Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

The Worst Vehicle I Have Ever Owned

The Worst Vehicle I Have Ever Owned

Author's Note: I apologize for the pictures on this page, which are not of my actual car. I don't recall ever taking a photo of this vehicle. Hopefully, my description will be picturesque enough that once you reach the end of the story you will understand exactly why I chose not to memorialize it with a snapshot. I owned this car for less than five months, yet it will remain unforgettable in my mind. Without a doubt, it was the worst vehicle I've ever owned.

As I detailed on the pages dedicated to my 1975 Volkswagen Beetle, in the fall of 1988 I made the poor decision to completely dismantle and rebuild the Bug. Not wanting to spend the interim walking to work or pedaling my Schwinn, I decided I would purchase an inexpensive car to drive for a while until the Bug was roadworthy again.

So, on a Friday afternoon I met my friend Brett at his house. Brett had the day off from work, and I was working a night shift that day and didn't have to report to work until 7:30 PM. We poured through the newspaper classified ads and marked off prospective vehicles that met my criteria. My criteria consisted of a sole item: I had about $250 to spend. Outside of that, I was willing to be flexible.

I made a few phone calls and discovered that most people aren't home in the middle of a weekday. So this narrowed my pool of eligible vehicles even further. Remember, I was nineteen years old at the time which meant I had absolutely no reason to take more than an afternoon to make a purchasing decision of this magnitude. If people weren't home to take my call, then it was their loss!

One of the vehicles I looked at that day results in a memory that now makes me kick myself. In a "what the heck was I thinking" moment, I turned down a 1970 Ford Torino GT. It was hunter green with gold Cragar rims, and had a 351 Cleveland engine with the shaker hood. They wanted $300 which was too rich for my blood at the time. Oh, to have the opportunity to buy that car now for $300! This isn't the exact car, but the one I walked away from looked very similar:

The 1970 Ford Torino I turned down.

The next car Brett and I test drove was a 1975 Gremlin X. It was at one time red, but the paint had oxidized terribly into what we decided was best described as "dusty rose". It ran awful, and nothing in the interior worked right. Brett loved it (thought it was hilarious) and wanted me to buy it. I must admit that as bad of shape as it was, the car did have quite a bit of character. The smoke pouring from every seam in the straight-six engine after driving a couple of miles was what finally killed the deal for me. This photo is probably what it looked like when new. The one I test drove didn't look anywhere near this nice.

A 1975 Gremlin X I didn't buy.

The next vehicular prospect brought us to a trailer park on the east side of town. A young couple was selling a 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88. It was a huge four door land yacht. Suitable for carrying the whole family, plus grandma.

A 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 promotional picture.

The car was originally silver, but the sun had faded the paint to a battleship grey. These were the days prior to clear coats, so after a few years all grey cars lost their shine and looked like they'd been shot with flat primer. Outside of a small dent on the passenger rear quarter panel and a few small spots of rust here and there, the body looked pretty decent. The interior color was dark red velour, and was in surprisingly good shape. This was the base model Delta 88, so it didn't have all the luxury features like power windows or locks. The engine was a 350 V8 and it had 98k on the odometer.

A test drive indicated that the engine ran good, but the car had a noticeable wobble felt through the steering wheel. My father's car had the same problem at one point in time, and it turned out to be a broken radial belt on the front tire. I surmised this car suffered the same ailment, which was a simple enough problem to correct should it start to bother me.

I deemed the car worthy of my meager savings, so I went back and haggled a deal. I don't remember what the original asking price was, but I do remember that I walked out paying $250, which was exactly the amount of money I had set aside. The couple was a bit leery accepting a personal check from two kids, but I told them they could call my bank and verify that I had the funds available. To my surprise they actually did.

So, as the new proud owner of a family truckster, we set off to get it home. We had driven my Bug out to shop for cars, so I drove it back home while Brett drove the Oldsmobile. On the way back to my apartment, he found a pair of women's sunglasses in the glove compartment, with lenses shaped like hearts. He proudly wore them and waved to all the other motorists, as I struggled to keep control of my car while holding my sides from laughing.

