Home » How I Bought A Broken Version Of My Dream Car For $300, Then Nursed It Back To Glory And Let It Free

How I Bought A Broken Version Of My Dream Car For $300, Then Nursed It Back To Glory And Let It Free

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I’m 43 years old. That age has certain connotations that it brings to the table. The metabolism is a little bit slower. The “chromed-out fenders” (aka graying-around-the-temples) is getting more noticeable each year. Bending over to pick things up is more of a chore. Drinking any amount of alcohol hurts badly the next day; it has never done that to me previously. The list goes on.

Probably the best benefit amongst all the above noted withering, crumbling, atrophic fermenting and decay is an element of greater wisdom that has developed from the passage of time. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

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The new wisdom attained with each passing year shows things in a new light. The keg parties that were the “ultimate” in college are pretty lame in hindsight these days.

I’m not paying $5 for a red Solo cup, only to stand in line for 15 minutes for it to be filled with warm Busch Light foam before having to immediately launch the cup into the bushes and run when the cops arrive to bust the party because the DJ was spinning The Beastie Boys  “Body Movin’” (FatBoy Slim Remix) too loudly and the neighbors complained. That’s just one very “Year 2000” example from my college days.

But some things never change regardless of how much added wisdom and perspective you attain. Your mom is still your #1. Golden Corral is still a bangin’ deal for steaks on the cheap. Everclear is still a criminally underrated band. And the Dodge Stealth is one sexy beast of a car.

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Our story jumps forward 18 years into the future from those college days to the first day of August 2018. Searching Craigslist and FB Marketplace is a daily routine that I’ve been practicing since I was able to afford an internet connection (sometime shortly after college). Each day is a sift through the parade of boring commuter car appliances and everyday cars in hopes of finding something different. Something unlike the rest. It doesn’t have to be fast or rare or even “cool” – it just has to be different. That’s just my style. I make no apologies for that.

I remember that day was specifically 8/1/18, because that was the day that an ad popped right off the page and punched me right in the face.

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(Vienna Boys Choir of angelic tones sounds in the background)

There it was. The shape of the machine that 12 year-old me fell asleep looking at each night. It hung right above the black & white TV my parents gifted me and on which I played “Dragon Warrior” and “Mega Man 2” on NES. That’s right, I had a poster of this car on my wall when I was twelve, in 1992. I’d stare at it each night, searing the body-lines and the multiple, overlapping design elements into my mind to persevere for the remainder of my days on this planet — hopefully until sometime around 2060, if fortune serves me well.

A manual Dodge Stealth was for sale, three miles from Gossin Motors HQ for $500. Holy. Shit.

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“Let’s start sanding it, then give up halfway once we realize it’s hard!” -non-wisdom

It’s Bo Time (Similar to Go Time, but I live near a Bojangles)

This was not just any Dodge Stealth, but a “Pearl Blue” one with a manual transmission that ran. Humor me for a moment and tell me the last time you came across a running Stealth with a stick for $500? Not since Sycamore Grove’s last East Coast Tour (2003), I’m betting. So, to see this car for sale for less than a set of new tires made 1) my jaw drop 2) me immediately grab a wad of cash and 3) me bee-line to the seller’s location. I literally stopped everything I was doing, full emergency-style.

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This paint job was Carolina-fied. Check out that baller Stratus Coupe in the background.

I arrived at the Stealth spot a smooth 20 minutes later due to Wilmington, NC traffic (it gets worse each year with more Yankees arriving daily! Also, yes, I’m from Utica, NY) and fell immediately in love. I’ve experienced love at first sight once before in my 43 years on this rock, and the feeling this car imparted during that moment of first sight was comparable — don’t tell my ex. Actually it’s fine; they’re not reading this anyway. Or are they? The Autopian is the ultimate. Well, regardless, let’s get back to the svelte Dodge, shall we?

