Ten Year Intrepid
October 2001: the week of midterms of my junior year at UNI. One morning, after an exam at Seerley Hall, I left campus, walked through the tunnel under University Avenue to the B lot by the Industrial Tech building, got in my car and drove to JDEW for my afternoon shift.
I headed west on University, turned left at the lights on Hudson, cruised along for a few miles (in those days Hudson wasn’t littered with stoplights) and then turned left onto Ridgeway. As I began ascending the hill on Ridgeway I pressed down on the accelerator but my car began to slow down and shutter. I pressed more and the car slowed down more. I crested the hill but had to pull over onto the shoulder by the entrance of the trailer park, just moments before the engine sputtered and quit on me.
That was my first car, the 1988 Pontiac 6000. When I turned 16 and spent a summer working construction to save up some money, I bought it from my grandmother. Grandpa took good care of that car, as retired mechanics tend to do. Its exterior was nearly flawless (gray with two thin red racing stripes), it had all the original hubcaps and floor mats, and the engine, while sporting a few replacement parts, worked like a finely-tuned clock.
Like most 16-year olds with their first car, I did not show it the care my grandfather had. This is not to say I drove recklessly (despite a few minor fender benders wherein no one was injured), but I knew nothing about engine maintenance or repair and was routinely mystified whenever the slightest problem arose. I did not have the oil changed as often as I should, nor did I give much thought to checking the transmission fluid or antifreeze levels. While I vaguely remembered how to change a flat tire, I had never been shown how to replace the battery or any of the engine belts. The logic behind rotating the tires was unknown to me.
Naturally, the condition of the 6000 deteriorated over the four years I owned it. The left rear quarter panel was punctured in when I errantly reversed into a parked car one wintry night in late 1997. One morning in college, after a night of light snowfall which had not yet been plowed, I was going downhill on Hudson and noticed the light at 12th St turned yellow. I braked harder than I should have (as unseasoned 16 year olds are prone to do), lost control and 540’d through the intersection. The only thing hit was the reflective pole in the median, which took a chunk out of the rear fender.
On numerous occasions the battery went dead, the tires went bad and the engine frequently overheated. I replaced the starter four times — thankfully the first replacement part came with a lifetime warranty, so the other three didn’t cost a cent.
One time, after a night of freezing rain, I couldn’t get the driver’s side door to open. I yanked on the door handle so badly that I damaged its internal workings, and from there on out the handle jiggled far more loosely than it should. I was perpetually ready for it to come loose in my grip every time I went to open the door. To prevent another hard-yank incident, I kept a pry bar on the floor between the front seats (but don’t ask me how it could be of any use if the doors were frozen shut).
In the fall of 1999, during my first semester of college, I drove down to Iowa City to visit Neeks and Katya at the U of Iowa for a weekend. One of the brake lines sprang a leak in the parking lot behind Mayflower. We called every shop in town, only to be told nothing could be done until the following Monday. So I resolved to top off the brake fluid and carefully drive back to CF on Sunday and take the car in on Monday morning to be fixed.
Incidentally, Neeks was to return with me to spend a week with his family in CF and I do not think he was pleased to be riding in a car with no functioning brakes. To say the drive along Interstate 380 was tense would be an understatement.
Also, the tape deck ate tapes. I learned this from experience.
When the 6000 died on Ridgeway on that October morning in 2001, I could tell it couldn’t be saved. The way it shuttered and failed on me felt very ominous. I locked the doors and walked the rest of the way to JDEW. In the mail room I was able to call for a tow at 4PM. I had it brought back to my parents’ house, where the remains were deposited at the curb, its fate yet to be determined.
For the remainder of the week I drove my grandfather’s backup Windstar. After work Dad and I would peruse used car lots in town in search of something reliable and reasonably priced – the holy grail of used cars.
He knew of a coworker who wanted to sell a relatively new Ford Taurus. We went to the coworker’s house to look it over. I did not care at all for the layout of the interior and I could not scoot the driver’s seat back far enough to my liking. No sale.
That week Grandpa eyed a ‘97 Dodge Intrepid in great condition in a used car lot in Ackley. Dad and I came over on Saturday afternoon to check it out. The dealer knew my grandfather and gave us the keys to try it out for the night. I drove it while following behind Dad and Grandpa on their way to Faulkner.
The car performed very well. It was comfortable, it accelerated rapidly and with ease, the engine was quiet and it had two things the 6000 didn’t: power windows and power locks (which worked!).
The Intrepid had only been owned once, by a retired couple that had taken it on numerous road trips to visit their son in college, somewhere in Maine, and had recently won a free car in a raffle, hence why they gave up a 4-year old car.
The vehicle had 88,000 miles and all its original parts, interior and under the hood, and had never been in an accident. The only notable downside was that the owners had been fiendish chain-smokers. A few cigarette burns could be seen in the passenger seat and the interior reeked of nicotine.
I decided to buy it. The price felt a bit high but it was within the range I had set. I had to take out nearly everything in my savings account as well as a $1,000 auto loan through JDCCU. But I was living at home at the time with almost no expenses, so my JDEW salary repaid the loan in only a couple months and soon I was building up my savings again.
Dad and I returned on Sunday to sign the paperwork and exchange the funds. I can’t remember the reason why I didn’t take the care home that day, but it stayed in Ackley until Monday, when Grandpa drove it to Cedar Falls to exchange for his Windstar.
I keep a pad of paper in the pocket of the driver side door. In it I jot down every fuel purchase: the date, number of gallons purchased, price per gallon, total sale and the trip odometer reading. This allows me to check my fuel efficiency as well as lament the ever increasing price of gasoline. There is an entry dated 18 December 2001, back when I bought my gas at the Amoco station on the corner of 1st and Hudson. Price per gallon: 98 cents. Ah, the good ole days!
The Intrepid was involved in its first and so far only accident a couple winters ago when a car pulled out in front of me at the bible campgrounds by the Cedar River. While neither of us was going more than 25 mph, neither of us could stop in time. My front left quarter panel was slightly creased. The other car suffered a broken tie rod to the front right tire. The officer declared it a no-fault accident due to the compact snow on the road. I did not have the damage to my car repaired as the damage was minimal and I would have had to cover the costs myself.
Ten years has taken its toll to the exterior. Small rust holes have formed in front of both rear tires and are slowly growing. The crease on the front left quarter panel sports a thin line of rust for a scar. The paint is fading from the roof. The radio does not pick up stations as well as it used to.
Aside from oil changes and a couple new batteries, I doubt I have sunk more than $1,000 into it. Last summer the driver side master switch broke, costing me a couple hundred to have it replaced. The car does need some love though: the front suspension is wearing out and there’s an odd grinding noise that comes and goes from the rear right tires — I suspect the brake drum for some inexplicable reason.
In ten years I’ve added approximately 100,000 miles to the odometer. That includes dozens of trips to/from Omaha NE and Oxford OH, and a few road trips to the east coast, one which took me through Canada. Nowadays it’s mostly just work and back five times a week. I haven’t driven it out of state since April 2010.
Micah once asked if I’d keep driving it until I hit a moonshot – about 239,000 miles, the average distance between the Earth and the moon. I’m 50,000 miles short of that mark. Ten years already feels like a long time to own and drive one car. I don’t know if it’ll reach that milestone, but I plan to hold onto it for at least another year or so, until I can afford its replacement