The following Sunday afternoon, I decided to investigate the wheel wobble a little further. I moved the front tires onto the back of the car, and conversely the rears onto the front. The wobble went away and the car now cruised quite comfortably. My diagnosis of the problem being tire related was correct. Of course, the tire still had the issue, but being on the back of the car the wobble was less noticeable so it didn't bother me.

Now that I had replacement transportation available, the following Saturday I proceeded to completely dismantle the Bug. Now the Olds was my only motorized steed to get me where I needed to go.

Being nineteen years old and having my life's priorities completely screwed up, I had a monstrous stereo in the Bug. Now that the Bug was in pieces, I saw no reason to leave this stereo sitting in boxes so I installed it into the Olds, subwoofers and all. The only problem was the head unit didn't fit in the dash correctly, so I just made a wire snake long enough to let me set the tape deck on the floor between the seats. This being evidence that proves that you don't have to be from the south to be a redneck.

Brett and I had been working in the food service department at a local hospital. This job, while perfectly adequate for part-time employment while I was in high-school and my first (failed) year of college, was not something I wanted to make into a career. A new manufacturing plant had opened in Sioux Falls, and we had both applied for jobs and coincidentally, both been hired to start on the same day.

We worked the "2nd shift", which was from 2:45 in the afternoon until 11:05 PM. In order to save gas, we had arranged to carpool together. He lived closer to the plant than I, so I would drive to his apartment. Then we would alternate driving days from there, riding together from his apartment to work.

About two weeks after we started our new jobs and about three weeks after I purchased the Olds, I was driving to Brett's apartment to pick him up for work. As I drove up the hill on north Minnesota Avenue, I noticed the car losing speed. The engine was still holding RPM, but the car was going slower and slower. I made it to the top of the hill but by the time I reached the crest the car was no longer providing any forward momentum. The transmission had failed.

I coasted as far as I could (which wasn't very far) and with my last little bit of momentum pulled into the parking lane on the side of the street. At this point I was about four blocks from Brett's place, and accepted the fact that I was going to have to walk the rest of the way there. Even though it was my day to drive we would have to take Brett's car to work that day as the Olds wasn't going to move another inch.

As I was walking down the street, I saw Brett's car pull onto Minnesota Avenue about a half block in front of me. He was waiting at his apartment, and when I didn't show up he finally decided that he had to drive on his own else he would be late for work.

Not wanting to walk the three additional miles to work and be late myself, I started screaming and running after him hoping to draw his attention. To make myself more obvious, I ran out into the middle of the street.

Two blocks further down the road he stopped for a stoplight. What drew Brett's attention was that he looked over at a woman in the car next to him who had a terrified look on her face as she was frantically locking all the doors. That's when he glanced in the rear view mirror and saw the image of me running as fast as my legs would carry me, and screaming like a banshee.

Thankfully he waited and I hopped in the car.

I now found myself with the dilemma of owning two cars, neither of which was drivable. Restoring the Bug to a drivable state was beyond my current economic means. Putting a brand new transmission into the Olds was equally out of reach financially. I wasn't even sure I could afford to have the current transmission fixed.

Providence smiled its face upon me and by chance through a friend of a friend of a friend, I came in contact with a guy who had several Oldsmobile Delta 88s sitting around. He ran them in enduro races, which is a low-budget version of amateur stock car racing where stalled or wrecked vehicles are left on the track making the course more and more difficult as the race progresses.

He said he would sell me a transmission out of one of his wrecked enduro cars and install it for me all for $75. That sounded like a swell idea to me versus paying hundreds to have a shop repair my transmission, so I heartily agreed. He gave me directions to his garage which was west of town. With my mom's car (a '78 Buick Century) and a nylon tow-rope, Brett and I drug the Oldsmobile out to his shop.

A side view of a 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88.

Time passed. Knowing this guy was doing me a favor I didn't want to rush him. After a week of being without a car, I was getting antsy. Brett was giving me rides to work, but the rest of the time I was on my own to hoof it wherever I needed to go.

I decided to call the guy. He promised me he was going to get around to fixing my car in a day or two.

Another week passed. Another phone call. Same story.

