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4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun

Root beers and rust
Root beers and rust

Hi all,

Some of you may remember me from around half of a decade ago. Until leaving for college, Oppo and Jalopnik served as my primary outlet of creativity. Cars and writing have both served as primary passions for me for as long as I can remember, and even when I was publishing fairly malformed and juvenile posts from 15 years old, you guys were all here to support me and maintain a love for writing and storytelling. I thank you endlessly for that, and now that I am able to remove my focus from school I am here to share some stories with you guys.

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So, where did we leave off?

Oh yes. Me selling my all-time dream car as I prepared to leave for my freshman year at UMass.

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Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun

It was rough. I had lusted for a 190E Cossie since I first learned of them around the age of 13. I always consider myself one to root for the underdog, and the Cossie has always lurked in the vast shadow cast by the E30 M3 since the two first began facing off in DTM. Factor in slightly more mature looks and a more affordable entry price for the Cossie, and that was the car I vowed to own one day.

Some great cars came before this Benz, and I’m fortunate enough to have had some very lucky sales that allowed for me to own some stellar cars as a young teenager. The Cosworth was a fitting period to that sentence, the last bucket list car before I left to begin my adult life. It was stellar, absolutely dialed on the strange suspension combination of Bilsteins and cut E400 springs the previous owner had adorned. Turn-in was predictable and precise, and the car gave phenomenal feedback through the bottom of the driver’s seat and the massive, city-bus-esque factory steering wheel. The grip was potentially just a result of the massive Direzza ZIIs, but also was clearly enhanced by the design of a stellar chassis. That car was backroad nirvana, and even led me to my first autocross victory despite being classed a bit unfairly and myself being green around the ears as a driver.

So anyways, the stories at hand. I left for school in Fall of 2015. Our campus is pretty big, but very much in a small town. Think a city with 20,000 kids per undergraduate class, but built in a big cow pasture. That’s UMass Amherst.

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As a result, basically anything that was needed by a student was either on-campus or within a bus ride/walk. So I pocketed the money I would normally spend on cars and funneled it into something more responsible but less fun, in the form of my tuition.

I loved that school, the feeling of being there. There’s something unique about being in what was essentially a small city made of people your own age, all with the same intention of being there. So as many can likely attest, a feeling of dread would always rear its ugly head just prior to the end of second semester, for something besides final exams. Returning home.

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Being from a small town in Connecticut, there was never really a ton to do with spare time. Good friends are always the key to staying occupied, and I had those, but I didn’t have a ton in the way of the freedom that I had been accustomed to. Since I would be working through the Summer, however, it did mean one positive; time to buy another car.

The reason for my backstory here is to justify why I made a very unwise decision. See, I could only work part-time at school given the burden of my studies. Tuition, as we all know, is very expensive. And as it turns out, living on your own is too- who would’ve thought?

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So what am I getting at?

The right answer is to buy a cheap, reliable car that gets you to your summertime construction job every day. With working A/C, so that when you get off of the steamy work site at the end of a 12-hour day, you can watch your beads of sweat leaking from every single orifice dissipate, and so you can just breathe as you commute home in peace. Something like a Honda or a Toyota.

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What grade do I give myself for accomplishing this?

D-.

:)
:)
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So this was my B5 A4. It was none of the things mentioned above. An ex-track car, this tiny little AWP 1.8 turbo was like picking a child off of a high school track team and sticking them in the Olympics. This thing had to be tuned within an inch of it’s life, and I genuinely wonder if its still running today, wherever it is.

It was on Koni coilovers, Hotchkiss sway bars, 993 Turbo brakes, and a full APR stage 3 Turbo kit. Bigger turbo, injectors, cooling...the works, essentially. Stock power output? I believe 160-ish. This one? 300.

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The B5 A4 was not, and is not, a car that car culture took any notice of. Somewhere along the way, this one had been turned into something it definitely was not; a performance car. See, the tricky thing with these older Audis is that you can’t really make them fast. In a straight line, sure, all day. Audi’s always been great at designing the comfiest, coolest Autobahn missiles one can find. The cars are phenomenal at being quick.

But they aren’t fast. When it comes to handling, the true measure of a fast car? Well, I bought the wrong car.

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Pretty, if nothing else.
Pretty, if nothing else.

