Hi, it’s Steve, the nerdy NVH engineer from metro Detroit. The time has come to sell my cars, and while my collection might not rival David or Stephen Gossin’s, it’s gotten a little away from me. At my job, I switched to a new, awesome position, but it requires a lot more work and time on the road. I have my website, DIYauto.com, that I try to manage, and I have this crack at living out a lifelong dream as an automotive journalist. Oh, I also have a family that includes a two-year-old. If you haven’t heard, toddlers require lots of attention.
I’m not complaining! At some point you realize that to give all the different aspects of your life the attention they deserve, you need to trim the fat somewhere. I’m sure David felt the same a couple of years ago when he sold most of his Jeep collection/sculpture garden [ED Note: That’s cold! -DT] and moved to LA. It was probably painful to let those go, but out of that came the freedom to build this awesome website and community of weirdos we are all a part of.
I’ve always had a baseline number of vehicles. But it has grown a bit. Plus I disobeyed the rule that I rarely follow: never daily a project. “Audi S8s often go over 200,000 miles! When the transmission fails I can just swap in a manual, the car will double in value!” I told myself.
What hubris! When a “mint” 1994 Bonneville SSEI, a dream car of mine, came for sale I thought “Is the legendary 3800, it will never die, I can just drive that when the Audi is down!” And that’s what I’m doing now folks. Driving the Bonneville is kind of great, the Audi being down? Not so much.
There’s a marked difference between good wrenching and bad wrenching. Spending a Sunday night lying on a freezing cement floor changing wheel bearings, or rebuilding a VANOS unit in the driveway using a houselamp for illumination — all so you can drive to work the next day — isn’t great wrenching. Add in the time sourcing parts and looking up DIYs for a whole fleet of vehicles, and it’s enough to scramble your brain.
So, dear readers, I need your help so I can maximize the good, and minimize the bad. Help me choose which project cars, if any, to keep; and what I should buy as a daily driver. The power is in your greasy hands folks. But I trust yall, I think…
First, we will go over the cars I’m selling for sure.
Selling. 1987 Chevy C10 on airbags
I never sought out to buy a bagged C10, but these things happen. I saw the photo on Craigslist, nestled in the snow like a brawny golden brick, and had to check it out. The truck was running when I got to the industrial park it was residing in, but laying on the frame with no real way to move. The owner shiftily explained that all the valves had gotten knocked off, but he had all the parts and would fix it up so it was drivable if I bought it. Stupidly I agreed and gave him the cash for the title. The guy subsequently disappeared off the face of the earth, and so did the truck! I called local towing companies and found the yard it was towed to, and for a price, they were nice enough to bring it to my house.
At least the seller was honest about the airbag suspension valves being torn out. I replaced the old valves with a modern Airlift management system. Besides a few other small items to repair, that was it! It’s far from a show truck, there are dents, the paint is faded, there’s a fist-sized hole in the driver’s floorboard covered with a license plate. The interior didn’t come with carpet but there were a few bullets in the glovebox, so fair trade.
This has been an honest reliable truck, that we’ve used for truck stuff more than anything. Sure it was a lot of fun to have the fam sit in the back and drive around the Dream Cruise, but it’s also been nice for grabbing furniture off Marketplace or picking up piles of sod or potatoes or whatever else people do. As much as I think the C10 is the perfect aesthetic form for a pickup truck, my heart has always pined for a Ford RangerSplash in some suitable ’90s pastel color with the friendly face. Plus the C10 takes up the whole length of the garage, I literally can’t walk past it with the garage door closed. I like it but I don’t love it. About a dozen people have stopped in the street and asked if it’s for sale this summer. So this will go up first and hopefully go quickly.
Selling: 2001 Audi S8
Everyone loves a hero car, and this car matches the Ronin hype. However, it’s not one of those squeaky-clean heroes like Adam West’s Batman. It’s a raggedy hero with an edge and a dark side, like all the later more sullen Batmen. Under that snow are dents, scratches, and faded paint. The previous owner started swapping out the boring beige interior for a rare black/cognac version and stopped at the dashboard. Beige and cognac don’t mix together on a spiritual level. He also messed up the driver’s heated seat module, which is unfortunate here in Michigan.
But it is fast! It sounds great with the rear muffler delete! It eats up miles and hugs the road like a real bähnstormer! It has the craziest window-sealing system I’ve seen! It’s also a beast in the snow! Has it been a reliable daily? Depends on your definition. The car runs out of fuel at a half tank of gas because of Audi’s saddle gas tank and its byzantine system of hoses and siphons. The instrument cluster pixels smear together after a few minutes so I don’t know what time it is half the… time. I’m doing the timing belt, water pump service right now which wouldn’t be too bad if I didn’t have to tear the car’s face off to do it. Overall it’s been a great car to own, and I’ll miss it, but I won’t be sad to replace it with something more sensible.