Finally, after more than three weeks I received a call that my car was ready. As it turned out, my driveshaft didn't fit on the new transmission so the guy had to cut it and re-weld things to make it fit. But other than that, the transmission was working well. Except that the speedometer gear wasn't working on the new transmission. But he, "can fix that some time." As it turned out, "some time" never happened and the rest of my relationship with that car was done without a speedometer.

But at least this transmission got the car mobile again. I had now owned the car six weeks and it had been broken more than half of the time of possession.

If I remember right, approximately three days passed before the Oldsmobile stranded me for the second time. Once again, I was on my way to pick up Brett for work. About halfway to his apartment the car just mysteriously turned itself off.

I was able to coast the vehicle off the road and into a small parking lot behind a local doughnut shop. Unfortunately it was a private lot. There was no way I was going to push a 2 1/2 ton beast of a car into a more suitable parking space by myself, so I went into the doughnut shop and pleaded for mercy. They said I could leave the car there for a short time.

I ran the eight blocks back to my apartment and grabbed my old ten-speed bike which I still had from my high-school days. Thankfully the weather was nice that day. I cranked as hard as I could and got to work 12 minutes late. But at least I made it to work and my supervisor at the time was impressed with my dedication.

After work, Brett and I went back to my car. I expected to have to borrow my mom's car and do the "tow rope waltz," but to my surprise it started right up. I drove it home without a problem. "What?!!!"

The next morning I went to run some errands, and it stranded me again. I walked home, then later walked back to the car and once again it started right up. The only thing worse than a car that won't run at all is a car that will sometimes run!

That night after work (and after Brett generously drove me to work yet again,) I decided to do an experiment. I got into the Olds and fired it up. I drove around the neighborhood and sure enough, as soon as the engine warmed up it quit running. The next morning it fired right up, and repeated the routine; running fine while the engine was cold then dying when it got warm.

I now knew how to recreate the issue, but still didn't know the root of the problem. I resolved myself that I was going to have to pay a professional to figure it out. Thankfully there was a shop a block away from my apartment. So I dropped off the car and waited a day until they had time to look at the problem.

As it turned out, I had a bad ignition module that would work fine until it got hot, then shut down. It was nothing that $120 wouldn't fix. These days I get ecstatic if I only spend $120 at the mechanic's shop, but this was 30 years ago.

So, once again I had a drivable vehicle. I didn't have any money to feed the beast gas, but in theory it would run if I did.

After my next paycheck, the Olds and I were rolling again. I was driving Brett to work every day now in order to make up for all the days he shuttled me back and forth during the down time.

I believe it was approximately a week later when the next issue occurred. I came out to the car on a Sunday morning to drive to my parent's house for lunch. My rear tire was flat. So I swapped the wheel for the spare. The short drive over to my parent's was an experience, as there was something quite wrong with that spare tire. I felt like I was driving a clown car, with the thing heaving and pitching all over the place.

I certainly couldn't put many miles on the car with the wheel acting like a spirograph. For you young-uns, you can find out what a spirograph is here.

My wheel felt like a Spirograph

I drove down to my neighborhood gas station which had a small garage, and asked them to fix my flat tire. The mechanic looked at the tire and promptly refused. He said that even if he fixed it, that tire wasn't worth saving. I could believe this, as the tire did look in rough shape. I lamented the fact that I didn't have any money for new tires, and he took pity on me and sold me a used set for $16 per tire, installed.

Certainly, with all this work I put into this vehicle I now have something that will be roadworthy for quite a while, right? Certainly I was delusional.

I did manage to drive for a couple of weeks without issue. Until one day as I pulled up to work the radiator erupted in an impressive display that would have made Vesuvius jealous. Once again this whale had without warning rendered itself undrivable.

After work, I found a container, filled the radiator with water and was able to limp the car home. The next morning I went out and found a radiator shop. I don't remember the name of the shop, but I do remember the sign out front claimed they were "the best place to take a leak." I dropped off the car and walked several miles home.

The next morning the shop called and said that they were able to remove the radiator and weld it up. Add another $75 that I didn't want to spend to the total price of this car.

Once again, the car issues calmed down for a couple of weeks which lulled me into a false sense of security. This rolling menace was just waiting until I let my guard down so that it could fail me again.

