2015 – West Coast Cheap Car Challenge

The Proposal

Sometime in late 2014 my friend Taylor and I were sitting around, drinking whiskey, and watching Top Gear, like one does. If I recall correctly specifically, we had just finished Botswana… or Bolivia… I forget which is which, and were a good way through the Vietnam special. It was at this fateful moment, Taylor said something along the lines of “it would be so cool to do something like that someday.” True story that.

A couple of months later a small group of my friends get added to a group chat. I link to a file “West Coast Road Trip Proposal.” At first, I’d thought we could drive the gulf coast or maybe do Route 66. Ultimately, starting in the mid-west there was a lot of uninteresting crap between us and anything worth seeing. OK… so what about the west coast? We have a lot of friends and family over there and could probably do a one way rental in a semi-decent car and have some fun with it. Hmmm… Sixt is quoting just under two grand for a 3-series, one way LA to Seattle. I bet you could BUY a half-decent car for that. Turn this into a REAL Top Gear adventure…

After that I was sold. I put together a preliminary route, budget, a list of risks and contingencies, plus a detail of likely problems we’ll encounter, and even a SERIES OF CHALLENGES.

After a few months of culling and pestering, I actually get two people committed to the project, plus myself.

The plan was this: We would fly to San Diego, buy cars for less than $2,500 each, drive the Pacific coast up to Seattle, and then sell the cars. The plan was to stick to the 1 or 101 and keep the coast on the left.

The Cast

So let’s meet the team!

  • Evan/ Akio (me!) – Electrical Engineer – Only one with automotive repair experience, and that is somewhat limited
  • Taylor – Graphic Designer – No automotive experience, but did work as a theatrical electrician for many years
  • George – Computer Scientist – No automotive, mechanical, or electrical experience. Thinks mornings are a structured conspiracy

Could we really do this, or would we end up changing our flights to leave from San Francisco, broke and disheartened?

The Cars

Well, as you might surmise from the photo, we did indeed end up doing this crazy thing. I’ll spare most of the details, as those are available elsewhere, and just focus on the highlights.

George knew he wanted a convertible and is a known Volkswagen enthusiast. Other that he knew he wanted a car that was approximately as old as him.

Taylor knew he wanted a truck with a manual transmission, despite the minor issue that he couldn’t drive stick. After speaking with his parents, he decided he wanted a Mazda B2000, preferably in red, for nostalgic reasons.

I committed very early on to being stupid. I too wanted a convertible. Preferably a roadster, old, carbureted, with a big engine and a manual transmission. The weirder the better.

And then, suddenly, it was show time. The first day of the trip we had a lot to do and only one car, the Rental Chariot, to do it in. George and myself got in the night before, but Taylor’s flight was cancelled, so he needed picking up. George had a train to catch, though he wouldn’t tell us why, and needed to be dropped off at the station. I had a couple of Mercedes SLs that needed looking at in San Diego before heading to LA to get some real looking done.

My binder of potential cars

Luckily we had time to go and look at said Mercs, and what cars they were! One had a massive dent in the driver’s side and the other had a flat battery. Not a good sign. They were, however, both manual, which was nice. Neither was in good running order, however, so I declined to do much of anything there.

The Bumblebee

After that, George got dropped off and Taylor got picked up. Then it was off to LA! Except it wasn’t. Apparently George’s train hit a box truck one station before it was to pick him up, he was essentially SOL, and needed to be picked up and taken to LA. All he got out of the experience was a used train ticked and a riotous sun burn. Another non-auspicious start.

On the way to LA we finally found out the truth about George and his train ride: He already had a car! He didn’t let on even a little before this! He had a friend buy it about two weeks ago and had it driven to a shop for some “minor work.” Which meant a lot of work. Like… as much as he paid for the car.DSC_3551.jpg

Soon we were at said shop and we got to meet what would quickly be known as “The Bumblebee”. Bright, non-factory yellow with a white top and custom black and yellow vinyl seats. It was both hideous and lovely at the same time. And it was an auto. It was perfect!

The Alfa

Yes. That is right. An Alfa Spider. I didn’t even like Alfas, but Top Gear was always insistent that to be a true petrolhead, you needed to have owned an Alfa.

I did look at said mercs and a “mint condition” MG Midget that ended up having a torn top, the trunk wouldn’t open, it had been in a front end collision, and it wouldn’t start. Mint my ass.