Quattro generally results in the engine hanging waaaay out over the front wheels, so push is nearly inevitable. Factor in my previous Audi being a lovely Coupe Quattro, with old-fashioned mechanically-locking differentials front and rear. This A4 had some form of a Haldex system (Do not quote me on that- I never looked that up as I was too disgusted to care what it was, but it was bad) that essentially meant whenever an inside tire would unload mid-corner, regardless of how sticky the rubber was, it would spin like a good ole’ open diff with zero predictability. I brought this car to an autocross prepared to rocket out of corners, but unless the cones were perfectly straight, I was pushing and roasting tires. On a track with a more flowing layout it could’ve been fine, but I never got it there.

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The engine was actually pretty good for what it was. This was my first turbocharged car, and it was a good way to do it. All of that induction plumbing paired with the GT28RS “Disco Potato” turbo by Garrett made it very noisy. Windows up, highway cruising with the wind blowing, rolling into the throttle in 5th resulted in a cacophony of magical wooshy noises my virgin, natural-aspiration-loving ears had never heard before. And it moved, despite being a pretty hefty car.

In true cheap-car fashion it was obviously not without fault though. When I bought it, it was throwing a code for a bad O2 sensor. Not bad, and not a deterrent for me by any means, though I would have to resolve that issue before the car could pass CT inspection and be registered.

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Oddly enough, I did the O2 sensor and nothing changed. So then I did the other one.

No change.

So I brought it somewhere. “Yeah, that’s really weird.”

So I brought it somewhere else.

ECU was fried.

The tricky part there was that this was an older car. Sourcing an ECU wasn’t too bad, and wasn’t too detrimental to my budget. But unlike newer cars where you just pop a laptop in, hit a button and make the magic happen, this system was chip-driven. So I had to send the new ECU out to APR where they could upload a similar file (Unsurprisingly they did not stock the ancient one this car received when upgraded) and send the ECU back to me for testing. We did that once, and the car ran like a bag of garbage. We did it again, and the car ran flawlessly. Making an extra 3psi of boost and running a bit less rich too.

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A brief note; This car was modified by one of the previous owners. I don’t even know if it was done by the previous owner or prior to that. APR had no reason to extend a hand to me to get this car working properly again, but they really slaved away at it and ultimately handed back a car that ran like a freight train again. Big thanks to them. That is stellar service.

All said and done, the ECU debacle cost over $1000 to resolve. And while my car was fast again, I still did not have A/C. That was a sweaty summer. Plus, with the tune and injectors, it got somewhere in the teens on the highway. That was pretty impressive to see out of a 1.8L, though not in the good way.

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School came around again so the B5 went up on Bring a Trailer. It sold way cheaper than I expected it to, and despite that motor doing everything it could to make power, it ran flawlessly through my whole ownership and it’s departure. I hope the new owner has enjoyed it, because I still miss that car.

Sophomore year came and went. Time for another Summer car, this time with funds very much dwindling and a new job working for an Audi dealer nearly an hour from home. So this time, I took my failures into consideration. I bought something cheap, reliable, and sorted, a no-frills, long-distance commuter that would simply get the job done.

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Yeah, I didn’t do that.

Body panels by Botox
Body panels by Botox
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This is “Saturd” my somewhat-abused Saturn Ion Redline. These were pretty neat. Factory supercharged like its Cobalt SS counterpart, but being a Saturn, it was made entirely from plastic. This meant a 2800 pound car with something like 200 horsepower.

Notice how I don’t know the stock power output of that car? Surprise, its Dumb Decision Danny again.

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This IRL had a ZZP Stage 3 kit. Smaller pulley, upgraded cooling, lowered, exhaust from the headers back, and more. The result? 270 wheel horsepower.

I called it “The Snot Rocket” for a while, because that seemed like a proper balance of praise and disgust for this strange little monstrosity. It came to me fully riced, with Plastidip everywhere and a host of small issues.

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I chipped away at the neglected maintenance through wheel bearings, axles, sensors, and just some general love. This included removing the black Plastidip done over the taillights. Because, well...”Not in my house.”

A brief note; 16 pound injectors meant somewhere in the low teens for fuel economy on the highway when paired with an unclutched blower. Couple that with a tiny tank and I was filling it up every other day.

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Absolute missile. That is how I would describe that car. The exhaust rattled the windows with a baritone belch, while the blower echoed in a shrill scream from hell up to well-over 7000 rpm. If it was wet out, the tires would spin by rolling into the throttle from 40. It lacked every single thing the B5 had in refinement and comfort, but also lacked everything that made the old Audi cumbersome. It didn’t lack functional A/C though. That was nice.

