I’ve owned my share of cheap, horrible vehicles bought out of desperation. This particular car, which was a 1985 (1987?) Dodge Charger hatchback, was one I had purchased for three-hundred dollars and didn’t even get me home from its purchase without breaking down under a bridge on the freeway. I should have seen this as foreshadowing but after that issue was “fixed” (with thick wire instead of the bushing it actually needed; though that was itself after the first “fix” with plastic zip ties that melted) it ran fairly well with one notable exception: it was so loud your ears kept vibrating after you got out of it. So loud in fact that I had a Fix-It ticket hovering over my head to get the hole in the exhaust fixed. But it turned out, I never needed to.
I went to celebrate Thanksgiving of 2000 at my mother’s house with her, my stepdad, my 2 half-sisters, my full sister, and my maternal grandmother. After an uneventful, albeit loud, journey a nice and equally uneventful Thanksgiving was had. After the festivities I offered to take my grandma home and went out to warm up the car (I also live in Minnesota so on that particular year it was snowy and below freezing). After about 15 minutes, ample time for toastyness, my grandma and I went out to the car only to find it filled with a black, acrid smoke.
She told me to just roll the windows down and drive fast to get her home, but that wasn’t a risk I was willing to take. I called to my stepdad, who had much more experience with cars than I did (though admittedly was also the one that unsuccessfully “fixed” that same car with zip ties), to take a look. He popped the hood and as if this “Holy shit!” exclamation wasn’t enough to make me kill the engine, he asked me to do it anyway. So I turned the key to off, pulled the key from the ignition…and it was still running. My stepdad tells me again to turn off the engine but I just show him the keys with a look of total disbelief. Thankfully it was a manual so I was able to pop the clutch and kill the car that way but I try not to think about what our options would have been had it been an automatic.
So what happened? Somehow, and to this day I have no idea how, the exhaust had managed to get plugged from inside the exhaust manifold itself. There is a bushing between the exhaust manifold and the serpentine exhaust pipe called an exhaust manifold donut and this part was actually so hot it was glowing orange. And being as that’s directly under where the engine tends to store it’s flammable items like oil, shutting the engine off was a good thing…once I was able to do so. There just ended up being so much back pressure built up in the engine that it was almost entirely self-sufficient. Or would have been until it exploded.
Price estimates hardly seemed worth the cost of repairing what I came to affectionately refer to as The Deathtrap. In the end I found that a nearby junkyard was willing to give me fifty bucks for scrap if I had it towed there. So that’s what I attempted to do, but the car and my willing tow driver had other immediate plans.
The next day a friend of my stepdad’s, who we will call Ed, and his nephew, who we will call Andy, came with a truck and tow chains to get the car the small handful of miles to the scrapyard. The first mishap was Ed trying to start my car and experiencing the same back pressure continuous running thing I had, only when he popped the clutch he had the car in reverse and the open door took a chunk of trim from the house with it. After we got it into the street and hooked the chains up, I realized I couldn’t find the keys. But this did not stop Ed from attempting to tow the car.
I was suddenly, violently jerked forward as Ed took off in the truck with his nephew Andy watching from the seat next to him. The car, however, was still in park without the keys in the ignition so with each violent jerk the car began to fishtail back and forth with more and more arc on the icy streets. I tried every “HOLY SHIT STOP PULLING THE CAR” gesture I could think of. I shook my head. I mouthed various words that were meant to cease movement. I dragged my thumb (then a finger, then my hand) across my throat in a kill gesture. I waved my arms across my body. All the while Ed jerking me and the car side to side with each tug of the chain and Andy next to him grinning. In the end I had to open the car door and just hop out so they would know I wasn’t playing some kind of game. Which, of course, is exactly what they thought I was doing.
As it turned out, Ed still had my keys in his pocket.
Anyway, once that was sorted out the car was uneventfully towed to the scrap heap where I received my check for 50 bucks. Later I bought by next 300-dollar car: a 1984 Cadillac I affectionately dubbed The Friendly Chipmunk after a squeaking noise I couldn’t stop coming from my dashboard. And don’t worry, there will be more stories featuring that car in the future.