This one was at one of those crazy shady “Buy here, pay here! No title no problem!” places that has no reason to be selling an old Italian exotic. It looked great in the photos and the asking price was $3,000.IMG_20150828_180903159

Well, as you likely have surmised based on the photos, I bought it. On the test drive the only things I could really fault it on were a sticky throttle and an in-op speedo. That said, buying it wasn’t that simple! For starters, I couldn’t get the seller to knock a cent off the asking price. Ok…. Well a car is a car. I’ll take the hit to my points and go for it. Then there was the paperwork, which took damn near an hour and somehow ended up with me paying $300 extra for “taxes”. I knew it was bullshit at the time and I probably should have walked, but the light was fading, I didn’t have proof, and I NEEDED A DAMN CAR! Finally though I had a car, George had a car, and Taylor was there to drive the Rental Chariot back to San Diego with us.

Again, not so easy. For one, while I was not-so-quietly crapping myself in a coffee shop trying to decide if I was going to buy this Alfa, we discovered that George’s car has a hot start problem. Crap. After purchasing the Alfa, we also discover that it isn’t great at running the headlights and… anything else… at the same time. And the tires are shit. Ok. So… 7PM in the heart of LA with two mostly broken cars and a 120 mile drive ahead of us. How hard could it be?

Well I am disappointed to tell you… not that hard. Actually totally uneventful. We got back to the AirBnB, consumed mass quantities of food and booze, and began making a plan to get Taylor a car tomorrow (our last day in San Diego).

The Truck

The day previous we’d looked at a couple of trucks for Taylor, but one stopped returning his calls and the other was a mechanical nightmare. So the next morning we each tentatively stuck out heads out the door, only to discover that yes… there were two mostly broken foreign cars out there. I cannot express to you the terrified feeling we had. Up until this point this trip was the purest fantasy. The type thing you jaw about doing when you’ve had a few too many, but there is no way you’d risk life, limb, and most of your bank account to do it. And we did. And we still had one more car to buy.

Over a couple pots of coffee, we tore through craigslist and eBay looking for a truck. Any truck. Gone were Taylors original criteria, he just needed wheels. After a morning of searching, we had a few leads just outside of town.

There we met Jamie and his brother. The former owned the truck, a red Nissan D21, and the latter spoke English. We’d ran a VIN check on the car and we knew it had around 350,000 miles, or more, and we knew it was a little beat. We also knew Taylor needed wheels and it was in our price range. I did a test drive (remember, Taylor still can’t drive stick at this point) and found the only mechanical oddity that I couldn’t find 5th. There was a detent for it and a shift indicator in the glove box for a 5-speed, but I couldn’t get 5th to engage.

Post-test drive, we inquired as to this oddity and Jaime’s brother insisted this bare bones vehicle only had a 4-speed manual. Confused, we fled in search of better geared pastures. Sort of. What we actually did was drive half a mile down the road and try and determine what kind of transmission that damn truck had. Wikipedia was unhelpful, as the D21 was available in both 4-speed and 5-speed. George had the brilliant idea of just like… calling Nissan. On the phone. Like some sort of old. So we did. The local Nissan dealer, unfortunately, informed us that the VIN had been archived and it would take 2-3 weeks to get a VIN rep- oh wait… we should just call the parts department and ask to buy a transmission. Way to go Nissan phone lady! A few minutes later we had our answer: the truck was, indeed, a 4-speed.uvvieswmhhyxkd9qzoan

A short phone call later, Taylor had a car.

After money changed hands, I drove the truck off to an abandoned lot, tossed Taylor the keys, and buckled my seatbelt for expected turbulence. Truth be told, he did WAY better than my first(ish) time with a stick. A few short hours and much friction material later, we pointed the Truck towards San Diego, ready to let our true adventure begin.

And we’re off!

With much fear, we set off from San Diego. Our first day’s goal was modest: Valencia, just north of LA. We would hop on the 5 and head to the southern origin of Highway 1, and take it as far as we could before splitting onto main highways out of necessity.

For cinematic reasons, we decided to go to Balboa Park for our “official” road trip starting point. What is funny about this is we promptly got lost. Apparently Taylor thought I was leading, even though I was in the middle. Somehow we ended up at a golf course and while generally heading in the right direction, the Truck got hit with a golf ball. Not joking. It was amazing. I wish we had video of it but the camera were not rolling yet.

