That time we did Top Gear - Part 1

The Proposal

Sometime in late 2014 my friend Taylor and I were sitting around, drinking whiskey, and watching Top Gear, like one does. If I recall correctly specifically, we had just finished Botswana… or Bolivia… I forget which is which, and were a good way through the Vietnam special. It was at this fateful moment, Taylor said something along the lines of “it would be so cool to do something like that someday.” True story that.


A couple of months later a small group of my friends get added to a group chat. I link to a file “West Coast Road Trip Proposal.” At first, I’d thought we could drive the gulf coast or maybe do Route 66. Ultimately, starting in the mid-west there was a lot of uninteresting crap between us and anything worth seeing. OK… so what about the west coast? We have a lot of friends and family over there and could probably do a one way rental in a semi-decent car and have some fun with it. Hmmm… Sixt is quoting just under two grand for a 3-series, one way LA to Seattle. I bet you could BUY a half-decent car for that. Turn this into a REAL Top Gear adventure…

After that I was sold. I put together a preliminary route, budget, a list of risks and contingencies, plus a detail of likely problems we’ll encounter, and even a SERIES OF CHALLENGES.

After a few months of culling and pestering, I actually get two people committed to the project, plus myself.

The plan was this: We would fly to San Diego, buy cars for less than $2,500 each, drive the Pacific coast up to Seattle, and then sell the cars. The plan was to stick to the 1 or 101 and keep the coast on the left.


The Cast

So let’s meet the team!

  • · Evan/ Akio (me!) – Electrical Engineer – Only one with automotive repair experience, and that is somewhat limited
  • · Taylor – Graphic Designer – No automotive experience, but did work as a theatrical electrician for many years
  • · George – Computer Scientist – No automotive, mechanical, or electrical experience. Thinks mornings are a structured conspiracy

Could we really do this, or would we end up changing our flights to leave from San Francisco, broke and disheartened?

The Cars

Well, as you might surmise from the photo, we did indeed end up doing this crazy thing. I’ll spare most of the details, as those are available elsewhere, and just focus on the highlights.


George knew he wanted a convertible and is a known Volkswagen enthusiast. Other that he knew he wanted a car that was approximately as old as him.

Taylor knew he wanted a truck with a manual transmission, despite the minor issue that he couldn’t drive stick. After speaking with his parents, he decided he wanted a Mazda B2000, preferably in red, for nostalgic reasons.


I committed very early on to being stupid. I too wanted a convertible. Preferably a roadster, old, carbureted, with a big engine and a manual transmission. The weirder the better.

And then, suddenly, it was show time. The first day of the trip we had a lot to do and only one car, the Rental Chariot, to do it in. George and myself got in the night before, but Taylor’s flight was cancelled, so he needed picking up. George had a train to catch, though he wouldn’t tell us why, and needed to be dropped off at the station. I had a couple of Mercedes SLs that needed looking at in San Diego before heading to LA to get some real looking done.

My binder of potentials.

Luckily we had time to go and look at said Mercs, and what cars they were! One had a massive dent in the driver’s side and the other had a flat battery. Not a good sign. They were, however, both manual, which was nice. Neither was in good running order, however, so I declined to do much of anything there.


The Bumblebee

After that, George got dropped off and Taylor got picked up. Then it was off to LA! Except it wasn’t. Apparently George’s train hit a box truck one station before it was to pick him up, he was essentially SOL, and needed to be picked up and taken to LA. All he got out of the experience was a used train ticked and a riotous sun burn. Another non-auspicious start.


On the way to LA we finally found out the truth about George and his train ride: He already had a car! He didn’t let on even a little before this! He had a friend buy it about two weeks ago and had it driven to a shop for some “minor work.” Which meant a lot of work. Like… as much as he paid for the car.


Soon we were at said shop and we got to meet what would quickly be known as “The Bumblebee”. Bright, non-factory yellow with a white top and custom black and yellow vinyl seats. It was both hideous and lovely at the same time. And it was an auto. It was perfect!