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The interior wasn’t great, but was in commendable shape for being 25yrs old

The woman selling it was in her late 50s and seemed to enjoy the finer things in life, such as cigarettes and alcohol, since she was smoking from the moment I arrived and seemed half-drunk at 6:15pm on a Wednesday. My kind of people! I immediately was a fan of this woman’s stylistic choices in life; especially her excellent taste in automobiles.

She told me that she’d picked it up for cheap a few months prior and was using it to commute to her job at a nearby BP gas station until 2nd gear went out. 1st-to-3rd was not her thing (especially in fast-moving Port City traffic), so here we were on that beautiful Wednesday evening a smooth 45 minutes after she posted it for sale.

Can I swing it around the block?” says I, already knowing that I’m going to buy it regardless of how poorly it does on the test drive. After being handed the original key (!) and approaching the car, it was obvious that the paint called it quits right about the time the Dubya Bush Administration did, and the results weren’t pretty. A sad mix of disappeared clear-coat, faded base-coat, primer, half-ass sad sanding attempts and general despair is how I’d describe it. No matter, paint can be replaced and Stealths are a finite quantity in this world.

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Somehow the original key survived decades into the 21st Century. My grandfather gave me that ’75 Prudential key chain; he retired from “The Rock”.

Hopping in the car I was immediately met with a reminder of everything my childhood told me was good and true and right. Japanese-crafted sleek technological optimism derived from a very powerful Yen in the late 80s (and imported to us Yanks) was overloading every sense as I settled into the drivers’ seat. This does not feel like a Buick or a Mercury, that’s for damn sure.

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It was unlike any other Dodge I’d owned or had the pleasure of riding in also except for the font on the badge. I’ve been all around this country, and I’ve been to Japan, and this wasn’t America’s Heartland-inspired. It was not “Like a Rock,” nor did it have the “Heartbeat” of America. This was a Japanese car in an American suit. Which was badass. 

No wonder this circuit failed. It says ‘Made in Japan’!” -Dr. Emmett Brown, 1955

What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan!” -Marty McFly, ‘55

Unbelievable!” – Dr. Emmett Brown, ‘55

Cranking up the Mitsubishi 3.0 V6 and slotting the transmission into 1st gear I eased up upon the clutch and headed down the driveway to take it on my maiden voyage around the block. Homegirl was right, 2nd gear had left the building. Any attempt to utilize said gear resulted in a cacophony of grinding that even the high school and college-aged wait staff with the fresh pepper and parm chee at Olive Garden would wince at. 

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I literally did not care at all. About a transmission issue! I loved the car that much. Transmission issues are literally one of the scariest things that dissuade a buyer from a used car (right up there with electrical issues), but the love I had for this machine was more powerful. The rest of the initial drive was as you’d expect for a 200+K mile ’93 Stealth that’s not been maintained at all for the previous seven years of existence. I brought the car back around the block and prepared myself mentally to talk some turkey and do some bidness. I’ve bought a few cars in the past so this was something I was well versed at doing.

I wanted to at least try to get the car a little cheaper, since every dollar saved would make the replacement transmission that much cheaper, and as much as I liked the stylistic choices of the seller, this was a business deal.

You were right about that transmission, but I like the rest of it and would love to restore this beauty to its former glory. (Pulls out a few hundos so that the buyer sees cash-money). Are you cool with doing $300 right now and I’ll take it off your hands?”

“Aboso-F-ing-lutely” -the seller

It was such a beautiful moment. 12 year-old me smiled from 26 years in the past, knowing that a childhood dream had finally come to fruition right then as the hazy summer sun set over The Cape Fear. I slapped a “dealer tag” on it and drove straight home, grinning ear-to-ear the whole time whilst avoiding 2nd gear.

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The moment I bought it.

Fixing The Transmission

Once the car was safely back at the Gossin Motors BackYard Shitbox Rescue Evil Wrenching Lair (under that volcano (and complete with sharks with frickin’ laser beams) in Wilmington, NC, I set to work on bringing my dream out of 1992 and into 2018. The first thing on the list was to get 2nd gear back in action, and that required a trip to the local transmission shop, since my skills are not at a level of at-home transmissions rebuilds, yet. 

