Cars We Loved That Haven't Loved Us Back
The editors of Popular Mechanics talk about vehicles they once loved and gave them nothing but headaches.
The auto writers and editors at PM have driven enough cars to know good from bad. But all car geeks have found themselves at some point pouring too much time and effort into a money pit. Here's the awful truth about the clunkers, problem children and restorations gone wrong that drove our auto experts crazy. But don't think these tales mean we have major regrets about these stupid buys. After all, car writers need material!
1964 Jeep J200 Gladiator
Owner: Ben Stewart
I've owned 11 cars (not counting a crappy '72 Econoline van that had no engine when I bought it for $200 and had no engine a year later when I sold it for $200). All of them have been pretty reliable, and as a bonus, none have tried to kill me.
Except for number 11.
I bought a '64 Jeep J200 Gladiator from someone in New Jersey in 2008. He was three-quarters of the way through the restoration when he ran out of dough, so I got it at a reasonable price. It drove pretty well for having drum brakes and no power steering. But this guy installed a four-inch lift kit from some company I've never heard of, and I think he forgot to tighten all the nuts holding the U-bolts to the axle (and maybe missed a few more bolts I never found).
I was proudly driving my new truck home after an easy visit to the DMV when I crossed over a really rough patch of pavement with a few good potholes. Well, those potholes were enough to throw that Jeep into the dreaded death wobble. I worked at Four Wheeler magazine in the '90s and never experienced death wobble in my 4x4s, or in anyone else's. But I had heard the stories, and they were right: It feels like a giant's hand is vigorously and rhythmically shaking the top of the cab as you're driving. The truck shook so hard before I could slow it down that the distributor cap popped off the engine.
Yes, I still own the J200. Today, with all the bolts tightened and a steering stabilizer shock installed on the front end, the death wobble is long gone. But every time I drive that truck and hit any kind of bump, my teeth clench, and I wonder if it's going to try to kill me again.
1960 VW Beetle
Owner: Michael Frank
I'd wanted a 21-window T1 bus to drive around when I was in college, and even found one in Seattle, when I was home for the summer. But the aging hippie owner couldn't let go of this part of his lost youth and, even when I held the $1500 in cash under his nose, he begged off.
I should've suspected something when the guy I was haggling with left it running the whole time. As soon as I got the Beetle home it wouldn't restart, and I spent the next two months rebuilding the entire fuel system. Only I diagnosed the problems in the wrong order. So I started with the carburetor and worked my way backwards, to the gas tank. Then I moved on to the clutch, the leaking window gaskets, the headliner, the brakes... Every dime I earned in two summer jobs went into that heap, and every spare moment not working for minimum wage, I had grease under my nails and was cursing like a sailor in my parent's garage.
Then it was August and I was ready to drive back to college. I got 50 miles out of town when the Beetle died. The fuel filter was overwhelmed with leftover dreck from the rusty gas tank and some of that detritus had killed the brand-new carburetor too. I had no time to fix all that before classes started, so the VW sat on my parents' lawn for nine months while I was away.
The following summer I finally had the Beetle running beautifully, but I was so fed up that I dumped it on the first buyer I could find, at a huge loss. The next car I bought was a totally gutless Toyota Tercel that never needed any repair work beyond replacing the tires. (Until a homeless guy moved into it while I was away during a college winter break... but that's another story.)
1968 Datsun Pickup
Owner: Kevin A. Wilson
You want some words of wisdom from someone who knows? Don't shop for a used car at night. The Datsun had been painted white (with a roller and a brush) and had rear leaf springs off a Chevy half-ton because the Arkansas pig farmer who'd owned it needed more carrying capacity for manure. The next owner had compensated for that by lining the bottom of the too-wide toolbox with a lead plate; consequently the 1.3-liter, four-speed truck was achingly slow. So I removed the toolbox (with the help of three other guys), whereupon the rear springs pitched the truck onto the front axle so hard it wouldn't steer.
No problem. I just gave the truck to my brother-in-law.
1986 Jeep Comanche
Owner: Kevin A. Wilson
In my 40s I had an '86 (I think it was an '86) Jeep Comanche pickup with a 4.0-liter, manual and rear-wheel drive. I kept it until I found out the sudden handling quirk was because one rearspring mounting plate was itself bolted to little more than a paper-thin remnant of rusted frame rail (it was a unibody pickup, remember).
1968 Pontiac Tempest OHC
Owner: Kevin A. Wilson
Or there was the '68 Tempest OHC six with three on the tree and balky linkage, but that was really my wife's car. She had to hop out on the way to our wedding and jiggle the linkage on the firewall when it locked up. It also developed a fuel leak that erupted into flame under the hood when I fired it up in a drugstore parking lot. Fortunately, I'd gone there for a gallon of milk, which turned out to be a dandy fire extinguisher.
1989 Range Rover
Owner: Larry Webster
In 2001, I bought a 1989 Range Rover from Texas, sight unseen. Yeah, I'd heard all the stories, but I didn't think it could be that bad. It had around 100,000 miles, looked good in pictures and drove just fine when it arrived. I think I paid around $7000.
But within months, every vital fluid began trickling and then flowing profusely from every possible exit path. First the brake calipers burst one night when I tried to slow. I had to veer off-road to avoid ramming the stopped car ahead. Replacing the calipers would cost $300 each, so I rebuilt both of them.
Next, the power-steering lines blew. That repair job taught me why Range Rovers were so expensive to make. If memory serves, each bolt that held the pump to the end was of a different size. The unit was wedged in so tightly that half the engine had to come out. It took me weeks to rectify the situation.
Soon after I had it back on the road, all the fuel injectors simultaneously erupted. For a moment I wished the old '89 would catch fire — until I realized I had only liability insurance. I can't remember what new injectors cost, but I can recall the dread when I heard the price.
Once I got the Range Rover all buttoned up, I drove it for a few months. And I dug it. The driver's seat was like a throne and the creamy ride remained intact. But when the headliner started to sag a short while later I raised the white flag. I sold it for a little more than I paid, but was still deep underwater. I saw it scooting around town nearly every day for a year after that, and fumed that I'd sold too early. After all, I had fixed all the problems, right.
Oh, the eternal optimism of a car geek.
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None of this stuff was the "cars" fault. The fault lies with the owner. How can you expect anything to run as new when its an oldy but goldy and sometimes a little moldy. Many of these happenings were when a person was young and had thought themselves a mechanic. Which in most cases gained them good experience, maybe lost cash, and maybe their **** went into an emergency pucker a few times. For example, I put a Buick 231/auto in an MGB and at 135 had a wobble that would make a webble proud. The experience you got is gold...At 142 my 1930 Ford Roadster blew a hydraulic trans line. The half plywood floor boards and milk crate seats didnt help when hot trans fluid sprayed into the passenger compartment. I dont label these things as stupid because that would be stupid. I label these things as experienced gained through activities that should have killed ya but didnt. I buy off of E bay. This is my 21 car, I expect absolute caos and if it isnt...bonus. Every car and truck has a story and that should be that way it comes with the factory sticker. So I drive a 62 Ford Falcon Ranchero, and my friend Kel and I were out driving to lunch, California hiway driving. As he was holding on asked , How fast are we going... I said 45. See gold.