Civic we test drove earlier. Also, the car she used to drive was a her grandmother’s Burgundy 1970 Cutlass Supreme with a vinyl roof. The Porsche would have had to burst into flames to not be sold at this point. If only it had.
The weird guy selling the car pointed out some custom work, such as fitting “Dual Weber” carburetors! He said it with enthusiasm and we nodded blankly. He even showed me how to balance them using this weird gauge. He didn’t mention that balancing would be something the car required constantly. He also pointed out the “bitchin’ stereo, man!” It was indeed bitchin’. He made sure to tell us that since it had a VW engine it was “rock solid and easy to work on should anything go wrong ever.” Dr. Wife’s uncle nodded in agreement. The car giggled to itself.
There were so many red flags we all blissfully ignored. The uncle, who should have said, “you don’t walk away from cheap sports cars…you run,” turned out to be as sucked in by the car’s voodoo spell as the teenagers he was chaperoning. The first flag was when we asked, “So why are you selling it?” and the guy replied “Oh, we’re moving to Mexico.” Translation: I’m going somewhere far away after I get this nightmarish thing out of my life, and I don’t want you to think you, or this goddamned car, can ever find me again. Another red flag was a nifty custom feature where you could start the car by sticking your finder in the ignition and turning it. That’s right, your finger. The lock was missing, mysteriously, but the guy still had the lock tumbler which you could slip in after you parked to make people think they needed a key. Not fishy at all. Totally reasonable.
Dr. Wife was just learning to drive stick, so I test drove it. This might have been another mistake. It was small, fast, and cornered like it was on rails. I was 18. Bitchin’ stereo. Sold. This was no doubt the car using its powers for evil to ensnare another owner. The guy selling seemed unusually sweaty. He wiped his brow and avoided eye contact with the car.
We went to the bank to pull out the cash to pay the guy. Apparently they don’t “make it rain” much around those parts, because the bank ran out of $100 dollar bills after the first $500, so we got the rest in twenties. We went back and counted out stacks of cash on a chair covered by a Tijuana hoodie with Tweetie Bird on it (the last red flag the universe would give us before she threw up her hands and let us have the damned thing). With all the stacks of cash it looked like the kind of deal normally settled on a Tweetie Bird drug rug. The uncle actually remarked about this which made us laugh, and made the guy selling it suddenly more nervous.
We drove the little car back to the uncle’s cabin, packed up our stuff in the Porsche and began the drive south. Then began the shenanigans. The very next morning we lost first gear… in the mountains. I mean, I’m pretty sure it was all still in there somewhere, but it was no longer available to turn the wheels. We stopped at a place that worked on VW’s to ask about the transmission being quickly and easily repaired. Because it was a VW engine. And they’re easy to work on. The guys laughed at us. When we tried to pull away from the shop, the starter vapor locked. More laughing, but at least they gave us a push so we could pop the clutch. They were doubled over slapping their knees as we limped off.
We soldiered on, sure that nothing else could go wrong but also knowing we were a long way from home. As we were rolling into Ashland Oregon, the car pulled another little gem out of its bag of tricks. Traffic began to build ahead of us, I pushed on the brake pedal and it went to the floor.
“Oh shit,” I said.
“What????” gasped Dr. Wife.
“No brakes!” I yelped.
There was a lot of shrieking then, but Dr. Girlfriend put up with it and remained calm.
I frantically down shifted and managed to turn onto a street with an incline then coasted uphill and curbed the tires to stop it (Actually, not a bad piece of driving if I do say so myself). As I got out, I could see one of the brake discs glowing and smelled horrible burning. It was our sexy-fun-camping adventure going up in smoke, that’s what I smelled. Apparently another feature of the 1970 914 was that the parking brake handle folds down out of the way so you can shovel a full sized human into the tiny cockpit. Normal cars put this lever in between the seats so no one would have to climb over it. Ever. This folding lever gives the impression that the brake has been released when, in fact, it is still very much killing your car. Tip o the hat to whomever designed that one, and where the hell was Nader?
The rest of the drive home was uneventful…once the brakes had cooled enough and we decided to risk our lives and the lives of those around us on the pass into California. The car, however, was just getting warmed up and didn’t want to use up all her tricks on the first drive. To this day, the mere mention of the words “Dual-Weber carburetors” sends chills down my spine.
To be continued…