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Upon getting the machine there, the first thing I heard was “Maayyyne, is that a Stealth?! I ain’t seen one of dem in forever! From one of the guys at the shop. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was something that I would come to hear almost every time I went anywhere in that car. Honestly it was pretty cool, since as I said before, I’m aging and any attention is good attention these days.

It turns out that it is far more cost-effective to install a good used eBay transmission than to crack open the original one and replace the syncros. A $600 used transmission and another $700 to have a local shop install it (I really need a lift at my house; one day soon) and I had five working forward gears!

Not bad since I now only had $1,600 into the car. This is a great example of buying a car that “Needs TLC/work” for cheap and ends up being a solid deal once the work is completed. Having the resources necessary to accomplish said work is key though; paying someone else full retail repair rates means the acquisition price has to be stupid low.

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Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. Better than it was before. Better… stronger… faster.

As with any car under $5K, there is going to be at least one missing or broken trim piece. This is where the local parts yard really shines. It is a far better solution (and far better environmentally) than to order parts online and have them shipped. Shipping really uses such a “staggering amount of oil”

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The tough thing about looking for parts or a car like a Stealth is that for every 200-300 Camrys, Malibus, Altimas and Accords in the yard, you’ll get maybe one of these delightful Dodges. The same ratio goes for cars such as that amazingly expensive SL500 that we rescued last year.

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Luckily for me though, there were a couple suitable donor vehicles that showed up in the local yards during my Stealth Ownership Period. Finding them includes walking over to the import aisle and scouting for the mechanically identical Mitsubishi 3000GT. I grabbed every small plastic body and interior trim piece that I could; most of the mechanical parts are still available to buy and new/refurbished and interior and exterior trim is not.

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The plastic clips that hold up this piece of trim above the rear hatch glass are particularly brittle after being sun and heat baked for decades; they all break.
Those Carolina sun-faded hulks brought new life (without broken trim) to one of their still-running brothers; good on ‘em (Laurence Rogers Aussie-speak).
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This green is glorious, like Gloriana.

Gimme Fuel (Filters), That Which I Desire

Next up was to perform the maintenance items/tasks that had been deferred for seemingly way too long. First up, the fuel filter was original, from ‘93 and hundreds of thousands of miles ago. Getting it out was one of the more strange procedures in Fuel Filterdom, as it’s in the engine bay and buried at the bottoms of the firewall. I suppose they needed to make as much room as possible for that big twin turbo engine (that my car didn’t have), but I still don’t just see why they didn’t fit it on a frame rail under the car as the fuel filter gods intended.

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How do you say “pretty weird, dawg” in Japanese?

A Pleasantly Surprising Design Strength

Something weird, great and unique about the Mitsu 3.0 that powers this car (and almost every early 90s Chrysler product) is that the valve covers are attached to the heads with two big-ass bolts on the top of the cover instead of multiple more bolts lining the circumference of the valve cover. So changing the sure-to-be-cooked-by-this-day-and-age valve cover gaskets is a wicked easy job without worrying about over/under torquing eight to 10 bolts.. Good on ya, Mitsu.

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I’m a huge fan of this valve cover design.

“I’ve Got Wheels Of Polished Steel, I’ve Got Tires That Grab The Road” -Cake, “Satan Is My Motor

One of the first things you noticed when seeing any of the photos in this piece was the same thing I noticed: those weak-ass “Eagle Alloys” aftermarket wheels. Ok, so they’re not totally bad, since they’re 15 inch wheels and wheels of such a small diameter have officially gone the way of The Spectacled Cormorant. Finding replacement 15-inch tires for them was not going to be an easy task, and regardless, I’m an OEM kinda guy (within reason; there are cost constraints in everything in life).

