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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Samurai Junkman

At the tender age of 30, even though I was working as a Kelly Girl without benefits, I had decided it was time to break down and buy a new car.

I had never owned a new car before. I had a thousand-dollar Volkswagen that I’d kept for ten years and then sold for $1200. Then I had a $1200 Rabbit that I abandoned shortly after the master cylinder blew out while I was speeding down a steep grade in West Virginia. Not having any brakes, at the bottom of a hill I flew through a stop sign and plowed into a corn field. Then I got another used bug, a convertible, that was fond of rocketing out the oil pan plug, immediately draining all the oil onto the street and illuminating a red light on my dashboard. I was lucky to have never been fined by the EPA, nor did I ever file an environmental impact statement.

Then I bought, for $700, a rusted-out 4 wheel drive Subaru, which was brown. The hatchback, clearly taken from junkyard skeletal remains, was blue. I couldn't deal with driving a spare parts car, so I ended up spray-painting the hatchback almost the same brown as the rest of the car. Although it did get me in and out of the snow, every time I shifted gears, let my foot off the gas, or turned off the ignition, it would emit a sound similar to a cannon blast.

As a temporary Kelly Girl, I was earning in the single digits per hour, so economy was at the top of the list of must-haves for my new car. And four wheel drive. I lived at the bottom of a hill on a dirt road. I could be trapped for days in the winter.

It would have made sense to buy a Jeep, but that was cost-prohibitive. I needed something less than the cheapest four wheel drive on the market.

Enter the Suzuki Samurai, which looked like a shrunken-down version of a Jeep CJ. And like the Jeep CJ, it was convertible. Well, at least the top came off. Buying the Samurai would, I concluded, make me look like the tough, rugged, Marlboro Mannish stereotypical Jeep driver, but on a smaller scale. As my friend Jack told me, “You want to be butch, but you don’t want to be that butch.”

So I drove 150 miles to Maryland to the closest Suzuki dealer. I had my checkbook, and I wasn’t leaving without a black-with-a-black-top model. If I were going to be not-that-butch, I wanted to be the butchest of the not-that-butch.

I went into the showroom and asked the first salesman/leech who approached me if I could test drive a Samurai. He got the keys and sent me on my way. It was a little sluggish, and maybe a little loud, and it had sticky vinyl seats. But it didn’t explode or shoot out the oil plug or lose the brakes, so I was sold. I went back to negotiate.

Samurais, at the time, believe it or not, were a hot-ticket item and selling like hotcakes. The arrogant leech/salesman flat-out refused to negotiate because I wanted your basic stripped model. No pin striping, no air conditioning, no radio, no power steering. Just the car. He said if I would consider adding on options, he could find some wiggle room there, but that would still have been more money, so I agreed to pay the asking price, which was $7000-something. He ran the credit check, and drawing up the bill of sale said, “Oh, I forgot to ask. Do you want a back seat with that? It’s $500 more."

I took a spatula and scraped my jaw off the floor. What car company considers the back seat a luxury, or worse, optional equipment? In the end I bought the back seat, and anyone who ever sat in it would grow to hate me for it.

I was saddled with a car payment for the first time in my life, and I didn’t like it at all.

But I did have my first new car! For the first week I was so proud of it. I brought it home, gave it two coats of expensive car wax, cleaned the windows, and Armor-Alled the black vinyl top, the seats, the dash, the gearshift knob. During the second week of ownership, it was announced by Consumer Reports that the Samurai, with its short wheel span and top heaviness, was a severe rollover risk. Demand plunged, as did the prices.

My little dream car quickly deteriorated into an unpleasant driving experience. When ever you sped up and got into fifth gear, the cheesy vinyl top would flap and slap, sounding like high-speed applause. I had put in a radio-cassette player and powerful speakers that could barely be heard at full blast with all that flapping going on.

On careful inspection, I sadly realized that the majority of the car was made out of what normally comes on long rolls in which to wrap food. The doors, thin and tinny, made a clank noise when you shut them, like a teaspoon tapping an empty tuna can. Clearly, the metal on this machine was nothing more than Reynolds Wrap. The plastic windows in the vinyl top were weak and deteriorated quickly, so they were pretty much Seran Wrap. The vinyl upholstery was brittle and made a crunching sound whenever it was stressed, especially in winter. In other words, Cut Rite waxed paper. The “carpeting” was pretty much the consistency of kraft paper.

The weak engine was made by the Ideal Toy Corporation and was formerly used in the Karmann Ghia Motorific car. I took it on one long road trip that required navigating through some rather steep mountains. The car could not even climb to the top of an overpass in fifth gear. It would stall or shake until you downshifted into fourth or third, and then the engine would whine while the vinyl top applauded. Climbing over the Blue Ridge mountains, I was left in the dust by passing tractor-trailers, Vespas, and grandmothers on roller skates.

A special feature on the car: When you drove through gusty winds, the car magically turned into a box kite.

On most convertibles, you undo a couple of latches, press a button, and in seconds you are driving with the top down. The Samurai was a little different. Each time I wanted to put the top down, I would have to hire a mechanical engineer for two hours to help me get it off and again when I wanted it placed back. There were snaps and slots and Velcro loops and zippers. It was important to have a supply of Q-Tips on hand for cleaning out the gunk in the slots. Eventually in the summer I would just leave the top off and stick a big beach umbrella in it while I was at work, and that, for the most part, kept it relatively dry until I got it home and parked it safely in the garage.

It was not by any means a comfortable car, especially if you were a passenger in the back seat. Every time you hit a bump (and by “hitting a bump” I mean “running over a cigarette butt”), the rear passengers were sent flying skyward, so seat belts were more than mandatory. They were life-or-death. In summer, the vinyl seats demanded your sweat. If you wore cutoffs and went shirtless (which 30-year-old, not-that-butch kind of men tend to do in summer), extracting yourself from the seat was often a painful experience which yielded a sound similar to Velcro being separated. Only if you were lucky did you get out with all your skin still in place.

Nevertheless, mechanically, the car stayed the course. I had to replace the muffler twice, and someone stuck forks in the rear Seran Wrap windows and broke in and stole my stereo twice. It would have been just as easy to get in by unzipping the back window, but I suspect the thieves didn’t have ready access to a mechanical engineer. As long as it got me from point A to B, I was fine with it. I faithfully crawled under it every 3000 miles and changed the oil, and I never had any engine or transmission problems. I drove it for 10 years, or 100,000 miles, whichever came first.

By then I had a permanent job and was making three times as much as my Kelly Girl job. I was growing older, and I was tired of chipping my teeth whenever I went over a speed bump, so I went shopping for a newer car. I was over the new car obsession and ended up with a two-year-old vehicle.

It was a 1995 Suzuki Sidekick. It's shown in the picture, above, between the Samurai and the Motorific Karmann Ghia.

Some not-that-butch guys never learn.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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