What was not a nice moment in the ownership of that car was the Banana woman.

One day, I was sitting at a stop light on a four-lane road. Around 20 seconds after I had stopped, a woman in a Corolla drove into the back of me at 10-15 miles per hour.

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I got out of the car pretty aghast, and just pointed at the still-red light.

She explained to me that she was on a costume delivery. See, it was nearly Halloween, and apparently this woman custom-made costumes and delivered them herself. I know this, because in explaining why she drove into the back of me, she told me she was looking up directions to her delivery location. She then showed me said banana costume, to convince me she was telling the truth I guess?

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It was a light hit and there was zero damage, thanks to the plastic body panels. I told her to get out of my sight and stay off of her phone and went home with a clean Carfax.

I met my girlfriend in that car. Contrary to what early-2000s movies may have you believe, showing up with a clapped-out crapcan that can blow it’s tires off while the exhaust echoes off of houses generally will not win the girl. She was not the biggest fan of that car.

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(Videos included)

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I did autocross it. It did not do well. Mediocre tires in a dusty lot meant that if I had an inkling of a thought in the back of my brain, a murmur saying “you should probably touch the gas pedal” it would blow the tires off. Once it got some speed going, it handled reasonably well.

Placed 9th-to-last, despite being classed near the top given the mods.
Placed 9th-to-last, despite being classed near the top given the mods.
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Summer eventually came to a close. I was moving into a rented property off-campus with some friends, a bit of a ways out from the school and the town of Amherst. That meant that this time, it actually made sense to keep a car. The problem was that I was very much getting into the danger zone for funds, and the Saturd drank gas like it had run off with my wallet. So, up for sale it went. It ultimately landed in the hands of a gentleman from Ohio who has done better things with that car than I ever could have.

But as stated above, I really needed a car now. So I dove back onto Craigslist to continue the saga of owning some of the worst cars I could have.

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Let’s all say it together. “Danny, just get a Honda.”

I bought a Mercedes.

Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun
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It was actually a fairly reasonable pick this time. A bone-stock C230 with the 1.8L supercharged four. Kind of neat too, as it was a rare factory sport-sedan with a 6-speed manual. It got over 30 miles to the gallon on the highway, the A/C worked, and it had heated seats. Honestly, a good car for how cheap they are.

I was done with it in two weeks.

“Zero emotion” is generally what I felt driving that car. It was comfy, and it worked well, but it was beige. I mean, Mercedes, why would you put a silencer on a supercharger? The whole point is for the car to sound like a banshee, not like a sewing machine.

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The one enjoyable thing about that car was Winter. I don’t know if it was the combination of Brand-X tires that car was running (four wheels on a car, right? This car was sold to me with 3 different brands of tire) or something about the balance of it, but this car was an absolute terror in inclement weather in the best way. Backing it into flowing corners at over 50 miles per hour, I never felt like I was going to lose it. I would blast through the Massachusetts countryside like a Finn, which feels like the highest of praise a winter car can get.

But ultimately, the car bored me. Even my poor girlfriend, thrown from the frying pan that was the Saturn into the nursing home that was the Mercedes felt that it wasn’t a car for me. So up it went for sale.

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A big problem came a week or so after my 21st birthday.

We went out to a bar, and all Ubered like responsible members of society. The little shanty we were living in had a pretty wide driveway, so my housemates and myself could always cram our 4 cars in without too much issue and with a bit of staggering.

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We got home at around 2:30 in the morning, again, by Uber. Like responsible, sane humans. We all sat around in the living room for about an hour too long as I had work in the morning, but eventually my roommate and I wobbled up to bed. I tucked myself in, set my alarm, slumped back onto my pillow...and saw strobe lights flicker across the room. Then a big bang, and screeching.

We both got up and peered out our tiny window over the driveway. All looked fine, but there was a car pulled over at the end of the driveway with hazards on. I pointed out with great deductive skills that somebody must’ve crashed, and my roommate interjected to say it looked like my car had moved.

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Those damn Duke boys...
Those damn Duke boys...

Ultimately, a young drunk driver had blown through a stop sign across the street from our house, across a 2-lane state highway, through our yard and into my Mercedes. Before doing this, he hit a small berm next to the driveway, going airborne and essentially landing on the trunk of the Benz, shifting it over about a half a foot and within inches of my roommates Rav-4.

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Then the kind gentleman left.