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The Eagle has flown.

A set of the correct “Salad Shooter” wheels (ok, that may not be their name, but that’s what I’m rolling with) was located in Jacksonville, NC, one hour north of The Port City of Wilmington and they were mine for a few hundred bucks, complete with a set of half bald and dry-rotted tires.

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Bonus Round: The “Eagle alloys are the standard Mitsu bolt pattern, so they bolt right up to my Mistu-made $220 Dodge Stratus Coupe: score!

Extra Bonus Round: This week marks 7 years since that Stratus Coupe was brought back to life. The $220 I bought it for in 2016 makes it about a $2.62 per month payment.

Third (brake light) Blind

The 3rd brake light in these cars is the type of item that you don’t really think about, until it’s broken and you have to fix /replace it. These lamps were LED and the Dodge and Mitsu cars each used their own version. Over three decades, water and time negatively affect the units and they go dark. There were only two for sale on the internet at the time I needed a replacement, so unfortunately I had to pay ⅓ the cost of the car for the replacement lamp unit. 

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Note: I also tried the Facebook Group, but those guys seemed pretty focused on speed, turbos and glam shots (not at all a criticism – they have some of the best-of-what’s-left of these cars on the planet) rather than peddling parts to randos with a beater Base model Stealth.

How Fast Is the Engine Spinning? No Clue.

One of the little things that was broken on this car was the tachometer. Not a big deal by any means, as any old manual transmission shitbox owner will tell you that you just listen and feel for where the engine is most of the time; you don’t really need a tach. Hell, most economy-minded older cars didn’t even come with one.

I do enjoy fixing everything that I can on my rescue vehicles, and especially so on my own personal fleet, so fixing the tach was officially “on the list” of things to do. This was much harder than expected, as finding a replacement gauge cluster meant finding a donor car and as stated above, there aren’t too many of them around.

The green 3000GT that I showed before seemed to be the perfect godsend…until I realized that Mitsu changed from an analogue speedo/tach cable in ‘93 (mine) to a digital setup in ‘94 (donor car). A second junkyard unit also had a broken tach (apparently it’s a weak point on these cars). Rats.

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None of these units feature a working tach.

Fixing cars such as a Stealth requires you to think outside the box in situations like these. It’s pretty much the opposite of a cheap GM car where there are 15 donors in every yard in every town in the country. After not finding any replacement gauge clusters for sale online, I took mine to a local cell phone repair shop and asked them to look at the circuit board. The guy there stated that he was used to electronics that are 1/10th the size of those in the cluster (phone components are ridiculously tiny) and that looking into it would be a breeze. 

$60 and a burned capacitor replacement later, I had a working tach. Bingo-bango.

Myrtle Beach Traffic is a Stoplight Drag-Race: We Lost, Badly.

By this time, the car was coming together nicely and it was time to take it on a little celebratory day trip to Myrtle Beach (only an hour+ away) to visit my GF’s brother and to see how it would do on the open road.

Answer: smooth-ridin’ on the open highway, but slow as Eric Clapton’s hand in traffic. The naturally-aspirated 3.0 V6 started out life in this Stealth with 222hp, but was probably down in the 170-180hp range after 200+K miles, if I had to guess. This is in a 3,186lb car that just could not keep up with the beater 18yr old Jeep Liberty next to it in traffic without shoveling some serious coal into the fire and winding it up into the 4K-6K RPM range.

My girlfriend told me to stop driving like such a wuss. Never a good thing to hear.

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Fog Hat: Slow Ride, Indeed.

Also missing from my car was the fog light blank. Well, not exactly missing, but warped/weak/loose plastic fitment. With my car being a Base model, it did not have fog-lightage. The Base model shared a front fascia with the “ES” model, and the R/T and R/T Turbo shared a different version. The 3000GT had different fog lights. This meant that out of every available Stealth parts/donor car, only one in four would have the right fog lights and that was only if it hadn’t had a front-end collision (the most common type). Not good odds.