As it turned out, the next failure actually occurred in a way that in retrospect is pretty funny. I had picked up Brett at his apartment and we were driving to work. As I made a left turn onto a busy street, I suddenly heard somebody laying on their horn. The sound was so loud I was sure they were right on top of me. I screeched to a stop and did my best to maintain bladder control. When I looked around, I didn't see anyone who appeared to have had honked.

So I considered it a fluke, until I made my next left hand turn and it happened again. This time I figured out that it was my own car that was honking at me. Something inside the steering column had shorted out and every time I turned left the horn would go off.

Now this didn't prevent me from getting where I needed to go, but it certainly wasn't something with which I wanted to live. I would find it especially inconvenient if I needed to make a left turn behind a pack of Hells Angels.

The interior of a 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88.

After experimenting with a few options to correct the issue, I determined that the problem was related to the turn signal switch. The switch had been quite loose ever since I purchased the car. By using a rubber band, I was able to lash the turn signal switch to the tilt steering lever which would apply enough forward pressure on the switch to keep it from shorting out on left hand turns.

Fixing it the correct way was going to necessitate removing the steering wheel, which was an expense I wasn't willing to absorb at this point in time. A ten cent rubber band would be an adequate work-around.

Approximately two months after I purchased this car, in November of 1988 I started working an additional part time job at a local diesel machinery sales and service company. Mostly I was hired to clean up the shop but occasionally they would give me an interesting assignment that allowed me to use tools.

This job gave me a bit of additional income which I intended to put towards fixing up my Bug. It also helped occupy some of my free time which at that point in my life I hadn't learned to constructively fill. How's that for an eloquent way of saying "keep myself busy so I don't get in as much trouble."

One cold late November morning as I went out to the car, I put the key in the ignition, turned and just heard a faint click. The car wouldn't start.

I had been out late the previous night with some extracurricular activities and wasn't feeling too well. I was almost happy the car wouldn't start, as this gave me an excuse to go back to bed and sleep a few more hours. I didn't even bother to open the hood to look. I went inside and called my job and told them my car wouldn't start and that I couldn't come to work.

Well, the problem with using that excuse when calling a shop full of mechanics is that rather than saying, "OK, see you tomorrow," they said "we'll send someone over to give you a jump start."

So that ploy didn't work. I put my coat back on and trudged out to the car. Upon opening the hood, I looked at the battery and saw that the positive terminal was about to fall apart. I wiggled it, and tried to start the car again and it roared to life. So it looked like I needed to add a new battery cable to the list of repairs.

When the mechanic from work arrived and found the car running, he wasn't too happy. I tried to explain the situation, but he just said, "if the boss asks about it, tell him I had to jump start your car otherwise we'll both get in trouble." And off to work we both went.

In early December of that year, the straw that broke the camel's back occurred. I was driving to my part-time job on a particularly dark and overcast morning. As I approached a corner where I usually turned I applied the brakes. Instead of slowing down, which is the action one usually expects when pressing on the brake pedal, the pedal went all the way to the floor and had no perceivable affect on the speed of the vehicle. A huge red "brake" light came on the dashboard, as if to tell me something I didn't already know. Catastrophic brake system failure had occurred.

Perhaps I should use the parking brake? Well that never worked from the time I bought the car so that option was out. Throw the transmission into park or reverse? That would definitely stop me. However it would also destroy the transmission that I had already gone through the hassle of replacing, so I ruled that option out as well.

If you've never experienced the sensation to be rolling down the road at 50 mph and realize that you have no ability to stop yourself, it is truly something to behold. I didn't panic at first. I merely watched my turn go by and accepted the fact that I would have to take a longer route to work.

However, approximately 1/2 mile beyond where I was supposed to turn the road ended at a stop sign where it intersected a highway. I had the presence of mind to not press on the gas but just let the car coast that half mile.

Unfortunately, Newton's first law of motion was quickly proving itself to be true. Although I hadn't pressed on the accelerator, there was not enough rolling resistance to slow the car sufficiently in the 1/2 mile prior to the road ending. So my calm demeanor was quickly being swapped for sheer terror and panic, which I might add, I discovered I am quite good at.

