Ok, fair warning, this is a loooong one. I also apologize for the inevitable typos that arise. I suck at proofreading my own writing and I have spastic fingers when I type. Anyways, my car horror story:
In October of 2008, I was driving a 1994 Hyundai Excel that was missing all the windows on the right hand side, the door panels, speakers, heater, etc. It ran great and got insane gas mileage (50mpg+), but winter was coming and I needed a car that would keep the cold out.
I looked around town and finally found a 1997 Saturn SC2 that looked to be in pretty good condition. 5-speed manual, good exterior and interior and the motor and related workings all looked fine after a little poking around. I traded in my Hyundai and an old 1988 Corolla with a bad torque converter, plus $500 cash for the Saturn.
After going through the paperwork and getting the other two cars on the lot, the dealer gave me the bill of sale and the receipt and told me to come back in a few days for the title, since it was in Conway, about 30 minutes away, and he'd have to get it from his partner dealer there. I had a bill of sale and a 45-day plate, so this seemed fine to me. He also warned that the car hadn't been driven in some time and may be a little pokey at first. Once again, I figured that some cars get like that and drove off the lot...pokily.
Well, the next day, when I got a chance to actually drive it around, I noticed it felt more than pokey, it felt downright amputated. After experimenting a bit, I realized that even though the shift pattern said I was going into 1st and 2nd gear, the engine didn't feel like it. It felt like I was starting in 3rd gear and only getting 3rd, 4th, and 5th and reverse. I am pretty sure that the clutch pedal appreciated this even less than I did.
My dad tried to wave this off as "maybe it's just not that fast of a car", but I'd driven a '98 SC2 and knew that they were pretty damn quick for a stock 4-banger, especially 2nd gear. Even my Hyundai, .4 liters smaller, would burn tires up to 4th gear. So I knew something was off.
After trying to explain the issue for over an hour, I got my dad to drive it and he realized that I wasn't just making stuff up. In fact, I'd even mentioned the brakes didn't feel quite right. Lo and behold, as we're pulling to a stop, coming from about 35 mph, he presses the brake pedal and nothing happens. Keep in mind, this isn't a Toyota, so it's unexpected. So with the car barely slowing, he slams all his weight onto the brake pedal and the rear drums lock up entirely. This car is supposed to have ABS (and in fact, does), but the only thing locked up at night were our sphincters. He had to swerve around the car in front of us off the road and pull the e-brake to keep from going into the ditch.
After that, we drove even more slowly than usual and got home and popped the hood. Turns out the brake line had massive amounts of air in it and the shift linkage was missing a C-clip that keeps the cables secured. Now, the brakes were easy enough to fix and we even replaced the drums, pads, rotors, and shoes just to be sure.
As for the C-clip, none of the stores around us has one in stock, so we had to go to the Saturn dealership the next town over and pay $8 for a little tiny piece of metal. Anyways, that clip fixed the linkage and that little car drove like a bat outta hell afterwards.
One would think everything would be okay, but that ended up being a resounding no. I had a 40 mile drive to work every night and came back in the mornings (graveyard shift) conveniently, passing the lot where I bought the Saturn just as it opened. I would stop in once or twice a week and asked for 'J.T.', the guy's name, and if he was there, which was conveniently rare, he'd say the connection down in Conway hadn't gotten around to getting the title up here, yadda yadda yadda.
I was getting understandably irritated and nervous about this and after about a month, it got to where he'd never be on the lot when I walked up. During this time, the car had been driving excellently, though I'd replaced the wipers, headlight bulbs, seat covers, floor mats and tires, along with changing out all the fluids. I'm generally a pretty big stickler about maintaining my vehicles, but I still didn't have the title and in S.C., without the title, I couldn't get a permanent plate.
So with about a week to spare on the temporary tag, I drive to the lot after work and the lot is empty. The cars that ran or were in okay condition are all gone, the office is empty, the shop is stripped bare and unlocked and people are starting to show up, most of them looking angry.
