Loyalty To A Car

Before you can be old and wise, you must finish being young and stupid.

* * *

In the summer of 1992 I packed my valuables into my white Yugo GV, and drove her to Memphis, Tennessee for a new job. From there, I drove her into Southaven every day for work. I drove her to Utah to visit my mother. I drove her to Elora, in a heavy rainstorm, to meet a relative. For several months, I drove her into Millington for line-dancing. I drove her to singles activities in Talahassee, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Louisville, Huntsville, Independence, St. Louis, Nashville, and Baton Rouge. I’d plan my vacation time around Thanksgiving and drive her to Branson, Missouri and hang out there for several days at a time; shopping, dining out, and watching various music shows.

There were a couple maintenance issues that came up with the car. The first was a worn-out clutch. The second, discovered during a routine tune-up at a shop in Southaven, was a ripped wheel bearing seal.

I didn’t see exactly what happened to that seal they were talking about, or why it was so important, but a mechanic explained that I didn’t want to allow the bearing grease to leak out or get contaminated, which might dry out the wheel bearing, and cause the wheel to seize. I took the bad advice of that mechanic, and purchased a whole new axle assembly. He could have re-packed the bearing with fresh grease and installed a new boot cover, but that wasn’t as profitable as convincing me to buy a new axle assembly.

I didn’t realize they were taking advantage of me until a year later, when the same mechanic told me again I had a ripped wheel bearing seal, and he had already checked on a price for a new axle assembly. It didn’t feel right. To borrow an old proverb…

Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me.

I left that repair shop and never went back. I also examined the wheel bearing seal, and discovered that it was a flexible rubber boot with a clean straight cut in it. Someone could have sliced it with a knife. If I did nothing to it, the boot was probably sufficient to protect the bearings for another two or three years. No new axle was necessary. A friend from work, Brian Murrell, suggested that it was easy to replace that boot, and he would help me do it.

This emotional affair with my car began to decline when she was struck broadside by a United Parcel Service tractor truck on Millbranch Road in Memphis. The impact dented the driver side door, and knocked my eyeglasses off my face. No visible damage to the UPS truck.

You might wonder how I put myself into the path of a UPS truck. Okay, I’ll try to make this quick, so pay attention. I was trying to help a chaplain of some sort who had broken down on interstate 240, who needed to get to a hospital to provide ministerial service to a sick person but we were headed east which was the wrong direction, so I trusted the chaplain to navigate us to the hospital in question, which he seemed anxious to do, and after I exited 240 onto Millbranch, I glanced at the signs and was inclined to take the jughandle loop to get turned around, but the chaplain had a different plan: he directed me into an illegal left-hand turn at the Nonconnah intersection, where he seemed rather cautious, telling me to wait for northbound traffic, during the which we were sitting in the path of – and oblivious to – southbound traffic.

* * *
When you’re driving on a strange busy road, and you get a feeling that something isn’t right, it just might be too late already to avoid having the sense knocked out of you.
* * *

After that incident I was driving damaged goods. The white Yugo GV wasn’t a new car anymore. But things could get worse with her – and things did. I was asked by a member of my LDS Ward to give somebody a ride to church, one Sunday, during Sunday School. He handed me an address to an old section of Memphis, and I rushed off in my Yugo, thinking if I hurried I might make it back to church before the opening prayer of sacrament meeting.

I had no GPS device to help me find the place, and no cell phone to call ahead. But I did have paper maps in the car. While rounding a curve, my Yugo suddenly lurched sideways. Before I could think clearly my foot hit the brake pedal. Bad idea. Her rear end pivoted around over 180 degrees, into the direction I was headed, and her rear wheel crashed against a curb. It made a loud crashing noise, which at least one man heard a block away. He asked me if I had hit a road sign, before he directed me to the address I was looking for.

It was more aggravating, though not surprising to me, that nobody answered the door at the address I wanted. I went to the side and back doors, looking for a note, a word of gratitude. No joy.