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Such bad odds that I gave up my search after hitting multiple junkyards and searching for weeks on the internet for a pair of “ES” fogs. This meant fixing the loose-fitting blank. To do so, I needed a tapered item around the same diameter as the opening to use to heat the plastic outward into a better fitting shape. What better to do that than a bottle of cheap Chardonnay!? Img 20230309 182327103

An overnight on the wine bottle and a heat gun session and this blank was ready to make all seers forget that there could’ve been a fog light where it sits. Bingo-bango. 

R/T Rear-End Treatment

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The Pearl Blue Stealth that I had on my wall as a kid was an R/T, so it had the specific-to-the-R/T/Turbo tail lights and rear bumper cover. The base model rear lamps and such were fine, but not the stuff of the dream Stealth that I wanted. 

Rear Rt

Based on this crazy childhood vision, I got in The World’s Best $400 Durango (story upcoming!) and drove seven hours round-trip to Charlotte, NC to a parts yard that had an R/T on the lot. A couple tanks of gas and a few hundo later, I had the parts to make my Base Stealth into one that at least looked like the badass one.

As you can probably tell from my fleet choices, looking cool is not high on my priority list, as I’m comfortable in my own shoes, but this was different. The R/T rear lights are just a completely different level of awesome.

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After painting the bumper and doing some research I realized that I would have to re-wire the rear light harness, as the Base lights used 3 bulbs and the R/T lights used 2. That pushed that project out into the “Nice to Have” category instead of the “Need That Shit Done Now!” category.

Interior

This was probably the easiest of items on the list to check off. Pull the seats out, call up my buddy Brian at Port City Custom Upholstery, wait a couple weeks and have a beautifully reupholstered interior for not-too-many-greenbacks (withholding the actual amount out of respect for the business).  Img 20230302 104213572

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The rear seatbealt buckles dent the seat back cushioning (when folded down) until the next hot day arrives.

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The issue with cars of this age that have sat in the Carolina sun for 30 years is that the dash vinyl cracks, and pulling the dash out to strip and re-cover it is a big undertaking. Most of the time it leaves you worse for the wear, as brittle dash plastics crack when disassembled and you’re left with a half-screwed-in rattling mess of a dash when you attempt to put it back in. Good luck finding one that isn’t brittle. We’ll just leave that be for the time being in The Future File, I decided.

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Check out those defroster vents. Not the greatest.

In The Paint

To really get this dream to fully be realized, I needed to get some halfway respectable paint on this body. Luckily for me, one of my best friends in the whole world owns a paint shop. Chuck Bailey with C.A.R.S. (Carolina Auto Restoration) told me that he absolutely didn’t want to paint my “Plymouth Laser or whatever the heck it is” whatsoever, but that if I did all the prep work and bought the paint, he’d shoot it.

Chuck Shoutout

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That is also my Gen 3 Sebring “Linen Gold” front fascia in the background on the paint stand. That rescue will be featured in an upcoming piece.

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Man, sanding and prepping a car is tedious. Wipers, trim, mirrors, lamps all off, glass masked, wheels covered, etc. Sanding, sanding and more sanding. Serious upper body and arm workout.

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After a few labor-intensive weekends it was ready to shine. The color was right out of the Mitsubishi paint catalog and it looked wicked:

Party on, Garth!

Of course now that I had the freshly-painted poster car from my childhood mostly rejuvenated, I had to celebrate it by bringing it to Wilmington’s Car & Coffee to show the world that it had re-arrived.

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I write for the world’s best car culture site and I had the only Dodge Stealth there (with fresh paint) and still only one guy over the course of three hours asked “Dat thang a Turbo?” about it. Oh well. I reconditioned this car for 12 year-old me, not for anyone else, so it didn’t matter, but I will admit I was hoping for more than the wet thud of the response it received.