Eventually the cops showed up and informed me and a few select others that apparently, this guy had a fraudulent dealer's license and had been screwing people over for months. He'd been taking in cars for repairs and either selling them or selling their motors. He'd also done bad repair jobs, refused refunds, kept money that were supposed to be, and eventually when the heat got to be too much, he liquidated his lot and skipped town.
Now, I'd been smart and kept the titles to the Hyundai and Toyota until he'd given me the title for the Saturn. I immediately filed them as stolen and to this day they haven't been found. The 'dealer', however, was caught by one of his many jilted customers and he pulled a crowbar on them and a fight broke out. He's now in prison on over 39 different charges, including fraud, theft, grand theft auto, petty theft, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to kill, reckless driving, resisting arrest, etc.
Justice aside, this didn't help my problem, though, since I still had no title for the Saturn and my temporary tag was running out. So I decided to back track the car. After a week or so, I found the lot where this guy had gotten the Saturn. Apparently he was supposed to repair it, sell it and give this lot half of the cash or trade value. Instead he'd pocketed the money and run and this lot hadn't seen a dime. However, they didn't have the title either, but they pointed me to why they said did have the title.
It turns out they'd gotten the car from another car lot an hour away because it needed to be repaired and they couldn't be bothered with it. So I had to drive to this third car lot to find that they had never seen any money for it either and had never officially sold the title. So I wound up actually having to pay them $300 cash in order to buy the title to my own car, essentially meaning I had to buy the car twice. There went my Christmas bonus.
I assumed this was the end of my troubles, since my car had shown no signs of a bad repair job. But about a month later, on my way back home from work, I'm driving up the Intercoastal Waterway bridge in Myrtle Beach and I downshift to pass semi-truck and I hear a massive bang and then the car starts making a massive clamor, like pots and pans banging to the sounds of Dream Theatre on cocaine.
I pull off to the side of the road and check the oil level. Fine. Transmission fluid level. Fine. Coolant. Fine. Brake fluid. Fine. Hydraulic clutch cylinder level. Fine. Everything's fine. So I call my dad and tell him what happened and he says do my best to get it home. So I do. But the noise is so loud that I have to roll my windows up due to the volume of the echo coming off the passing vehicles. I also couldn't do more than 35mph, meaning what normally was a 45 minute drive home took over 2 very stressful, loud hours.
We get it home and my father listens to it and says "Well...the short answer is...it's fucked." and we spend the evening and a bottle of vodka bitching about the stupid asshole of a dealer who sold me the car. The next morning, we pull the car into the "garage", which was really just our dirt-floor carport with plywood walls installed, to prepare to dismantle it. My more immediate problem, however, is getting to work.
Since I was working the night shift, we worked it out so that my dad could go in an hour late every morning and leave an hour later every day, which was fine with his boss, and I could take his truck to work and back. This worked fine for about a month during which we began to take the Saturn apart.
But then his boss decided that starting work at 10am wasn't really all that good for him or the business and required my dad to start coming in at his old time. We tried bargaining with him and when that didn't worked, I bargained with my bosses and tried to have my hours shifted or even cut back but they said that it was too much trouble and told me that if I couldn't have reliable transportation, then I shouldn't bother trying to work there.
I requested a transfer to a location nearer to my house, but I hadn't been working long enough to qualify for a cold transfer. I then applied for an emergency transfer, but since I wasn't technically relocating, I couldn't do that either. Loopholes abound, I eventually grew frustrated and told them that I did have reliable transportation, but that I just needed to be out of there by 7 am or my dad would wind up losing his job, which paid most of the bills.
They decided that there were plenty of people they could hire who would have no problems making the required schedule and fired me, 2 weeks before I would qualify for unemployment. After looking into it, it turns out I wasn't the first person they'd fired just under the 6-month mark necessary for unemployment benefits. However, I was able to arrange it that since I was considering enlisting in the National Guard anyway, instead of listing me as being fired for transportation issues, on paper I was listed as "Resigned due to Relocation", so at least Wal-Mart allowed me to save some face, for what it's worth.
