Desu-San-Desu shared this tale with us in the comments a while back. If you do nothing else today, sit down, pour a cup of coffee, and read his words of woe. This story is long and more than a little sad — in so, so many ways — but it's also pretty damn amazing.
Who was this guy in a past life, Hitler?
In October of 2008, I was driving a 1994 Hyundai Excel that was missing all the windows on the right-hand side, along with its door panels, speakers, heater, etc. It ran great and got insane gas mileage (50-plus mpg), but winter was coming and I needed a car that would keep the cold out.
I looked around town and finally found a 1997 Saturn SC2 that looked to be in pretty good condition. Five-speed manual, good exterior and interior and the motor and related workings all looked fine after a little poking around. I traded in my Hyundai and an old 1988 Corolla with a bad torque converter, plus $500 cash for the Saturn.
The dealer gave me the bill of sale and the receipt and told me to come back in a few days for the title, since it was in Conway, about 30 minutes away, and he'd have to get it from his partner dealer there. I had a bill of sale and a 45-day plate, so this seemed fine to me. He also warned that the car hadn't been driven in some time and may be a little pokey at first. Once again, I figured that some cars get like that and drove off the lot... pokily.
Well, the next day, when I got a chance to actually drive it around, I noticed it felt more than pokey, it felt downright amputated. After experimenting a bit, I realized that even though the shift pattern said I was going into first and second gear, the engine didn't feel like it. It felt like I was starting in third gear and only getting third, fourth, fifth and reverse.
My dad tried to wave this off as "maybe it's just not that fast of a car", but I'd driven a '98 SC2 and knew that they were pretty damn quick for a stock four-banger. Even my Hyundai, 0.4 liters smaller, would burn tires up to fourth gear. So I knew something was off.
I got my dad to drive it and he realized that I wasn't just making stuff up. In fact, I'd even mentioned that the brakes didn't feel quite right. Lo and behold, as we're pulling to a stop, coming from about 35 mph, he presses the brake pedal and nothing happens. Keep in mind, this isn't a Toyota. So then he slams all his weight onto the brake pedal and the rear drums lock up entirely. This car is supposed to have ABS (and in fact, does). We have to swerve around the car in front of us off the road and pull the e-brake to keep from going into the ditch.
After that, we drove even more slowly than usual and got home and popped the hood. Turns out the brake line had massive amounts of air in it and the shift linkage was missing a C-clip that keeps the cables secured. Now, the brakes were easy enough to fix and we even replaced the drums, pads, rotors, and shoes just to be sure.
As for the C-clip, none of the stores around us has one in stock, so we had to go to the Saturn dealership the next town over and pay $8 for a little tiny piece of metal. Anyways, that clip fixed the linkage and that little car drove like a bat outa hell afterwards.
One would think everything would be okay, but no. I had a 40 mile drive to work every night and came back in the mornings, passing the lot where I bought the Saturn just as it opened. I would stop in once or twice a week and asked for 'J.T.', the guy's name, and if he was there, which was conveniently rare, he'd say the connection down in Conway hadn't gotten around to getting the title up here, yadda yadda yadda.
I was getting understandably irritated and nervous about this and after about a month, he'd never be on the lot when I walked up. During this time, the car had been driving excellently, though I'd replaced the wipers, headlight bulbs, seat covers, floor mats and tires. But I still didn't have the title and in S.C., without the title, I couldn't get a permanent plate.
So with about a week to spare on the temporary tag, I drive to the lot and the lot is empty. The cars that ran are all gone, the office is empty, the shop is stripped bare and unlocked and people are starting to show up, most of them looking angry.
Eventually the cops showed up and informed me and a few select others that apparently, this guy had a fraudulent dealer's license and had been screwing people over for months. He'd been taking in cars for repairs and either selling them or selling their motors. He'd also done bad repair jobs, refused refunds, kept money that wasn't his, and so on. Eventually, when the heat got to be too much, he liquidated his lot and skipped town.
Now, I'd been smart and kept the titles to the Hyundai and Toyota until he'd given me the title for the Saturn. I immediately filed them as stolen, and to this day they haven't been found. The 'dealer', however, was caught by one of his mnay jilted customers, and he pulled a crowbar on them and a fight broke out. He's now in prison on over 39 different charges, including fraud, theft, grand theft auto, petty theft, assault with a deadly weapon, assault with intent to kill, reckless driving, resisting arrest, etc.
This didn't help my problem, though, since I still had no title for the Saturn and my temporary tag was running out. So I decided to backtrack the car. After a week or so, I found the lot where this guy had gotten the Saturn. Apparently he was supposed to repair it, sell it and give this lot half of the cash or trade value. Instead he'd pocketed the money and run and this lot hadn't seen a dime. However, they didn't have the title either.
It turns out they'd gotten the car from another car lot an hour away because it needed to be repaired and they couldn't be bothered with it. So I had to drive to this third car lot to find that they had never seen any money for it either and had never officially sold the title. So I wound up actually having to pay them $300 cash in order to buy the title to my own car, essentially meaning I had to buy the car twice. There went my Christmas bonus.
I assumed this was the end of my troubles, since my car had shown no signs of a bad repair job. But about a month later, on my way back home from work, I'm driving up the Intercoastal Waterway bridge in Myrtle Beach and I downshift to pass semi-truck and I hear a massive bang and then the car starts making a massive clamor, like pots and pans banging.
