Broken Car #4: 1991 Civic

Once I realized that the Jetta was probably going to kill me one day, I figured I should replace it.  I looked for a while to find the best car and of course, ended up on craigslist.  However, I learned my lesson at this point, no more night-time buys from shady individual sellers, I was going to a dealership.  But not a real dealership obviously.  So I bought the car on Sunday, I test drove a 91 Civic hatchback and a 92 Civic sedan.  (And by “test drove” I really just mean, first and second gear around the parking lot.)  I liked the 91 Hatch much more, it just felt so light and alive despite being 20 years old at that point.  So $1800 later after trading in my death-trap, it was all mine.  It had working A/C for the first time!  I never had a car with A/C before, I was about a half-hour down the road before I remembered and turned it on…

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But wait, there’s more.  It didn’t have a passenger side-view mirror, any airbags, or antilock brakes.  There was no tachometer, no cup-holders at all, and the driver’s seat was collapsing and leaking foam.  There was no radio (again), the rear brakes were metal-to-metal so they didn’t work and just got very hot not doing anything, the power steering rack was binding (which is worse than not having power steering at all).  It was very rusty and painted four different colors of gray.

And I loved it.

The trick with getting an old broken car past state inspection is to go to an inspection station that doesn’t look too closely.  After getting another $3000 estimate (I guess that’s the magic number) to replace the rusty panels and fix the everything, I went down the street to a gas station, and $300 later I was good.  But the car had another trick up its sleeve.

I bought the car on Sunday, it didn’t start on Saturday.  Within a week of purchase it was really broken.  It was at this point I thought that maybe I should start spending more then just $2000 on cars in the future, that they might last longer and not try to kill me (but what’s the fun in that?)  But fear not, I figured out that if I started the car and immediately got on the gas, I could keep it from stalling itself and so long as I didn’t let it idle (like the Jetta) until it was warmed up, I would be ok.  Of course by “ok” I really mean that the car would mostly work.  This is what I came to call ‘broken-mode’ and a less dedicated individual would call it ‘un-drive-able’.  In broken-mode, the check engine light was on (nothing new there), and it was very bad, it would stutter and hesitate, it was way down on power (and didn’t have much power to begin with), and would make my day much worse.

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I had an idea though.  Once the car was warmed up and we were rolling at about 70mph, I would do a rolling-restart and turn the car off.  I’d give it a few seconds and then re-start the car and hope that it would work properly for the rest of the drive.  This plan (read: very dangerous idea) worked well many times.  Although it did go very wrong twice.  These times, I tried to restart the car and nothing happened.  The car didn’t even try to start.  So there I am on the highway with my speed rapidly falling, with the car off and just rolling for as long as its momentum dictated.  Both of these times, I was able to get it restarted before I came to a stop (or got killed).  Because of this and all the other interesting issues with this car, I started to think of it as the Millennium Falcon.  When it worked it was great, it got 45mpg and was very light and agile.  When it didn’t work it might die completely, and was almost un-drive-able about half of the time.

Now I’m sure some people think that if you have to pray every time you turn the key that the car would actually start, then get on the gas to keep it from stalling itself, then not turn on the headlights, A/C, or heat until it’s warmed up (or else it would die), that maybe it’s time to reconsider your life.  I’m sure these would be the same sort of people that think driving a car so dangerously rusty that I’m concerned the body will fall right off the frame in a fast turn, with no passenger side-view mirror, no useful brakes, and no airbags (not even for the driver) would be a “bad idea.”

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However, those people are wrong.  This was without a doubt my favorite car so far.  I loved the lightness, any Driver (with a capital “D”) will tell you that weight makes the biggest difference in how a car feels.  The 91 Civic Hatch was a very small and very lightweight car, it got great gas mileage and was perfect in every way.  The lack of safety features was good as well.  I might write more about this idea later on, but with nothing separating my poor driving from certain death, I paid more and more attention when I drove and became a better Driver as a result.  I learned how to brake, turn, and accelerate on very narrow tires that would lose traction if I even thought about the rain.  I learned how to take advantage of the lightness and turn into corners quite fast.  The 91 Hatch was perfect, and exactly what I wanted.

But the fact remained that it was not the most reliable.  I knew that one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe five years from now, it would die completely.  And since I have to get to work (bills to pay) I needed something I could count on.  So I sold the last completely stock EF hatchback in the world to a co-worker (whose girlfriend (now wife) was less than thrilled) for $500 and bought a reliable, boring car instead.  I just heard that he has since sold it.  I hope that little rusty Civic will limp on forever.

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Broken Car #4: 1991 Civic