I rolled up to the intersection much faster than what would be described as "a comfortable pace." God's grace manifested itself in the fact that there were no cars sitting at the stop sign, and no traffic immediately coming crossways on the highway.

With little choice, I cranked the wheel hard right and the car screeched itself around the corner. Starsky and Hutch would have been proud, except for the fact that they never soiled themselves when performing a similar stunt on TV.

I was now heading down the highway. The turn had bled off a bit of the speed but the car was still traveling much faster than I would have expected. I was beginning to think perhaps within this car lie the secrets to perpetual motion? Nah, if it had perpetual motion it wouldn't have spent so much time broken down on the side of the road.

Another 1/2 mile down the road I approached another intersection. Once again there were no cars ahead of me at the stop light. However, the light was red. I figured I had two choices (I probably had more, but hey, I was under duress!) I could blow straight through the stop light onto the gravel road which would lead me farther from my workplace. Or, I could right turn at the stop light which actually would lead me back to my workplace.

I decided on option number two. This had the added advantage that I only had to worry about cars coming from the left as I rolled through the light.

My speed had decreased by now to where I was able to make the corner without doing a Joie Chitwood imitation. Cars honked as I pulled out in front of them, but I made it around the turn.

I now had about 1/2 mile back to where I worked. Once again I was evaluating my options. The safer option probably would have been to let the car bleed off the remaining speed, then park it and call a tow truck.

However one must keep in mind the economic calamity in which this car had already placed me. I was unable to afford a tow truck. So with the deductive reasoning skills of a nineteen year old boy, I decided to press on to my workplace. There I could leave the car in the parking lot until I came up with a plan to have it repaired, or at the least euthanized.

Unfortunately, the car was now moving slowly enough that I could easily discern that it wasn't going to make it all the way without me giving it some gas. The correct amount of gas to apply turned out to be a problem. I wanted to give just enough gas to propel me to the parking lot, but not so much that I would have another thrill ride as I turned into the parking lot. I discovered that driver's education courses never prepare you for this type of event.

In retrospect, I can see that the best approach would have been to apply gas multiple times in very small amounts, incrementally moving myself closer and closer to the parking lot. I never have been good at moderation, and instead accelerated to a speed that I perceived to be sufficient, but soon discovered was way too much.

The parking lot was approaching quickly. Much too quickly. By this point, I was in no mood to continue this adventure any longer than need be. Despite my better judgment (which I now can see is a recurring theme in this story) I made another fast screeching turn into the parking lot. Thankfully, once I entered the parking lot it turned into gravel. The front tires lost traction which caused the under-steer to reduce the turning radius and subsequently allow me to make it into the lot without rolling the car.

In another instance of providence, the parking lot had a very large graveled field in the back that was fairly open. The field was a few acres in size, which allowed me to guide the car in and drive in circles as it finally slowed down. It really is amazing how far a car will coast when you don't want it to.

Not wanting to leave the car stranded in the field, and not wanting to push it into the parking lot, I decided to use the last little bit of momentum to pull back into the parking lot and into an open spot.

Of course, the chances of pulling into the spot with the perfect amount of speed were slim. This meant I coasted in a bit faster than I wanted. Thankfully, there was a chain suspended between two concrete posts that brought me to an impressively abrupt stop. Good thing this car was built in the pre-air bag era!

The morning's adventure was over. I went in and worked my regular four hour part-time shift. After work I had about an hour and a half until I had to report to my full-time job. I don't remember how I got home to shower and change clothes, but I must have. I probably called Brett to once again come and rescue me.

As I type this, I'm getting the impression that I need to track him down and buy him about a year's worth of gasoline for driving me around during the time I owned this piece of garbage Oldsmobile.

Anyway, not having the money to pay someone who knew what they were doing to fix the car, I embarked on trying to fix it myself. From talking to the mechanics at my morning job, it sounded like the problem was a complete master cylinder failure.