Anyways, so now this Saturn had cost me my job and was sitting in the garage in the middle of an ever-growing pile of parts and body paneling. Over the next 3 months, during which I looked for work within walking distance and found none, we completely dismantled the front end of the car and stripped the motor down to the bare block. It turns out that the crank shaft had been worn down by over 5mm and Mr. J.T. had put 'Magic STP' in the oil to hide the ruckus. The bearings were basically bouncing off of the crankshaft with every revolution. Two piston heads had holes in them, all the rings were fried and we had to get the entire block and head bored and polished, along with replacing all the bearings, seals, two whole pistons with rods and heads, piston rings, oil pan, a new crankshaft, crank pully, timing chain, timing chain cover, and the other associated bits that go along with a complete rebuild.
Not only were these parts expensive, most of them were also impossible to find anywhere other than the dealer. Over half of the parts had to be bought from the Saturn dealership, at the usual dealership markup. Why? Because nobody carries Saturn parts and there is no after-market part selection to speak of for Saturn. The guy at the dealership actually offered us his condolences when we told him we were rebuilding it ourselves. Apparently the SC and SC2 series have a bit of a reputation for being temperamental at best when it comes to rebuilds. Total cost of parts thus far: $988.43. Not to mention the $800 cash total for the title and the two lost trade-ins.
So, after 3 months of my dad burning every spare dollar from his paychecks and every evening and weekend he had to help me repair this motor, we finally get it reassembled. Now, anyone who's ever worked on a Saturn knows how finicky they are and the timing alone took us 4 hours to get right, along with the compression. In fact, there's a video on my Facebook page showing us getting the motor to turn over with the block sitting on the ground with no head in it, using the battery and two screwdrivers to turn the starter, just to make sure the action was smooth before putting the whole thing back together: www.facebook.com/v/55012312713…
The car bit it in the first week of February, 2009. We finally drive it down the block in the first week of June, 2009. It drove great. Plenty of torque, good shift action, smooth idle, all of the things you want to see. We'd somehow done the impossible and rebuilt that stupid car in our garage with nothing but a Haynes manual and ropes, chains, and a 400lb engine hoist.
I immediately began looking for work, but by this point the recession was in full swing and over half the yards on our street had 'For Sale' signs up. In fact, the town of Marion, SC has lost nearly 30% of its residential population since January, 2009. There were no jobs within 2 hours of the town and any jobs that were available were swamped with applications. The high school put up a notice that they were looking for 2 custodians. They had over 600 people show up for applications.
The unemployment rate was over 50%, but people like myself, who didn't qualify for unemployment benefits, and people on welfare, don't go on the national unemployment statistic. It's only for people actually receiving unemployment checks. Those who don't comprised such a huge chunk of that ratio, that the official statistic only stated a 19% unemployment rate for the PeeDee region of South Carolina. Yeah, MSNBC didn't mention the fine points of that statistic, did they?
So while I'm looking for work, my father's hours are cut down to part-time and he now only works for 4 days a week, meaning we're no longer able to make the bills. I realized that without me finding work any time soon but still using food and resources, we'd probably lose the house, so I decided to move in with a friend named Eric in Florence, the next town over, who would let me work around the house for my share of the rent while looking for work. So, I moved out of my dad's place and in with Eric, meaning my dad was able to pay the bills and have about $50 spare every month. Not much, but enough to live on.
I spent two months living with Eric, looking for jobs around Florence and trying to just survive when the car began having trouble starting and running consistently. I checked the battery and everything and it progressively got worse, often having to be push-started and having the headlights cut off randomly. I checked the wiring harness and the connections to the alternator and battery and starter and everything was fine but it still kept acting up. Eventually it quit working entirely; it wouldn't start at all and was blocking Eric's driveway, so my father had to bring his truck, a chain, and a pole and tow it back home, leaving me at Eric's, walking everywhere.
Well after about a month, I was invited to move in with a friend in Pennsylvania named Kyle who could help me get back on my feet, so I left the Saturn with my dad until he could get it working. I arrived in Pennsylvania in September and promptly found work and was using Kyle's mom's car to get to and from. About a month after I moved up there, my dad got the Saturn running again. Turns out the starter and alternator AND hydraulic clutch assembly all had to be replaced. So another $300 or so went into the car.
