The life of a car enthusiast is one often filled with fun, joy, and perhaps freedom. Every once in a while, everything goes wrong and you find yourself in a pit of automotive despair. Autopian? Yes, but also it’s Autopain. This is your automotive rock bottom, a situation so bad that you couldn’t fathom a way for things to get worse. Don’t worry, friend, because we’ve all been there. What was your automotive rock bottom?
What many people consider to be the peak of my Gambler 500 shenanigans was also my automotive rock bottom. Let’s flip those calendars back to 2019 …
My trusty Smart Fortwo had just completed its third Gambler 500 rally. I also bought one of my first four-wheeled vehicles that wasn’t a Smart, a 2000 Ford Ranger with four-wheel-drive and the mighty 4.0-liter V6. The Ranger was supposed to carry the Gambler torch from the Smart, because off-road endurance rallies are hard on a little city car.
I gave the Ranger a whole theme, too, calling it the “White Claw Rascue.” The idea was that I’d find people in need of White Claw and give them a drink. Look, my alcohol tastes aren’t great. The hood had “Drink White Claw” backward, so when you looked in your mirror and saw me coming it would read correctly.
That Ranger was a great truck until it wasn’t. After its first and only Gambler 500 run, the automatic transmission’s shifting behavior became bizarre. It would shift gears only when you manually shifted using the column; the transmission was incapable of shifting by itself when the shifter was in drive. The engine also couldn’t idle while in gear. Instead, the engine fluctuated 500 RPM and sometimes stalled. (I later found out the transmission control module’s wires were rubbing on sharp metal, tearing their insulation and causing the TCM to short out.) I couldn’t afford to fix the truck, so I sold it and bought my next project, a Ford Festiva.
I removed the Festiva’s doors, windows, and tailgate before turning it into a discount go-kart. The idea was that the Festiva would be my Gambler 500 car and I’d daily my Smart as usual.
Then the Smart’s alternator seized, tearing up the serpentine belt and stranding the car at home. Sure, I had two other Smarts at the time, but one had windows that were jammed open and the other had a titling issue. That left me with having to fix the original Smart. Unfortunately, every quote I got on alternator replacement was far too expensive for me to afford back then. So, I made one really bad choice: Drive the rally kart. I scrapped the doors, so I couldn’t even put them back on.
I did just that, driving an open-air Ford Festiva through a Chicago winter with a leaky gas tank, a rust hole surrounding the rear axle, and exactly no heat. I drove that car through snowstorms and had to shovel snow out of the interior. To this day, that Festiva was the only car I had to scrape both the inside and the outside of the windshield. I would have ridden a motorcycle on the better days, but at the time I had 6 bikes and none of them ran.
Daily driving my terrible rally kart build made me a bit of a local celebrity, with even the CEO of the company I worked for saying he was jealous that I drove such cool cars. Nobody knew the misery of my daily commute! Thankfully, the car blew a rusty brake line, blew a rusty fuel line, and killed itself in a pond at an off-road park. I replaced it with my first ever Volkswagen, a 2005 Passat TDI wagon with a horrible boost leak. I had hit automotive rock bottom so hard that another broken car with a 60 mph acceleration time of 43 seconds and a top speed of 67 mph was a spectacular upgrade.
I finally pulled out of my automotive slump when I started collecting dream cars starting in 2020.
What’s your automotive rock bottom? How bad has your car ownership experience gotten?