Taking an open-minded honest approach to it had me realize that every car there was awesome and that mine was just one of many. It’s like the dude in a bar mostly full of dudes who is unsuccessfully hoping to strike up conversation with a girl. Just too much competition, friend.

It was all good to me regardless. I mean, y’all have seen my other rides, so it’s clearly not about impressing anyone over here at Gossin Motors Auto Rescue HQ.

Age 43 is a long ways from Age 12; Saying goodbye

Right now I have 13 cars and I think they’re all awesome. They (mostly) bring me joy and a smile every time I see or interact with them. I’ve always loved cars, ever since I was that 12 year-old kid. 

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Finding a place for all of them is another matter. Keeping air in 65 tires (including spares), keeping 13 batteries charged, paying monstrous insurance bills, yearly inspections and registrations is another matter. You should always keep a car until it doesn’t spark joy within you any more.

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I mean, come on, right?!

If you remember, I asked Greater Autopia which car to sell when faced with my parking situation boiling over into the red hash marks and received some great insight regarding this car, so thanks everyone.

I decided that I’d done everything I wanted with my rescue Stealth, and that hopefully I could inspire someone else to take it to the next level. 

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The last wash under my ownership.

And that’s exactly what happened as I ended up selling it to a young lady who told me that she’d never seen one that color before and was over the moon about it, flaws and all. It reminded me of myself in younger years if faced with the prospect of buying a Stealth like this one. Good taste and style cannot be bought. I will walk with my people.

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The Day I Said Goodbye

5yrs later: The day I said goodbye.

In a few years, the R/T Challengers that I’ve been eyeing for the past 15 years will start to fall into my desired (read: cheap) price range and I’ll be able to attain another badass, manual, 2-door Dodge, but one that came out in my 20s instead of one from my tweens. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug, but so is the promise of tomorrow. 

The Dodge Stealth will forever be that car that guys my age found beautiful and beyond cool due to the era in which we came up and came upon the scene. The same way those slightly younger than us got way into tuner Civics or JDM/Fast n’ Furious style scenes. In fact, the week after I sold it, someone paid $5 for a Craigslist ad in hopes of finding me and buying the car after I took down my ad!

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It’s amazing that there is such a dedicated group of folks keeping these cars in top shape, even if the overwhelming preference is for the Turbo cars. “You have a Base model?! Haven’t seen one of those in years!” -said to me from a Facebook Group member

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The sun was setting over the dream that was the Stealth (with the hood accidentally popped open-you gotta rush to get a good sunset).

I think that I just wanted to relive my childhood dreams with this Stealth. Perhaps that’s a common refrain in car culture, where many chase the cars of their youth and glory days in hopes to relive the magic that was once felt.

Every day I’d see it sitting in my driveway and smile at how great it looked. Then I’d see the puddle of oil on my driveway from the OEM front crank seal that was leaking. I’d hear the squawking belts on cold starts. I’d see the cracked dash when I sat in it. I knew in my heart that it, just like me, was aging and that my idealized vehicular perfection from ‘92 was seen, back then, from a childs’ eyes.

Like I said at the start of this piece, greater wisdom develops from the passage of time. I knew in my heart that it will always be a 30+ year old machine made out of steel, plastic, glass, silicon and rubber and that without constant influxes of time and money, it will continue to age and not for the better. Once the parts supply dries up and the Gen Z Electric Car Onslaught takes hold, a Base model Stealth will be just that; a slow, old, problematic, Gen Xer’s childhood poster dream car. Time changes your perspective. Time stops for no car.

Sometimes it’s best to look out the windshield at all that is yet to come instead of looking through the rear view.

See you next time, in the tomorrows yet to come.

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You can hear me catching my breath as it leaves for the last time.

All Photos by Stephen Walter Gossin

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Fe2 O3
Fe2 O3
10 months ago

Bro.. were we at the same party?! In San Diego or thereabouts.. it was a crew-hosted party mostly in someone’s back yard in 2000 or so? Great writing!

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