I was a slightly late bloomer when it came to driving. When I turned 16, I wasn't really in any hurry to get a license or a car, but that all changed when I recently turned 17 and found myself needing to get rides from my mom to go to my first girlfriend's house; not exactly the most elegant of situations.
So in late April 2006, my mom and I went car shopping. We ran around to a ton of places in northern Indiana looking for cars at used car lots and a few private sellers my mom had found in the paper. After looking at probably hundreds of different cars, we stopped at a little car lot and took a look around. The dealer came out and my mom gave him an idea of our price range and he started showing her some cars like Tauruses, Grand Ams, etc. I kind of wandered off a little so I was still within earshot but looking at a different group of cars. One caught my eye and I walked over too it and glimpsed the price tag of $4000 on the window which was within our budget.
I knew practically nothing about it when I first saw it other than it was a cool dark green color, had two doors, and a slightly muscle-ish look to it. Well, at least compared to the jelly bean styled cars I'd been looking at all day. It ended up being a 123,000 mile 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix SE coupe. When I asked about it, the dealer said he just got it on the lot. We took it for a test drive and it won my mom and I both over. We signed the papers and were soon driving home in it. I was so inexperienced, I didn't even really feel confident driving it myself yet.
Here it was as it looked on the day it first drove into our driveway:
The first order of business was to peel that old sticker off the trunk and give it a bit more dignity.
So I had a car, a girlfriend, and I'd soon have a job when the school year ended. And yet, fate had other ideas and not all was well. Within two weeks, school let out, my job began, my girlfriend and I broke up, and the head gaskets let go and the engine died. The dealer was either a scumbag preying on clueless kids and moms or just not knowledgeable about cars. He insisted that the head gaskets had been done recently, and pointed to what looked like a fresh new gasket. Of course I now know what he pointed to was the valve cover gasket.
My cousin put a new engine and transmission in it (he discovered that the transmission wasn't shifting into 4th). I remember at one point asking my mom if it was normal for a car to rev to 3,000 rpm going down the highway. The answer is yes... if you drive an Audi 90 Quattro 20V, but I didn't know that yet, and beat that engine into its grave with my ignorance.
Once the engine and transmission were sorted out, the car soldiered on nicely throughout the summer, and then school was back in. It was my senior year of high school, and I had a morning class that wasn't at the school building, but rather somewhere else in town. It was a Microsoft Systems Administration class, and everyone in it was male. After class, we'd all race back to the high school through an industrial park with a 25mph curve that I became a little too familiar with. Inevitably, this happened:
I found myself parked on top of those trees and soon found myself parted with another $2600 to keep the car on the road.
After it got back from the body shop, it looked like this:
To my teenage eyes, gorgeous. I've kept the car now for almost seven years and I've always been proud of it and fastidiously detailed it each summer. I didn't, and still don't, care that the fit and finish is representative of mid-'90s GM build quality, nor that some people bemoan the plastic body cladding. To me it looks sharp, due in no small part to the quality and deep, dark shade of its paint.
The car nearly bled my savings account dry though with all its subsequent repairs and maintenance. Brakes, tires, calipers, EGR valve, and so on and so forth. Not least of which was the lower intake manifold gasket.
The blurry gentleman in this picture kindly offered to do the intake gasket for me since by this point I was a nearly-broke sophomore in college and didn't want to waste money on another costly repair. Red flags were thrown up when I saw that he was referencing a repair manual for a 3800 V6 when mine is a 3.1L, but he insisted that for this job, the instructions would be interchangeable. So the car was parked in my friend's backyard and he worked on it. I was expecting it done within the week and was pretty excited about saving money since he offered to do it for $150.
Then he disappeared. I have no idea what was going on, but my car was still torn apart and nobody was working on it for a couple of days. So I called up a friend of my mom's, and he couldn't get it all just right, but he got it back together where the car would eventually move. In the process, we discovered that the water pump was put on wrong and the other guy had reorganized the plug wires for some reason and they were firing in pretty much the exact reverse order from what they should do.
Once the car was somewhat back together, I drove it to my usual mechanic. I had to stop a couple times along the way and try to top the radiator back up with water. It was sort of succeeding at cooling the engine, but the water pump wasn't sealed well at all, so coolant was raining out the bottom almost as fast as I could put it in. It eventually made it to the shop though and about $1000 later, the repairs were complete.
A year later, the car developed some rough idle problems along with not wanting to start and run after being driven and then parked for a short time. My then-girlfriend's dad (now my father-in-law) helped me troubleshoot it a bit. We replaced the MAF sensor, cleaned spark plugs, and some other little things, but nothing helped. I took it to my usual shop and they discovered that the fuel pump was bad. But I still had the rough idle. I got fed up with all these constant problems and decided to look for another car even though I still never wanted to sell my beloved Grand Prix. So that's when I found and bought my '91 Audi, the solution to all my reliability problems. Or so I thought... but that's a story for another time.
The rough idle eventually was figured out to just be a motor mount going bad, but apparently not in the way the shop expected. I also needed a gasket on something that was leaking oil onto the mount, causing it to degrade.
Ever since then, the Grand Prix has been completely reliable!
Well, apart from the transmission going out again. This time it started acting funny as I was coming home from work one night and it actually made it all the way to my apartment parking lot. I usually back into my space, but as soon as I put my car into reverse, I had no gears anymore. Apparently the pump went out or something and it cost another ~$2000 to rebuild.
Then that summer (2012), I needed replace the struts, and being pretty much broke again after paying for the transmission, I decided to do it myself. It took a long time and a bit of research, but I did it. It was a particularly hot week to attempt it though. Highs above 100 in the daytime, and I had little shade. So I did it at 3 at night, when it was a far more comfortable 90 degrees. Apparently I didn't do it quite right and I had to take it to the shop again because of a weird squeak, but they fixed it for close to free. Can't argue with that.
The same week I got married, I turned all seven digits in the odometer for my first time. 200,000 miles. To celebrate, I changed the oil and brake pads myself for the first time.
And then a couple weeks ago, I had my first car-to-car accident. A guy stopped abruptly at a yellow light and I had no chance of stopping in time because of the wet road and lack of ABS. Ended up with some battle scars, but no mechanical damage:
So what do you think? What's your limit of hardship when dealing with a car? I have no illusion that I was right to fix and maintain this car as much as I did. It should have found a home in a junkyard or scrap heap long before now, but it's still going. It just happened to find a home with a guy who loved it too much to let it go at any of the several points he should have.
Hopefully I'll soon have the Audi roadworthy again for the first time in over a year, and then I can take some of the strain of daily use off the Grand Prix and give it a dignified retirement when I someday have the funds to fix the bodywork, repaint it, maybe swap in a new engine and transmission (I'm still not very confident in the rebuilt one. I think I'll be purchasing an extended warranty sometime soon).