I had plenty of winter driving experience, but I didn’t expect to hit black ice in Memphis. Upon close inspection, I learned I had bent my car’s suspension, and ruined a wheel. She would never drive smoothly again. However, I looked at my Yugo like a good husband might look at his marriage. Just because a spouse is getting older, and has a few bad bumps, doesn’t mean you divorce her. I was willing to work with my Yugo to keep her running as best I could. What better choice did I have?

I found a replacement wheel at a junkyard in West Memphis. For several months, I continued driving my Yugo, and she carried  grateful friends to church with me. Without warning, she gave me grief when starting up in the morning. After trying simple remedies like new spark plugs, new ignition coil, new spark plug wires, new air filter, new gasoline, I sought help from an auto repair shop.

The auto repair shop was supposedly operated by import car specialists. I’m not sure about that. These guys proved they were not Yugo specialists. I was told that I needed a new magneto-distributor assembly, which was not a cheap item. After the mechanic  received and installed the new distributor assembly, he decided he had received a faulty new distributor and ordered another one. Second new distributor, same diagnosis. He said he would have to order another one, a third one. But by then he said wasn’t really sure a new distributor would fix the car.

At that point, I lost faith in that mechanic, and sought help from another friend at work, Jim Sanders. Jim was a meticulous troubleshooter, almost to a fault. With the help of a Haynes repair manual, he figured out that the distributor was fine. It was sending sparks to the spark plugs, but the timing was somewhat tricky to adjust. We got it running, and I drove it home.

She ran fine for several more months, then the ignition problem showed up again. I tried making adjustments for several days, which didn’t seem to do much good. I got tired of the time wasted fiddling with the Yugo, and being late to work. I wanted a reliable car, or truck, and it was time to cut my losses. I sent that Yugo to a junkyard.


My Yugo Affair

The used Ford Fiesta I purchased in Queens, New York in 1989 was a lemon. The previous owner wasn’t trying to cheat me out of $600; neither of us know how worn-out the car really was.

Over several months, I purchased new rotors, brakes, a muffler, radiator, heater core, ignition parts. All my meager disposable earnings were spent in desperation to keep the car running. Why was having a car so important to me? I can’t really say. There were plenty of buses and trains to get me where I needed to go, and with a little planning, most were fairly reliable. Parking was a bit of a chore. Because I didn’t have a driveway at home, I had to hunt for parking spaces on the streets.

Maybe having that car was my trophy, evidence my declaration of  independence from public transportation. Or perhaps it was merely showing off – how I had something above and beyond what most of my peers in Queens had. It made me popular with other LDS singles, especially girls, who asked for rides to church activities.

The last day I drove the Ford Fiesta was on a trip to the LDS Temple in Silver Spring, Maryland – also known as the Washington DC Temple. I had two friends with me. One was a lovely single young lady from the LDS Uniondale Ward; the other, one of her married mentors.

Sure we prayed before we left New York. I hoped that God’s blessings would be sufficient for our needs, but it didn’t seem to turn out that way. I am grateful that there was no collision, and none of us were physically harmed; however, in spite of my tender loving care, that little Ford Fiesta had to die, and didn’t get us back to New York. We had no choice but to ride an Amtrack train, which was quite expensive. I get perturbed to think about that car, even today.

The hassles I experienced with that Ford Fiesta would be sufficient for a different blog. This blog is more about my next car.

It was early 1991. I was relying on my landlord and friend – Albert Tan – to drive me to work from Rosedale every day. I asked him to drive me to a certain Ford/Yugo dealership in Nassau County, to inquire about how I might purchase a new car. I had seen several small cars in their lot, and Yugo was the most affordable car on the market. A kind salesman answered a few questions I had, and said I could purchase a new white Yugo GV for less than $4000. That included a dealer-installed Radio/CD player.

I was already saving a few hundred each month toward a down-payment. The salesman had me fill out an application for an auto loan, which he then faxed to Ford Credit. There was no internet in those days. After about an hour, I was approved for a term loan of no longer than 18 months. If I could find an affordable auto insurance policy, I might be able to drive away with a new Yugo after a month or two when I had more cash on hand. The salesman offered me an additional incentive; if I didn’t need the Radio/CD player, he could reduce the price by about $300.  I liked this scenario, and was emotionally sold that very day.

