“I should’ve bought a Miata” I said to myself while staring at my new car. It was dirty, noisy, and had puked coolant all over itself after having to be pushed up the driveway. Now, two and a half years later, I’m extremely glad that I didn’t.
Miata may always be the answer, but it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t know what I wanted when I started looking for my first car, but I knew I didn’t want something ordinary, and I defy anybody to tell me that my first car story is “ordinary.”
It all started on September 26th, 1986 when a man named Leonard Borden went into a Ford dealership in Illinois and purchased a black, automatic Merkur XR4Ti. Over the years of ownership, Borden had the car modified with lowering springs, Koni suspension, four wheel disc brakes, Sierra Cosworth headlights and hood vents, a Borla exhaust, and several other odds and ends.
As Mr. Hardigree said in his article highlighting the sale of the car, which we will get to in a minute, Leonard bought the car after being diagnosed with kidney cancer, and he defied all odds when he made the last payment on the car in person.
The story of the car after Leonard’s ownership has been pretty well documented. It was quickly reverted back to as stock as possible and had a manual transmission swap by Merkur Midwest before being driven out to California for use on Top Gear. At the end of the show, the car was bought by Rutledge Wood who took it home to Georgia to little fanfare from his wife. That is where Matt Hardigree stepped in.
This was the first Jalopnik article I ever read and I was instantly hooked. Thankfully I was in the right place at the right time and I wound up taking delivery almost exactly a year after Hardigree.
My secret goal was to remedy all of the issues highlighted by Travis Okulski when Hardigree bought the car and I am happy to report that I was largely successful barring the red paint.
After my first night of ownership, I had an unfamiliar urge to write. Because of this urge and the success of the articles that resulted, I will soon be moving several hours away from my hometown to Muncie, Indiana where I will be studying journalism at Ball State University.
As much as I love the Merkur, I don’t really have a place to keep a second car while I’m off at school, and I know even if I could find somewhere it wouldn’t get driven, wouldn’t get taken care of, and would eventually deteriorate past the point of repair.
So rather than watch my first car die an inglorious death that no car deserves, I figured it’d be best to let it find a new home.
I auctioned the car through Bring a Trailer, which you might be aware of if you saw this aforementioned post by former-owner Matt Hardigree, if you heard me on the Untitled Car Show Podcast here, or if you’re one of my seven followers on social media where I posted about it profusely.
The week of the auction was one of the most stressful weeks of my young life. I actually managed to crash the mail app on my iPhone from refreshing it constantly despite most of the notifications being comments bashing me for being young.
When all was said and done, the car wound up going to a great home. The new owner drove the car back to Wisconsin where he plans to enjoy it with his car-loving six year old son.
One thing that people seem to forget about my ownership is that this was my first car. I did kid stuff in it. I drove it to take my SATs, I went on dates in it, and on one rainy afternoon I held a heroic and completely unintentional drift on a highway offramp.
Speaking of dates, it is worth noting that picking up a girl in a bright red old car with two wings, no air conditioning, and a virtually unpronounceable name is pretty risky. Especially if her father is outside.
While giving a teenage boy a car like this may sound like a recipe for disaster, I was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. I was also terrified by the prospect of having to write about Orloving my Merkur.
The closest I ever came to an accident during my ownership of the Merkur was when I was almost rear-ended by a DeLorean DMC-12 the day before the new owner arrived to take it home. This left part of me wishing I had the opportunity to write a truly one of a kind story, and the other part of me grateful that I didn’t have to give the owner his money back.
The result of me treating my sub-$3,000 car like something that was to be preserved and improved upon means that I am one of the few 18 year olds to sell a car in better condition than I bought it.
Throughout my ownership of the car I compared it to a new Mustang, my soon to be roommate and I made a video about a small road trip we took which his audio video production teacher praised as “not crap,” and it even had a cameo in a music video we made for school.
One thing I didn’t get the chance to do with my Merkur was write a “review” of it. This was mostly down to the fact that I hadn’t driven enough cars to know how things are supposed to feel.
Now, however, I have. I’ve even written a review for a Ford Flex, which pretty much means I’m a trustworthy source of automotive information.
Rather than bore you with suspension travel-based hyperbole and lamenting the loss of steering feel in modern cars, I figured I would focus on the interesting things.
The pedals for example. The brake and the throttle are impossibly close together, and while I initially thought this was a result of the car being converted to a manual from an automatic, I’ve been assured that this is what all 1986 Merkur footwells look like.
The upside? Heel-toe rev matching is damn near easier than breathing. After a few days behind the wheel, you don’t even have to think about it, it just happens.
The downside? Someone like myself who was given big, dumb feet has to get used to either buying narrow shoes, or take one shoe off while driving.
A majority of the time, I chose the latter.
The throw between gears is almost truck-like. The transmission does not like to be rushed, but that seems to be the nature of the car in general. You don’t slam it down into gear and chuck it into a corner, you gently slide it into gear, you get your braking done before you turn in, and you ride the surge of turbocharged power out of it.
The Merkur isn’t at home roads that are too technical, it’s a cruiser that prefers wide open sweepers and long straightaways. It encourages you to drive quickly, but not like an idiot. Once you get acclimated to how the car likes to be driven, you’ll soon find yourself very lost and very far away from home with a massive smile on your face.
So you might now be wondering what’s next, I am “the kid with the Top Gear Merkur” after all.
As far as a car is concerned, my parents wanted me to get something practical and utilitarian to drive back and forth to school. Something endlessly reliable and mind-numbingly boring. What I actually wound up buying is a high-milage 2007 Volkswagen GTI from two Hispanic gentlemen and a rooster, but that’s a story for another time.
As for me, I will be starting my first semester of college in less than a week and despite the Merkur starting a new life with a new owner, I certainly don’t think you’ve heard the last from me.
And with that, here ends my last Merkur article. It’s been a joy to own, a joy to drive, and a joy sharing my experiences with all of you. I’d like to thank Midwest Merkur for all of their advice and help sourcing parts, my parents for letting me buy such a contraption, my grandmother for reading everything I write, and all the good people at Jalopnik for sharing and supporting my writing over the years.