“Mom, my car just died,” Josh, my 18-year-old son, texted me at 4:37 p.m. last Monday.
“Where are you?”
“About 80 miles outside Phoenix. Not sure. No signs.”
Why the Hell didn’t my husband return this damn car to the dealer?
Duke said he test-drove it, checked the various things you’re supposed to check on a used car, and on the 50-mile drive home, the oil-change light flashed bright red.
To me that’s a clear message: “Warning, I’m a problem car. I just pretended to work while you drove me a couple of miles around the dealership.”
So Duke drove this 2003 Nissan X-Terra—with 60,000 miles on it—straight to Don, our mechanic in Orange County.
Don checked the oil and flushed the engine, which happened to have metal shavings in it.
I don’t know much about engines, but metal shavings don’t sound healthy in your engine.
“Drive it around for a couple of hours and I’ll flush the engine again first things in the morning,” Don said.
At least Josh will get two hours of training on how to drive a stick shift.
Did I forget to mention this car has a manual transmission, and our son has never driven a stick shift before?
As with many decisions in our family, we tend to procrastinate; then at the last minute, we take action. It’s not like we hadn’t looked at car ads during the Christmas holidays; we just hadn’t found anything affordable, with low mileage. Plus Josh wanted a used truck with a V8 engine, to which Duke and I said, “Absolutely not.”
I offered Josh my 2007 Kia Rio, with 67,000 miles, but my husband agreed my car was not suitable for driving long stretches in New Mexico where powerful gusts of desert wind can lift your car off the road. How do I know? I rented a Kia Rio just like my own when I visited Josh, and my rental almost blew off the road to Roswell. Perhaps the aliens saw me coming, who knows.
The following morning, which happened to be the Friday before Josh’s National Guard training, Don opened his garage early in order to flush the engine one more time before Josh headed out.
I climbed onto the passenger seat and asked Josh to practice changing gears down our street. I wanted reassurance before his 800-mile drive.
My first impression was not good. A musty smell hit my nostrils and a collection of crumbs, dry grass and other stuff you find underneath your shoes covered the gray floor mats. How come the dealer sold a dirty car? Hadn’t Duke noticed?
Josh turned on the engine and it sounded like an old smoker clearing out his lungs. He tried to press down on the clutch, and put it into first gear, but he couldn’t.
“Let me try,” I said.
We changed seats and I had the same problem. The gear wouldn’t engage.
I ran inside for assistance. Duke was getting dressed for work.
“Looks like the clutch is gone,” Duke said.
He succeeded in thrusting the stick-shift into second gear and I followed him to Don’s shop in my reliable Kia Rio.
“The clutch could probably have lasted another year, but with Josh learning how to change gears, I’m not surprised,” Duke said. “Book him on a flight.”
I debated whether or not to book Josh on a flight. He desperately needed a car to get to his training, plus the freezing temperatures and icy road conditions, made riding his bike hazardous.
Don said it would take all day to replace the clutch, and re-flush the engine.
“I’ll leave tonight,” Josh said.
The car was ready for pick-up at 6 p.m. I met Duke at the repair shop and almost fainted at the cost of a new clutch.
“Aren’t you going to call and yell at the dealer?” I asked Duke. “Ron says we have 72 hours to return the car, and since it’s a piece of crap, we need to return it now.”
“It’s all fixed and ready to go. Josh can leave tomorrow morning and I’ll call the dealer over the weekend.”
Josh insisted on leaving right away, but we managed to convince him to leave the following morning.
I packed enough water bottles to last him a week, a turkey, cheese sandwich, three apples and five protein bars. Josh climbed inside his car, programmed the GPS on his phone—at least that reassured me a tad—and as I waved goodbye, my son tried his best to make a smooth start in first gear. I felt a sense of relief, knowing he had a GPS and AAA.
Six hours later, Duke sent me a text message that Josh’s engine wouldn’t accelerate. He pulled over and after checking the oil level, the engine wouldn’t start.
I left Duke in charge.
After several hours sitting in his car, AAA finally showed up from Phoenix. Duke located, and called the closest garage in a town that sounded like Salami, Arizona, where AAA towed his car.
By now, it was after 6 p.m., and the garage was closed.
“Mom, I’ll sleep in the car,” Josh texted me.
I called him back and his voice kept cutting out.
“Some guy is …. up,” Josh said.
Now, my vivid imagination took over and I started thinking he might get shot.
“We’ll call a taxi to come and pick you up.”
Duke listened to me and rolled his eyes.
“There are no taxis in this small town,” he said.
“What’s the name again?” I asked.
“Salami, or something like that,” Duke said.
I Googled places that sounded like Salami in Arizona, and found Salome.
“Does that sound like the place?”
“Yes,” Duke said.
“There’s a motel and I’m sure they’ll pick him up.”
Duke called the motel, and the owner said, ‘Tell your son I’ll be there in ten minutes.'”
Knowing that Josh was now warm and had a bed for the night, I could fall asleep.
“The garage says I need a new engine,” Josh told us the following morning.
Thankfully, the garage owner’s wife agreed to drive Josh to Phoenix airport where he purchased a ticket to Albuquerque. By now, he had missed his training, and we needed to get the car back to California.
After owning this car for four days, I calculated all the extra money we have spent, and to top it off, we had the extra expense of getting the car back to the dealer in Los Angeles.
“Duke, I hope you give the dealer hell,” I said.
Josh’s car is now back at the dealers, and we’re waiting for a replacement engine.
Who knows how this will end.
Do you have a used car horror story?
Sonia Marsh is a “Gutsy” woman who can pack her carry-on and move to another country in one day. She’s a motivational speaker who inspires her audiences to get out of their comfort zone and take a risk. She says everyone has a “My Gutsy Story”; some just need a little help to uncover theirs. Her story, told in her travel memoir Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of Gutsy Living on a Tropical Island, is about chucking it all and uprooting her family to reconnect on an island in Belize.
Sonia has lived in many countries – Denmark, Nigeria, France, England, the U.S. and Belize – Sonia Marsh considers herself a citizen of the world. She holds a degree in environmental science from the University of East Anglia, U.K., and now lives in Southern California with her husband, Duke.