When my co-workers heard I was looking at Yugos, they tried to dissuade me, saying “they are not good cars”. My idea of a good car was anything with a warranty, at a price I could afford. Yugo certainly seemed like a good car to me.

The annual auto insurance price quoted me, by an Allstate agent in Queens was $1995. She considered me a high risk driver, at the immature age of 28. Even if I managed to save up the money for her ridiculous auto insurance, I would not have any money left to buy a car.

The GEICO company offered me affordable insurance, but it was a phone and mail-order company.  I had to wait for US postal service to deliver my personal check to GEICO, then for GEICO to send me an insurance card, which was my proof of insurance on the exact white Yugo GV that was waiting for me.

After I cashed the critical paycheck from my employer in Little Neck, I returned to the Ford/Yugo dealership to complete my purchase. The salesman who had helped me before passed my contract to a different sales person, a Yugo specialist of sorts.

She was an attractive young caucasian woman with long straight hair, and ugly fake fingernails. I was sitting in front of her desk in a fairly quiet office, listening to her add-on offers. I politely refused them, knowing I could not afford anything more than just the basic car. Suddenly a menacing voice scowled at us from the doorway. I turned to see a buff black haired goonish dude standing there with a smug look on his face. I do not recall exactly what he said, because it didn’t even register to me. He was her main squeeze – I noticed him in a picture frame on the desk, where he was holding or embracing this sales lady – again with a smug look on his face.  Now why was her main squeeze interrupting my purchase experience? Maybe he was just guarding the door; trying to prevent me from escaping.

I was about ready for the part where I laid out my cash on the desk, but at that moment, her main squeeze was making me nervous. The sales lady seemed to ignore him, and asked for my money.

So I laid out the cash, which I had been saving for months. She counted it and decided it wasn’t enough. She said I had to come up with more. I wasn’t expecting this. I explained that my real salesman had already come to an agreement with me, which didn’t include the radio/CD player. The sales lady wasn’t sure about that. She would have to check with the real salesman, and she asked me to wait in the lobby for him to return and explain things to her.

Her main squeeze was still hanging out by the door, but he nodded and smiled at me as I walked past him. After waiting for another 30 minutes or so, the real salesman came back and explained the somewhat messy contract he had drawn up, so that I was allowed to drive away in a new 1990 Yugo GV – without a radio.

Driving a new car, for the first time in my life, was exhilarating. I placed great trust in this Yugo automobile. Great trust. It would take me to church, to work, to anywhere in North America I wanted to go. If it ever broke down, I had towing insurance, and a repair warranty to pay for repairs. Having no stereo radio or CD player was a blessing to me. Car stereos were the most common temptation for thieves to break into cars.

The only annoying problem I had with that Yugo was a faulty heater cable. It came loose from the clamp behind the dash, so I couldn’t control the heater while driving. I brought the car back to the dealership, and had to leave it there to be repaired. I picked up my car after work one day, and it seemed like the problem was fixed, but it really wasn’t. I moved the heater lever a few times, back and forth, and the cable was loose again.

I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge or the time to open up the dash or the console and try to fix it myself. I didn’t want to leave my car at the dealership again, and I didn’t want to have to hire a ride back to Queens. So I drove it home with very hot feet. Eventually I figured out a way to control the heater by opening the hood, and manually moving a lever next to the fresh air intake port.

Aside from the odd way of controlling the heater, I had virtually trouble-free driving with that Yugo for over three years. No unexpected car expenses. No getting stranded without a ride.

The Zastava (Yugo) factory was started with old Fiat tooling, and the cars were actually designed by Fiat in Italy. The Yugo cars were not too difficult to maintain, with the right parts, but the ecomomic design and low price fit more into American throw-away mentality. In other words, drive the car for a few years, then throw it away and buy a new one.

Yugo dealerships in America would soon stop importing Yugos. I’m sure it had something to do with the poor reputation of the brand. Another thing; civil war was brewing in Yugoslavia, which would tear that country apart.