Eventually we found Balboa Park, locked up, and headed in. Or not. What actually happened is when George went to lock up the bumblebee the key got stuck in the door. On the street. In traffic.IMG_20150830_145730922

The next 45 minutes were spent watching George fiddle with his lock/door/car while warning him to dodge oncoming traffic. It was glorious, hilarious, and, again, inauspicious. By the time he got the damn thing fixed we were running very short on time, breezed through the garden, and then hit the road.DSC_3664

The following drive was very special. We stopped at the beach for dinner and then cruised up the 1 in our crapcans. Up until this point I didn’t really understand the Alfa. It wasn’t especially pretty, or fast, or practical. That all changed driving along this little highway though beach resorts, top down, ocean to the left. There it felt incredibly special. The transmission was also starting to whine alarmingly. So there was that too.DSC_3767

The next day was spent trying to address the faults with our cars. I looked into my electrical problem enough to determine it was unlikely to be a fault with the battery or alternator and was probably a bad ground. The car would make it, so I stopped worrying. I also hit a Jiffy lube and two quarts of gear oil later my transmission and diff were topped off and ready to face the rest of the trip!DSC_3811.jpg

George and our friend Eric swapped out the Bumblebee’s starter, which, as it turns out, refused to start when the car was hot. Apparently a common problem with this vintage car in an automatic, which, of course, his was.

Taylor did nothing because his car was neither ambitious, nor rubbish. It will probably outlive us all.

The next couple days were actually pretty worry free. We had a little incident on our way out of wine country wherein the Alfa LOOKED like it was leaking coolant… but it was actually washer fluid.

And that was the thing, after a rocky start we expected disaster. Every start, stop, turn, and fuel fill was done with baited breath. Were the cars going to start? When is the other shoe going to drop?

The only problems we encountered weren’t from our cars, but other drivers. As it turns out Big Sur is CLOGGED with tourists in convertible Mustangs, absolutely terrified of literally everything. The day was spent tailgating Mustangs, willing them to drive off a cliff into the sea. But alas, it was not so.lm7bywpx8tez1dhfucls

By the time we got to SF it was dark and we were treated to some weird misty sea spray that played havoc without crappy headlights and poorly cleaned windshields. Through some trick of fate we made it through that, only to be faced with the greatest threat yet: San Francisco.

Finding parking in SF was not an easy feat. We ended up at the shadiest of shady garages. It had one sign, the attendant spoke neither English nor Spanish, and if we had cars in the morning I would be shocked.

But there they were. We can only assume that no one wanted them.

It was gradually becoming apparent there was something wrong with the truck. Following being neglected in Valencia, it had become hard to start. Then it started blowing white smoke. Then it stated to idle poorly. And backfire on start. Given the truck had a new radiator, water pump, hoses, and thermostat, George and I privately feared a head gasket failure. We decided not to tell Taylor, as there was no reason to worry him unnecessarily.IMG_20150902_082126911

We soldiered on towards the roads north of SF, which were far superior. On the way out, we tried to avoid hills (not an easy feat in SF) to save Taylor and the Truck’s clutch, but we were somewhat unsuccessful. We took the Embarcadero through SF thinking that would avoid the worst of it and it mostly worked. The traffic was appalling and I lost at least a quarter tank doing nothing. (Turns out I had a fuel leak, but that is a story for another time). But as it turns out our big plan had a flaw. The Embarcadero is at sea level. The Golden Gate Bridge is not. Taylor lost much dignity that day. His clutch will likely never be the same.1

However, as a reward for surviving LA, SF, and the onslaught of convertible mustangs, were treated to the best roads of the trip. I hesitate to even say anything because it feels like some sort of secret. Seriously, the road between Hardy Creek and Legett, the last leg of the 1, is phenomenal. Twisty, windy, hills, trees, streams, hairpins, and no traffic. It was made even better by driving MY Alfa Spider with my two friends following in their own loves. It defined the road trip in so many ways.

And then we were on a section of road that winds through the California Redwoods known as the Avenue of the Giants. Of course one can’t be there in your own crapcans without driving through a tree! And so we did just that. It was a tight squeeze, even in our little cars. Furthermore, Taylor’s clutch took further damage when someone walked out in front of his car as he was exiting the tree. This caused Taylor to have to do, by far, his most ambitious hill start of the trip. In fact, it was so bad, especially as tourists looked on and took pictures, this became the only time during the trip I had to rescue him, jumping in the driver’s seat and parking it for him.jh8qavhxxhluqr7jpjvz

To further our touristing we hit the touristiest (totally a word) tourist destination of them all: THE TREE OF MYSTERY!!!!!! (It sounds great with reverb) Complete with gondola ride and a “challenging” hike, which just meant it didn’t have a hand rail, that ended in the gift shop. It was a pretty cool thing.