I may decide to keep one of these next two, what do you think?
Maybe Keeping? A 1994 Pontiac Bonneville SSEI
Gearheads are like baby birds. Everyone has that car that imprints itself in your brain when you are young. I had been into cars since I could crawl and hold a Hot Wheels in my paw. But I still remember that day when I was 14 years old gathering shopping carts at the local Pick’n ‘Save, when I saw a forest green SSEI sitting on those gold mesh wheels. I thought it was the coolest looking car and I finally got one about a month ago.
The story of me buying it is pretty good so I’ll be writing about that in a review later. But here are the stats: Rust-free Florida car with 80k miles. The Florida sun that didn’t rust the car roached the seats. Fresh 10-ft garage paintjob. New shocks, windshield and headliner. Supercharged 3800 that will outlast us all. Interior quality you’d expect from an early 90’s GM product. Awesome highway cruiser. Easy to wrench on and most parts are available at the local stores. Plus my wife really likes it.
Maybe Keeping?: S52 Swapped 1988 BMW 528e
In stark contrast to my beloved Bonneville, my whole family hates this car. Not so much the car but what getting it did to me. I got this car in trade from one of those car buddies we all have. As part of the trade he would do the engine swap; and this guy had the parts, the facilities, the skills, and the reputation of someone who could do this. However, the swap took about four years of broken promises longer than it was supposed to. At one point it was going to be ready so I could ride in it during the baraat (husband parade) at my Indian wedding. When it was obvious it wouldn’t be finished he said I could use one of his other cool cars, but he never showed up so I used my E38 (still a pretty good parade car). So a majority of my ownership time has been years of repeating bummers which my family and friends obviously noticed.
So after rescuing it and spending about a year finishing the swap and all those nagging issues it’s finally running, and it runs great. The sounds and sensations that M-tuned inline six makes when it pulls to redline are spiritual. It’s probably the coolest looking car I’ve had and it’s a blast to drive. Unfortunately, it’s got hidden rust problems. There’s a hole in the driver’s footwell and general crustiness underneath. As Mercedes found, getting rust repair on an old BMW is neither easy nor cheap. And I could get about $12k for this car as-is which is a needed chunk of change, in exchange for not having to pay out about half that much to get it mended properly. There’s also some wiring harness cleanup to do and electrical isn’t my bag. I only have about three hours behind the wheel since it’s been running well. I’m going to try to enjoy it as much as I can while I iron out some final issues because it may be on the chopping block.
So fellow Autopians, I want to be down to one project car, what do you say?
If you aren’t mentally exhausted from mulling that over, I’ve got one more for you. What should I get for my next daily?
I’m an adult with a job so I have to drive places. Many of which are far away. Eight of my last ten dailies have been older German cars with over 100k miles, some north of 200k miles. As Bruce Willis said, “I’m too old for this shit.” I want my wrenching to be fun again, not due to cold necessity.
I have a wife and kid that I occasionally take on road trips. I have to haul equipment around for my job. I have a home and a Home Depot less than a mile from my house. I like cars with plenty of space.
I’m sure there are some SUVs and CUVs that would work well for me, but I’m more into cars. Feel free to make suggestions though.
I fully believe that a car’s goodness is situation-dependent. I’ve owned several cars that are known for their handling. A ’94 NSX, a ’91 turbocharged Miata, a Fiesta ST, and a ’69 Midget. There are many places with great roads where these cars would be sublime to own. However, in south east Michigan, we have a grid of neglected roads that are only marginally smoother than the ground in between them. In the occasional on-ramp or roundabout, these cars could be life-affirming. But for the other 98% of my route I’m driving down ruler-straight roads while dodging potholes that would bruise the cockles of my soul.
The Bonneville is brilliant here. Sure the interior rattles like hell when you cruise over a broken railroad crossing but she can take it. You hear the craters but don’t really feel them. I’m not looking to buy a boat, but it should be nice for long trips while not punishing on our cratered streets.
5: Remote Start
Yes, this eliminates the few manual options that may meet my criteria but in Michigan, it’s freaking necessary. I’ve never owned a car that had it, but seeing my coworkers getting into a warm, defrosted car while I could see my breath for most of the commute made me jealous every time. The last straw came one freezing morning while I was standing in two feet of snow chipping at a sheet of ice so I could open the door while wrangling my one-year-old. “TECHNOLOGY EXISTS!” I thought. “Why do I live like some type of animal!” This is honestly something I really look forward to.