I ordered a new master cylinder through the parts desk at work, and waited for a few days until it arrived. I put my limited mechanical ability at the time to work and swapped it out. I took it for a test drive in the back lot and discovered that I now had something that resembled brakes, but not enough to declare them "fixed." The mechanics showed a little mercy on me (not much, but a little) and looked to make sure the master cylinder was installed correctly and the brake lines were bled properly. Still not enough brake pressure to drive safely. So clearly the problem lied elsewhere.

The car sat, and once again I was back to hitching rides. I really don't remember who was giving me rides to and from my morning job, but somehow I was getting there and back. Thank you, to whoever was providing transportation for me!

At this point I was out of money, and certainly out of patience. My main job had announced a two-week layoff over the Christmas and New Year's holidays. It wasn't looking good to be able to get this car fixed any time soon.

Over the New Year holiday, I traveled with my parents and brother to visit my grandparents in Iowa. While I was there, I remember crunching numbers and trying to come up with a plan to get a vehicle when I got back. I had given up on the Oldsmobile ever being reliable.

My aunt heard about my plight, and seized the opportunity to rid herself from her own vehicular dilemma. It seems my uncle had a 1977 Saab GL that had been parked in the street for over a year and was fast becoming the neighborhood eyesore. She and my uncle both had newer cars, so the Saab wasn't being used. She wanted it gone.

So my uncle (most likely under an unknown amount of spousal pressure that I will probably never be privy to know) agreed to sell me the car for a dollar, if I come pick it up from his house and get it running.

A couple days later we traveled down to Cedar Rapids for dinner. While I was there, he handed me the key. I went out and the Saab started right up.

It made the 350 mile journey back to Sioux Falls without any problem, although not everything electrical worked at first. The farther I drove, the more things came alive until by the time I was back home I had a fully-functioning vehicle.

Now that I had a vehicle to drive (and more importantly, stop) I set about ridding myself of the grey beached whale.

Working a manufacturing job, it wasn't too difficult of an endeavor to find someone in the same economic plight as myself who needed a vehicle. I found a guy who needed a car. I informed him that the brakes would need immediate attention, and listed off all of the things that I have already repaired.

We arrived at a selling price of $200 which seems a bit steep for a non-drivable car for which I originally paid $250. The inflated price, however, was due to the fact I was willing to take payments of $40 per week until the balance was paid. I would maintain possession of the car until I had received the entire amount. We knew where we both worked, so we were comfortable with this "gentlemen's agreement."

Thankfully, my part-time job was OK with me leaving the hulk sitting in their parking lot during this time.

After weeks of receiving payments (having to hound him more than once,) it was time to transfer the ownership of the vehicle. We got off work at 11:05 PM and drove out to where the car was located. I signed over the title and handed him the keys, and he handed me the last of the money.

To my horror he walked over, got in the car and started it up. I ran over and reminded him that the brakes didn't work. He insisted that he'd be OK and proceeded to drive off. I couldn't say I didn't warn him, but decided to follow him for a ways so that there would be someone to notify the authorities as soon as he smashed himself into the first immovable object he encountered.

The crash never happened as I had feared, and he went merrily on his way. I went home being glad to finally rid myself of that festering sore of a vehicle.

I ran into the guy a few months later and asked him how the car was running. He said it was a great car; he hadn't needed to do anything to it and after about two weeks the brakes started working fine. It figures. I think that car just hated me.

So, fast forward a year and a half. The Oldsmobile was far behind me and furthest from my thoughts.

One morning I was cleaning my apartment when I received a knock on the door. I opened it only to be surprised by the sight of a police officer standing there. He asked if he could come in, and I most certainly didn't have a reason to say no.

As it turns out, he was a detective assigned to help out with a bank robbery case. A gray 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88 registered in my name was used during an armed holdup.

This caught me completely off guard, and I (honestly) told the cop I knew nothing about it. He asked me a few questions and I told him the little information that I knew. I gave him the name of the person to whom I sold the car.

The cop seemed satisfied with my answers, and thanked me for my time. He said what probably happened was that the car had been sold a few times for cash but the title never transferred, so it was still in my name. He said he would contact me if he had any more questions, and I told him that would be fine.

I never heard from the police again about this matter. And I never heard whatever became of that car.

And I most certainly have never missed it!

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This page last updated on 07/11/2018