Onward and upward, we finally came across something we honestly didn’t dare hope to see: The Oregon border. We fucking made it through California!xtdzf9uvlzixodoqgbkv

Over the following days things gradually got more… interesting. The driver’s side window winder fell off the Alfa so we had to use pliers, much to our surprise the truck was gradually running better, and the Bumblebee was increasingly becoming an albatross.


Speaking of which, you know that starter fix we did in LA? Yeah… when we got to Thor’s Well in Cape Perpetua suddenly that stopped being a fix. Which is to say we tried to move the cars because we were in the wrong place (or thought we were anyway) but the Bumblebee wouldn’t start. This was surprising because up until that point, the fix had been working well.

z8pcp9quktgx94tynxeuSo hung out and waited for it to cool down. Many, many tourists offered jumper cables, but alas the bumblebee wasn’t starting.

So we went for a walk, which turned out to be epic.

When we got back we tried whacking the starter with a hammer.

It still wouldn’t start.

We tired cursing it, Volkswagen, George, and Bosch.

Still wouldn’t start.

We privately considered leaving the Bumblebee and/ or George.

It still wouldn’t start.

I’d like to say this is when we discovered a secret backup car or we left George and carried on happily without him, but, as previously stated, this isn’t Top Gear. I’d also like to say something more dramatic than “and then it started” happened, but, again, not Top Gear.app6slqrtuye7ebjubb0

It did just suddenly decided to start.

Over the next couple of days this starting problem would become worse and worse, to the point that we would frequently just leave the damn thing running lest we get further behind schedule dealing with its petulance.

By the time we got to Portland it was apparent something had to be done. George found ON THE INTERENTS an old technical service bulletin from Volkswagen detailing a fix for this very problem. Turns out the starter solenoid gets cooked by the exhaust manifold and need the assistance of a relay to do its damn job. A kit was commercially available on Amazon, but wouldn’t be able to get to us for several days. We opted to have it sent to our Washington overnight halt and cross our fingers it could make it that far.

Did I mention we stayed on a boat in Portland? Because we did.vtkauiytitw2mu133jtk

And just like that we were though Oregon! After an indescribably long wait for the Bumblebee to cool down in Astoria, we crossed the Astoria-Megler bridge into Washington. A truly epic bridge that, apparently, was the last piece of Highway 101 which enabled it to be the unbroken route from California to Washington it is today.gt9s2wizyvw8nlqluy5l

Shortly thereafter we were just west of Seattle and soon to be heading to our finishing point. We took a “beach day” to explore, drink, take some video of the cars, and let George install his starter fix.

We initially wanted to take the ferry to Canada, but it turned out to be both expensive and time consuming. So instead we hit Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National forest. All cars made it up without incident, so we decided to take a crap ton of “victory” photos.

Now the big question: What were we going to do with the cars?!

George, truth be told, had declared on day 1 that “if the car didn’t betray him” he would be shipping it home. Even though it betrayed all of us on multiple occasions, he still was going to keep it. In for a penny, I suppose.

While I had entertained a few interested callers on the Alfa, I didn’t have any solid buyers nor was mentally equipped to deal with donating it to NPR or scrapping it. Honestly, I was so surprised it actually made it to Seattle, it had managed to worm its way into my heart. Despite essentially being a vacation romance, I just couldn’t imagine not regretting selling it, and would probably end up buying another in in a couple of years anyway so… fuck it. I sent mine home.hzjnpg7uq5jkcnip6o1i

Taylor was determined. Determined to sell this damn truck. He fielded more calls than the rest of us and had an interested buyer who would buy it for his asking price if Taylor would deliver it. After George and I dropped off our cars at the shipper and were driving back to the overnight halt, Taylor seemed ready to do the deal.

Except he wasn’t.

No, deep down it was killing him to let his little truck go.

So the next day we drove back to the shipper and put one more car on the transport.

That’s right. We went through all that only to fail at the end, and not sell our cars.

And on that bombshell….

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