I loved my old car.
It didn’t start out that way. I bought the Tornado Red 1997 Volkswagen Golf Mark III on September 4, 2001. My beloved 1989 Honda Civic had finally blown up after 211,000 miles and, short on cash and needing to get to work, I was desperate for a ride. I had grown up with my dad’s 1974 Super Beetle and had always liked the styling of my friend’s ’80s Rabbits, so I was definitely drawn to the snugly styled Golf. The price was right, so I took the plunge. Look at me! I’m a VW owner.
Seven days later, our flight to Florida was cancelled by the September 11 terrorist attacks. My girlfriend and I decided to see what the new car could do, so we packed it up and headed blindly to the Outer Banks. The car was fantastic. The trip to North Carolina and back was smooth and easy, and I looked forward to many more long drives.
It was great for a few years, but then things began to unravel. Gremlins got into the electrical system, the paint started to fade, and the Mark III began to look pretty ragged.
I was in my friend’s tattoo shop, complaining about how sick I was of the car, when I met D. “Whose Mark III is that out front?”
“What? The red piece of shit? It’s mine.”
“Aww man, that’s a great car! I’ve got the same one. ’97, right?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
So I went outside with this guy, and parked in front was this slammed, shiny, stretched bit of heaven. There was no way in hell these were the same car. I could only stand there, looking back and forth, trying to see in mine what was across the street. He showed me the staggered wheels, the rolled fenders, the European-spec headlights, and the instrument cluster he took from a SEAT Ibiza. I said he must be a mechanic. “No, man, I just bought the manual and search the VW forums.”
My wife rues the day I met him.
From then on, I was hell-bent on turning my four-door econo-box into everything it could possibly be. Volkswagen had given the Mark III Golf an engine that was robust, thrifty, and damn near bulletproof — and every spare cent went to parts, fluids, tools, and anything I could afford to put on it. I bought the manual and set about learning everything I could. I had a friend drill out a 3-ball from a billiard supply store (to match the red of the car) and replaced the stock shift knob. I never looked back.
I was slow. Painfully slow. A four-hour water-pump job took me two entire days. But I had more time than money and, after replacing the snapped bolts and finally getting everything put back together, the sound of the car starting up and driving away smoothly made all the pinched fingers and split knuckles worth it. Soon everyone at work could tell how I had spent my weekend by the bit of grease that never quite came off the inside of my forefinger.
My neighbor across the way let me use his garage for any of the big stuff, but mainly you would find me lying in the street underneath the car in front of our Baltimore row house. Neighbors would pass by to see how the weekend’s project was going. One lady brought me ice water during the Timing Belt of Summer 2011. The Cup Kit in the Fall of 2008 brought cocktails from down the street. And my epic, all-day wash-and-wax sessions never failed to impress passersby.
It also gave me an opportunity to spend time with Dad. Never particularly handy, he was good company and an extra set of hands if I was spending all day wrestling with the suspension or replacing the coolant hoses. Plus, I invariably needed a lift to the auto parts store when I broke something. Regular oil changes gave me a reason to visit with my in-laws, and their driveway.
It never quite matched my buddy’s car, but to me that Mark III was everything. It had its problems: I broke the handles off of four glove boxes; the A/C leaked on my foot in the summer; the paint faded to pink; and every time I put it in fifth gear, I punched my passenger in the knee. It was a gorgeous mess, but it was mine, and when the pavement was dry and the road clear, I wrung absolutely everything out of those four cylinders.
My wife thought it was too bouncy, my co-workers said it was too low. My friend’s kids thought they were in a go-kart, but I knew it was perfect. The speedometer went out, but I didn’t need it. I didn’t need anything to tell me what was going on with that car. I always knew how fast I was going, or what gear I was in. I could tell when the gas tank was full and when it was dry. I could feel what was going on with that car. I just loved climbing into the driver’s seat.
The basement filled up with parts and wheels, and the car kept rolling on. Two hundred thousand miles came and went without a hiccup. When it passed 211,000, I cheered and knew I would have it forever. But our battles grew more and more frequent, and the calls to tell my boss I was waiting for another tow started to wear on everyone. I had replaced almost everything on the car, some things twice, and it was getting harder and harder to finish each project in time to get to work on Monday.
Finally, a few days after another water-pump change, I was driving home with my mind half on a persistent coolant leak when the car seemed to explode around me: A poorly secured steel plate in an intersection had rocked up and torn at the underside as I passed over it. I had it towed (again) to my house and surveyed the damage with my core car team of fellow enthusiasts. The verdict? Even if it could be repaired, it would cost several times more than it was worth. I didn’t have the money, the time, or a place to keep a project car. And I still needed to get to work.
After 243,000 miles, the Mark III was done.
I stripped everything I thought I could sell off it and called the junkyard. I still have the video on my phone of it being towed away. The last thing I sold was the manual. Its pages were greasy and curled, but it was still valuable to someone who needed to fix something on their VW. I was glad to see it off to a good home.
I now drive a Mini Cooper. It’s new-ish. It’s nice. It starts when I put the key in. It gets me to work. Reliability is a refreshing change of pace after 12 years. I like it.
But I kept the 3-ball shift knob. Someday, I’ll find another red car that needs some flash.