(Many) Lessons Learned

My friend John and I meet up at the agreed upon spot outside a nearby housing development with restaurants and shops located out front facing the street. It’s a cold, cloudy day on a weekend, so there’s plenty of room in the parking lot for me to set up and take pictures of John’s 1988 Toyota Corolla GT-S, which he affectionately refers to as Donna. I’ve been wanting to talk to him about this car for a while. The little Corolla doesn’t look like much at first glance, but it is a quintessential young gearhead’s car.

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For those who are wondering: Sorry, but this is different from the hero car in the Initial D anime series. This model of Corolla is designated the AE92, not AE86, and it’s front-wheel drive only. However, it does have a 4A-GE(Red Top) inline-4 engine with 142,500 miles on it and a back seat that’s a blast to ride in despite the lack of space. John’s car in particular is mostly original except for an aftermarket sport shifter kit and aftermarket head unit and speakers. It has a lot of little things wrong with it that John gets fixed one-by-one with each new paycheck.

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Despite having to put in a lot of money into it since purchase, he really likes it. Much of that love is due to the adventure John had in the past year before finally buying his AE92. Between Sept. 2016 and the time of this interview in Dec. 2017, John owned 3 other cars besides the Corolla. In a way, I’m writing this, as dictated to me by John, as a story with moments that should be read as learning opportunities for those who are looking to buy and own a car on a limited income.

The Camry

John’s first car in this story is a 2001 Toyota Camry that he had owned since late 2014. He wanted to sell this car because the fuel filler neck had broken, so he couldn’t get it inspected. The car still ran reliably, but not being able to get the car inspected was a daunting prospect for John. Now, the Camry’s fuel filler neck could have been fixed for what he paid for his next car, but after hanging out with some gearhead friends(me included), John had been bit by the car bug. He wanted something cool and/or fun.

The G35

John missed out on an ‘06 Mazda6 and passed on a Fiat 500 due to a transmission recall by Fiat. He eventually found a 2003 Infiniti G35 at a used car lot and bought it in Fall of 2016. This was two weeks after selling the Camry. John had been forced to take Uber rides to work or get rides from friends. Therefore, the first lesson he learned was a simple one: Don’t sell your old car until you’re absolutely ready to buy your next one. John would learn his next lesson quickly from his new Infiniti.

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The G35 was a success in John’s mind. Sure, it was a sedan, but it had the 6-speed manual and everyone in our little friend group of gearheads had assured him, through our collective experience, that the Infiniti was chock full of street cred. He was very happy with it and then the day after he bought it, a transmission issue reared its ugly head. John was able to get it fixed quickly for not much. He’d learned the next lesson: Always take a used car to a trusted mechanic for inspection before buying. John absolutely loved the car. It was the first one he brought to our college car club’s monthly garage meet and it definitely stood out among the rows of modded Miatas and Toyobarus.

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There were other G’s that usually showed up, but they had body kits and tuned engines. John’s was bone stock and he cherished it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have it for long. After some other mechanical mishaps, including having a wheel come off due to an improperly installed new wheel bearing, the car was lost in an accident. It was spring of 2017. John had to search for a car again. What he found and bought next turned out to be his worst automotive experience yet. I should know. I was there.

The Tracker

After searching for a while, John decided to buy a ’94 Geo Tracker from a seller on Craigslist. It was mid-2017. John had been searching for couple months with no luck. He was just looking for something he could afford with the money he’d received from the Infiniti being totaled by his insurance company. I accompanied John over to a quiet part of Irving, TX to buy the tiny cute ute. We agreed to meet in a Braum’s parking lot. The owners, an older couple, showed up in the Tracker. They seemed nice enough, at first.

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I went to get ice cream at Braum’s with the seller’s wife while John went on a test drive with the seller. They only drove up the road and back for about 15 minutes. Didn’t get on the highway at all. This was our first mistake. After pulling back into the parking lot John was ready to buy despite the cloth top being kind of a mess and the doors being held on with slabs of rubber that had been riveted between the doors and the body in lieu of a replacement hinge. He handed over the money and we admired John’s purchase for a moment.

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When we turned around, the couple was gone. Vanished. We still decided it was a good idea to drive the Tracker to a mechanic to have it inspected. I made it to the mechanic just fine in my car. John had to stop after trying to get onto the highway. He’d only made it a few miles. Later we found out the transmission was complete garbage. The Tracker’s transmission fluid had never been changed in the 20+ years it existed. There was no 3rd gear. All the mechanic found when they tried to change the fluid was described as a black, dirt-like substance that smelled awful.

Several lessons were learned from the Tracker:

  1. Always do a complete test drive when buying used, especially when buying from a private seller. Ask questions, push buttons, drive on city streets and on the highway. Make sure the car works in all situations you expect to use it in. Do as thorough an inspection as you are prepared for. If you’re not sure what to look at, bring a friend who has experience working on cars and a checklist to keep track.
  2. Of course, it should be said that you should get the car inspected by a mechanic BEFORE you buy, not AFTER. John had made this mistake again.
  3. Always carefully scan a Craigslist or other classified ad when looking at a car being sold privately. Make sure the seller goes through a list of what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s been replaced recently. Don’t just settle for “Runs Great” or “Ran when parked” if you’re looking for reliable transportation. If something doesn’t work as advertised while test driving, call the seller out on it. If they don’t offer to do something about it, walk away. You don’t know what else they might be lying about.

The Corolla GT-S

Anyway, after all these horrible experiences, the car gods finally decided to smile upon John. It began not long after he sold the Tracker to a guy looking for a project car. He borrowed money from a generous friend and started searching. John missed out on a ’98 Toyota Celica, then found a 2012 Mazda6 being sold at a dealership near me. I knew this dealership because I’d grown up driving past it all the time, but I’d never been there.

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John caught a ride with another friend to check it out. When they arrived, the 1988 Corolla GT-S was in the middle of the lot. It caught John’s eye, so he asked the salesman about it. It was priced the same as the Mazda6. Over the course of the next couple weeks, John also checked out an RX-8(Thankfully, I convinced him to stay away from it), an Acura TSX, another Celica, a ’95 Oldsmobile 88 with 3800 V6 engine, and a very minty ’95 Ford Taurus that was on the same lot as the Corolla GT-S.

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He passed on them all because of the GT-S. John had to wait on an out-of-state buyer to pass on the little Corolla, but he eventually bought it. I was there that day too. John isn’t the most expressive person, but I could tell he was happy. He finally had a reliable car that was very cool. It was originally a California car and was in excellent shape. It drove on the highway and in city traffic without a hitch. The muffler had a hole that really let the buzziness of the 4A-GE out, but John didn’t mind. He’d fix it eventually.

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After a few minor repairs since purchase, muffler included, John is currently trying to get the cam seals on the engine fixed. There’s an oil leak that necessitates more frequent oil changes than usual, but John isn’t giving up on the car that easily. He’s had older car enthusiasts offering him more than what he paid for it originally, but John won’t budge.

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After a year of bad automotive experiences, he’s learned to recognize something good when he sees it. John won’t be letting go of the Corolla for a while. It’s what he uses to get to work and overall, he finds it very fun to drive on a daily basis. It’s a 30-year-old Japanese sport coupe that may never be 100% mechanically perfect, but it’s the best car John’s owned in a while, and that’s all that matters to him.