Once it was running, I hopped a one-way flight back to S.C., grabbed the Saturn and drove it up to P.A. with no problems whatsoever. If anything, it was torquier than ever. In fact, Kyle's family lived on a long, winding dirt road and my Saturn spent most of it's time up there being so dirty it looked like it had a two-tone paint job. I will gladly admit to using it more than a few times to practice scandinavian flicks on my way to and from work. If there's one thing those old Saturn coupes had, it was excellent steering, even on dirt and mud.
During the next month in P.A., I wound up buying a new set of tires (I'd been running summer rubber and Erie, PA gets massive snow in the winter) with strong all-season tread, along with an oxygen sensor, spark plugs and oil pressure sensor. Not only this, but around the second week in P.A., that old c-clip that started all this? Yeah, it disappeared at some point and instead of dealing with the dealership, I broke out a sheet of stamped aluminum, a die cutter, a hammer and a hydraulic vice and made my own c-clip along with a couple of spares for the glovebox.
During that month, I nearly had to junk the Saturn because it began stalling randomly, sometimes on the interstate and often chugged and shuddered and acted as though it was choking. It was actually dangerous to drive in traffic because of how randomly it would cut off or refuse to accelerate. I checked the oxygen sensor, throttle body, ECU., etc etc. I even had Advance Auto do a reading on the computer and it came back with close to 16 errors, including a knock sensor error, which made no sense to me since the motor had less than 2,000 miles on it. Ironically, on the way home the damn thing stalled while I was exiting off the interstate and wouldn't roll start like I'd been doing when it cut off while moving. So, in my frustration, I kicked the footwell really hard and the car perked right up, giving only a few chugs on the way home. Once I got home I bent down and took a look and found out the wiring harness had just come loose.
Once that is fixed, the next week I'm down-shifting on the interstate driving to work and my shift knob goes all noodly on me and becomes completely limp. Luckily I'm in 3rd gear, so I can still pull out from a stop and drive up to about 50mph without redlining, but I'm playing that clutch pedal like Lars Ulrich plays his bass kicker all the way to work and all the way home, where I tear open the center console and have a look-see. Turns out the shift bushing exploded on me.
I'm not going to go into detail about that. All you have to do is look up "Saturn Shift Bushing" to realize just how big of an issue it is with mid-90's Saturns. I can't believe they didn't do a recall over the issue. I wound up going to eBay to buy the bushing and cable end loop for $60 total because Saturn doesn't sell just the bushing. No, instead you have to buy the entire cable linkage set at $300 just for the cables, not including labor and dealer install fees. Screw. That. But, thanks to eBay, within a week I was good to go again.
During that week, however, I became intimately familiar with taking out the center console and adjusting the zip ties and lead battery terminal I'd used to hold the cable to the shifter until the eBay parts arrived. I got so good at it at on one trip home, I'm at a red light on an overpass when I go to shift into 1st and it comes loose again. Within 1 minute I had the center console in the back seat, the battery terminal re-tightened and the center console back in place the cigarette lighter and cup-holder light plugged back in before the light changed to green. I imagine the people behind me were pretty confused at seeing a pair of flailing arms and car parts and wrenches tossing around inside a tiny blue coupe shaking back and forth like a Caddy on prom night.
Anyways, so Thanksgiving comes around and the Saturn has been driving like a dream lately so I assume I can drive up to New Hampshire to visit my girlfriend at her college and have dinner with her family like all boyfriends are afraid to do but must do anyway. So I clear a week off from work and map out how many miles it will be round trip, assume $3.50 a gallon for gas (I rounded up) and assured myself I had enough money for gas there and back along with about $100 extra. Before the trip, I pack my clothes, check the fluid levels and bring extra bottles of each type of fluid, along with a sleeping back, road flares, food, water, flashlight, tool kit, etc., essentially making sure my car has anything I might need in case of an emergency.