You may be looking at these requirements and thinking, “Why am I picking a car for my Grandpa?” I admit, I’m almost 40. I’m getting old but not giving up! The car has to have something that sparks some joy. Just cause it’s a big comfortable cruiser doesn’t mean it can’t be fun to drive. If it comes with a more powerful engine, I’ll want that one. I don’t want to get bored and sell it in a year.
A few more notes:
Good MPG is nice but not a requirement. I get mileage reimbursement for my work trips so it’s not so bad. I’m not afraid of rebuilt title cars in general, some of my picks are only in my price range if their title isn’t green. Obviously, this is a case-by-case basis. My wife’s car is a 2018 Honda Accord with the 6-speed manual, which is the perfect family car and has been dead nuts reliable. My budget is in the low $20s. Less than $20,000 is better, but I’d say $25k is the ceiling.
Here’s what I’ve been looking at.
Buick Regal Tour X
I know it’s hypocritical to say no German cars and have my first choice be an Opel, but this is the most practical one on this list. It’s a wagon, has a good ride, and a 2.0L turbo that makes over 300 HP… I think [Ed note: The GS version did, but that wasn’t available as a wagon. The wagon has 250 hp – MH]. Plus they look cool. They are kind of rare but there are a handful right around $20k in the area
I got to benchmark one of those cars and was thoroughly impressed. They look sharp, have a cool interior, an excellent stereo system, and with the twin-turbo V6 it got out of its own way. Since then I’ve had a hankering for one. There are a bunch of these right in my price range.
I went to the SRT experience at Michigan International Speedway a while ago and got to drive the whole SRT family. Overall, I liked the 300 the best. These are ubiquitous here in Detroit which is a minus in some ways, and a plus in others. If you drive one of these you could be someone’s Grandma that works at an accounting office or a kid who just did an illegal sideshow on the Lodge freeway. However, they still look cool and have a ton of features for the money.
I read some contemporary reviews (you know a car has been around a while when you have to specify what decade the review was done), and expected everyone to bash its old architecture and Chrysler interior plastics. Besides a few perfunctory negative remarks, they all praised the car. It’s kind of an anachronism these days which I like. I’ll test drive the V6 but would probably get the V8. These can be pretty cheap too.
This rounds out the trio of big American four-door sedans. In comparison tests, this one always got high marks for being more athletic than it had any right to be. They look cool but I worry that it might have too much technology that could fail expensively. It’s also the most ostentatious, which isn’t totally my style. But they are cheap now and I want to test drive one.
There’s a 2013 S8 by me with just over 90k miles that’s had every maintenance item done at the dealer and WAIT WHAT ARE YOU DOING! I THOUGHT YOU WERE NO LONGER ABOUT THAT LIFE! But think of how glorious it would be! 600 horsepower!!1! Sorry! I’ll enroll in a treatment program, I have a problem. Don’t recommend this car because I’d probably get it.
This is the enthusiast option. 420 horses, universal acclaim from the car press. Most are too expensive but there are a handful in my price range. I think they look just as good if not better than the new Cadillacs.
You’ll notice these are almost all American cars. I’m not opposed to getting something Japanese or Korean. I’m not a huge fan of the looks of the early Genesis models that are in my price range. I don’t want two Honda Accords, and most Lexuses don’t do a lot for me. But if I’m missing any gems let me know in the comments.
So my life is in your hands, fellow Autopians. This may sound like a sad situation but I’m actually really looking forward to this. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a reliable daily and only have one project car’s needs rattling around my ADHD-addled brain. I’ll probably be 10 lbs lighter.
Case in point, while my Audi is in pieces I drove the Bonneville two hours to Saginaw for work. The day before I changed the plugs and wires because it was due and it was getting horrible gas mileage. It seemed to recognize my efforts because the multifunction wiper stalk which only had one working speed and wouldn’t turn off once the wiping started, had suddenly fixed itself. I had all my speeds and can turn the wipers off now!
However, the GM VATS anti-theft bypass the previous owner installed flaked out on me for about 45 minutes. Normally 1-out-of-10 start attempts the car wouldn’t start so I’d have to wait a few minutes for the security light to turn off before I could turn the car on. Now it wouldn’t turn on no matter how much I coaxed it. I was worried I’d have to tow the car and enlist a friend or family member to drive four hours to get me and bring me home. The fix is a few bucks and maybe 20 minutes of time, but I haven’t had a chance to get to it. Thankfully the hundredth time was a charm and it eventually started up. These are the things I’d like to avoid.
I’ve bared my enthusiast soul here for all to see. When it’s time to take big steps in our automotive journey, it helps to turn to the community for guidance. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.