The Alfa

Yes. That is right. An Alfa Spider. I didn’t even like Alfas, but Top Gear was always insistent that to be a true petrolhead, you needed to have owned an Alfa.


I did look at said mercs and a “mint condition” MG Midget that ended up having a torn top, the trunk wouldn’t open, it had been in a front end collision, and it wouldn’t start. Mint my ass.


This one was at one of those crazy shady “Buy here, pay here! No title no problem!” places that has no reason to be selling an old Italian exotic. It looked great in the photos and the asking price was $3,000.


Well, as you likely have surmised based on the photos, I bought it. On the test drive the only things I could really fault it on were a sticky throttle and an in-op speedo. That said, buying it wasn’t that simple! For starters, I couldn’t get the seller to knock a cent off the asking price. Ok…. Well a car is a car. I’ll take the hit to my points and go for it. Then there was the paperwork, which took damn near an hour and somehow ended up with me paying $300 extra for “taxes”. I knew it was bullshit at the time and I probably should have walked, but the light was fading, I didn’t have proof, and I NEEDED A DAMN CAR! Finally though I had a car, George had a car, and Taylor was there to drive the Rental Chariot back to San Diego with us.

Again, not so easy. For one, while I was not-so-quietly crapping myself in a coffee shop trying to decide if I was going to buy this Alfa, we discovered that George’s car has a hot start problem. Crap. After purchasing the Alfa, we also discover that it isn’t great at running the headlights and… anything else… at the same time. And the tires are shit. Ok. So… 7PM in the heart of LA with two mostly broken cars and a 120 mile drive ahead of us. How hard could it be?


Well I am disappointed to tell you… not that hard. Actually totally uneventful. We got back to the AirBnB, consumed mass quantities of food and booze, and began making a plan to get Taylor a car tomorrow (our last day in San Diego).

The Truck

The day previous we’d looked at a couple of trucks for Taylor, but one stopped returning his calls and the other was a mechanical nightmare. So the next morning we each tentatively stuck out heads out the door, only to discover that yes… there were two mostly broken foreign cars out there. I cannot express to you the terrified feeling we had. Up until this point this trip was the purest fantasy. The type thing you jaw about doing when you’ve had a few too many, but there is no way you’d risk life, limb, and most of your bank account to do it. And we did. And we still had one more car to buy.


Over a couple pots of coffee, we tore through craigslist and eBay looking for a truck. Any truck. Gone were Taylors original criteria, he just needed wheels. After a morning of searching, we had a few leads just outside of town.

There we met Jamie and his brother. The former owned the truck, a red Nissan D21, and the latter spoke English. We’d ran a VIN check on the car and we knew it had around 350,000 miles, or more, and we knew it was a little beat. We also knew Taylor needed wheels and it was in our price range. I did a test drive (remember, Taylor still can’t drive stick at this point) and found the only mechanical oddity that I couldn’t find 5th. There was a detent for it and a shift indicator in the glove box for a 5-speed, but I couldn’t get 5th to engage.


Post-test drive, we inquired as to this oddity and Jaime’s brother insisted this bare bones vehicle only had a 4-speed manual. Confused, we fled in search of better geared pastures. Sort of. What we actually did was drive half a mile down the road and try and determine what kind of transmission that damn truck had. Wikipedia was unhelpful, as the D21 was available in both 4-speed and 5-speed. George had the brilliant idea of just like… calling Nissan. On the phone. Like some sort of old. So we did. The local Nissan dealer, unfortunately, informed us that the VIN had been archived and it would take 2-3 weeks to get a VIN rep- oh wait… we should just call the parts department and ask to buy a transmission. Way to go Nissan phone lady! A few minutes later we had our answer: the truck was, indeed, a 4-speed.


A short phone call later, Taylor had a car.

After money changed hands, I drove the truck off to an abandoned lot, tossed Taylor the keys, and buckled my seatbelt for expected turbulence. Truth be told, he did WAY better than my first(ish) time with a stick. A few short hours and much friction material later, we pointed the Truck towards San Diego, ready to let our true adventure begin.

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