So I head out for New Hampshire. The drive goes fine, the car is behaving great and around 3 am, I'm in Vermont, on HWY 9 aka 'Hog's Back Road' and having a blast. It's a twisty road, I have aggressive tires and a manual transmission and I can hit 70 just coasting down the back side so I'm saving gas like a madman and just having fun. I seriously recommend it was a must-drive road for anyone who enjoys the experience of driving. I know for sure it'll be a first stop of mine when I eventually get my WRX.
So, the Saturn loves the mountains and takes them on with gusto, but then I get out of the high mountain and into the flatter areas and after about an hour the car starts behaving oddly. The oil pressure sensor shoots up, then drops down to really lower and the car starts shuddering and my throttle response drops to Prius levels. I see the temperature gauge skyrocket, so I pull over onto the side of the highway in the middle of northern Vermont at 4 am. I can actually hear moose in the wood less than a mile away when I get out of the car. I don't see headlights from either direction no matter how far I look and it's below freezing.
So, I'm cold and alone in the middle of a strange state and my car is broken down, still 2 hours from where my girlfriend lives and half my worldly possessions in the back seat and only $200 in cash to pay for gas on my return trip home. I pop the hood and once the smoke clears, I see oil. Everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I actually walked along the side of the car and found oil dripping off my back right wheel well. It had shot out of the top of the motor and gotten slung along the underside of the car by the serpentine belt.
Pulling out my flashlight, I realize that the valve cover is twisted like a licorice stick and I can see straight into the head and look at the cam shafts. My best guess is that one of the valve cover bolts was stripped and came loose due to the pressure and vibration. Realizing help isn't likely to just drive up any time soon, I pull out my (paper!) map and see that the nearest town is West Lebanon, NH. So, I grab some water, a backpack, my flashlight, and my multi-tool with a large knife blade built into it and head out down the road towards the town, leaving my Saturn's flashers on and the doors locked.
About an hour later, I arrive at a gas station and I promptly buy 2 gallons of oil, a large metal c-clamp and automotive RTV, electrical and automotive tape, along with a gas can and 5 gallons of gas, just in case. I begin hoofing it back to the Saturn and when I get there, scrape off the old sealant from the top of the head, spread the new RTV, use a tree branch as a lever to press the valve cover back down and c-clamp it in place before RTV'ing and taping the screw threads to make sure it doesn't vibrate loose. I also put J.B Weld on the crack that has now resulted from the warping of the cover. Then I refill the oil, throw the extra oil in the back seat and pussy-foot it all the way to New London to meet my girlfriend.
Long story short, I wasn't able to afford a bus or plane back to P.A. and pay for my belongings to get there as well, much less a tow truck for the Saturn to go to P.A. and my roommate Kyle and his folks couldn't come and get me because they'd have to take off work and couldn't afford the cost of the trip alongside the lost wages. During the time I was trying to figure out what to do, the college campus closed for Christmas break, so I had to go to her folks house with her over the break, leaving the Saturn in the parking lot of the only major shopping center in town and hoping nobody would report it or notice the fact that nobody was cleaning the snow off of it.
No such luck. We come back 5 weeks later, around mid-January 2010, and the car is gone. Turns out it was towed two weeks after we left and racked up $900 in impound fees. I finally, after going through over a year of hell, looked at the car at the impound lot and just said "fuck it, it's your problem now", handed the towing company the title and bill of sale and all the repair and parts receipts and got a ride back into town. The only thing that upset me was that the $300 set of tires I'd put on it had less than 1,000 miles on it. I guess that's evidence of the shape I was in emotionally when I cared more about the tires than the entire car.
The college where my girlfriend was going to school at has a 2-night a week max for overnight guests so I couldn't stay there so I wound up having to live in a homeless shelter in Concord, New Hampshire until I scraped up enough money to get a bus back home. All told, I was stranded in New Hampshire from November 2009 until May 2010. Now I'm back home looking for work and looking for a reliable used car so I can eventually get back to my girlfriend now that she's a full-fledged college graduate.
As for the damage, that Saturn cost me over $2,500, 3 homes, 2 jobs, and over a year of my life. The worst part? I left the small stuff, like the windshield wiper motor fiasco, out in order to keep this under 20 pages.