The car at the end of the driveway was a kind witness who had stopped to call the police after seeing the whole thing. Fortunately, the offender’s Nissan Rogue was demolished, and as we ran outside to survey the scene we could hear him slowly scraping into the distance.

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The police came, and additional officers cut him off maybe a quarter of a mile down the road. It was noted that if our cars had not been parked in a wall across the driveway, the Nissan likely would’ve come into our living room. Underneath my bed.

Shockingly, the Benz was not totaled. Less surprisingly, as fate has it, I had agreed on a price to sell that car two days before. That was a sad phone call to make, and ultimately the buyer was no longer interested. I understood.

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The car eventually came back to me looking good as new, with a second chance at life. Somehow it had faired fine, while the Rogue was a write-off.

I drove it a little longer, and then sold it to my father who daily drives it to this day. But just before it left, I hit a massive pothole and cracked a wheel. I decided the car was cursed, bought a new wheel, and said goodbye with little remorse.

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So now we come to the fourth and final misfit of the story; “Big Booty Judi.”

Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun
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Any of you that have read my contributions to this website from years ago likely remember that I like my cars to be good at something. Handling is my favorite, but acceleration and speed are also frequently sought, as made evident by the first two heroes (villains, really) of this story.

Big Booty Judi was good at being dirt cheap.

Not to stray from the topic of cars too much, but my Senior year at school was pretty trying. My funds were essentially gone despite working a fair amount, as rent, bills and living costs were starting to consume me. Couple that with my increased courseload prior to graduation and the ability to afford only one meal of my choice a day, and I went to a pretty dark place mentally and physically.

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Driving has always been an escape for that, as I feel many of us can relate to. Judi, a turd of a minitruck, was fairly decrepit. She was a 2.2L, manual GMC Sonoma. Lowered on an admittedly legitimate suspension setup, it was essentially a pig with lipstick on. Big sound system, custom paint and a big cowl hood, but made maybe 100 horsepower and felt like it was falling apart all of the time. The squeaks and rattles from driving on a straight, flat road should have been appalling. I figured it was just how trucks were, which I know now is untrue.

I bought it with an intake and headers. It actually sounded okay, especially in the higher third of the rev range. I actually learned this the night that I bought it. I was driving down the Merritt, cruise control on at 65, and came to an incline of around 10 degrees.

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Revs straight to limiter. Goodbye clutch.

I replaced that for about half of what I paid for the entire truck. Brought it back up to school and settled back into what was admittedly a pretty dark existence.

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But on nights when I could, I would just drive. Judi sqeaked and rattled like she was about to split in half at all times. I should never have felt safe in that thing, but something about rowing through the gears at a pace slower than a Miata always brightened my mood, as I tore through the moonlit Western Mass countryside. It was so wrong for the job that it made low speeds feel fun.

Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun
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When it rained, that truck was a whole new ballgame. No weight in the back and the steering angle of a work truck. Despite the lack of power and being one-wheel-drive, I could put it into a corner backwards enough to be peering out of the passenger window. If I was ever in a particularly bad mood I went to an abandoned parking lot.

Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun
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I learned a lot from that truck. How to hold on to a passion and a hobby that’s important to your sanity, even when the funds aren’t there to do it the way you want to. How to enjoy what you have, even if its a slightly rusty relic of the early-2000s. How to work on cars and how to drive without a clutch, when the clutch master went out on mile 3 of a 200 mile drive home. Never a huge wrench myself, I replaced it on my back in the street during a snow storm to get to work at a homeless shelter the following night. And even how to make light of a tough situation, when following the submission of my final assignment as a college student I took her for a drive. I made it about two miles from home and lost a ball joint. Catastrophically.

Rather than joining friends to celebrate our achievements at the bar, I was befriending the three AAA tow drivers that were sent to me before one could get my low-hanging fruit on the bed of the truck.

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The front fell off.
The front fell off.

I sold Judi for the exact amount that I was into her a few months after I graduated. She got replaced with my current ride, my lovely 1999 Ford Contour SVT, one day before I started working my first adult job in an automotive field (and having absolutely nothing to do with my major in Public Health). Fairly ironic to go domestic now of all times, after owning almost exclusively Euro years prior, but she’ll likely be leaving me soon as I move on to a new adventure.

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But that will be another story.

Illustration for article titled 4 Years of College in Four Undesireables- My Tales of Poverty-Driven Motorsport Fun
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Anybody interested can read more about these cars and see some video footage at my Instagram account here.

Thanks for reading!

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