I pull off to the side of the road and check the oil level. Fine. Transmision fluid level. Fine. Coolant. Fine. Brake fluid. Fine. Hydraulic clutch cylinder level. Fine. Everything's fine. So I call my dad and tell him what happened and he says do my best to get it home. So I do. But the noise is so loud that I have to roll my windows up due to the volume of the echo coming off the passing vehicles. I also couldn't do more than 35 mph, meaning what normally was a 45-minute drive home took over two very stressful, loud hours.
We get it home and my father listens to it and says "Well... the short answer is... it's fucked." We spend the evening and a bottle of vodka bitching about the stupid asshole of a dealer who sold me the car. The next morning, we pull the car into the garage to prepare to dismantle it. My more immediate problem, however, is getting to work.
Since I was working the night shift, we worked it out so that my dad could go in an hour late every morning and leave an hour later every day, which was fine with his boss, and I could take his truck to work and back. This worked fine for about a month during which we began to take the Saturn apart.
But then his boss decided that starting work at 10am wasn't really all that good for him and required my dad to start coming in at his old time. We tried bargaining with him and when that didn't worked, I bargained with my bosses and tried to have my hours shifted or even cut back but they said that it was too much trouble and told me that if I couldn't have reliable transportation, then I shouldn't bother trying to work there.
I requested a transfer to a location nearer to my house, but I hadn't been working long enough to qualify for a cold transfer. I then applied for an emergency transfer, but since I wasn't technically relocating, I couldn't do that either. I told them that I had reliable transportation, but that I just needed to be out of there by 7 AM.
They decided that there were plenty of people they could hired who would have no problems making the required schedule and fired me, two weeks before I would qualify for unemployment. It turns out I wasn't the first person they'd fired just under the 6-month mark necessary for unemployment benefits. However, I was able to arrange it that since I was considering enlisting in the National Guard anyway, instead of listing me as being fired for transportation issues, on paper I was listed as "Resigned due to Relocation", so at least Wal-Mart allowed me to save some face, for what it's worth.
Anyways, so now this Saturn had cost me my job and was sitting in the garage in the middle of an ever-growing pile of parts and body paneling. Over the next 3 months, during which I looked for work within walking distance and found none, we completely dismantled the front end of the car and stripped the motor down to the bare block. It turns out that the crank shaft had been worn down by over 5 mm and Mr. J.T. had put 'Magic STP' in the oil to hide the ruckus. The bearings were basically bouncing off of it with every revolution. Two piston heads had holes in them, all the rings were fried, and we had to get the entire block and head bored and polished, along with replacing all the bearings, seals, two whole pistons with rods and heads, piston rings, oil pan, a new crankshaft, crank pully, timing chain, timing chain cover, and the other associated bits that go along with a complete rebuild.
Not only were these parts expensive, most of them were also impossible to find anywhere other than the dealer. Over half of the parts had to be bought from the Saturn dealership, at the usual dealership markup. Why? Because nobody carries Saturn parts and there is no aftermarket part selection to speak of for Saturn. The guy at the dealership actually offered us his condolences when we told him we were rebuilding it ourselves. Apparently the SC and SC2 series have a bit of a reputation for being tempermental at best when it comes to rebuilds. Total cost of parts: $988.43. Not to mention the $800 cash total for the title and the two lost trade-ins.
So, after three months of my dad burning every spare dollar from his paychecks and every evening and weekend he had to help me repair this motor, we finally get it reassambled. Now, anyone who's ever worked on a Saturn knows how finicky they are and the timing alone took us 4 hours to get right, along with the compression. In fact, there's a video on my Facebook page showing us getting the motor to turn over with the block sitting on the ground with no head in it, using the battery and two screwdrivers to turn the starter, just to make sure the action was smooth before putting the whole thing back together.
The car bit it in the first week of February, 2009. We finally drive it down the block in the first week of June, 2009. It drove great. Plenty of torque, good shift action, smooth idle, all of the things you want to see. We'd somehow done the impossible and rebuilt that stupid car in our garage with nothing but a Haynes manual and ropes, chains, and a 400-pound engine hoist.
I immediately began looking for work, but by this point the recession was in full swing and over half the yards on our street had 'For Sale' signs up. In fact, the town of Marion, SC has lost nearly 30% of its residential population since January, 2009. There were no jobs within two hours of the town and any jobs that were available were swamped with applications. The high school put up a notice that they were looking for two custodians. They had over 600 people show up for applications. The umemployment rate was over 50%, but people like myself, who didn't qualify for unemployment benefits, and people on welfare, don't go on the national unemployment statistic. It's only for people receiving unemployment checks. Those who didn't comprised such a huge chunk of that ratio, that the official statistic only stated a 19% unemployment rate for the PeeDee region of South Carolina. Yeah, MSNBC didn't mention the fine points of that statistic, did they?
So while I'm looking for work, my father's hours are cut down to part-time and he now only works for 4 days a week, meaning we're no longer able to make the bills. I realized that without me finding work any time soon, we'd probably lose the house, so I decided to move in with a friend in the next town who would let me work around the house for my share of the rent. So, I moved out of my dad's place and in with Eric, meaning my dad was able to pay the bills and have about $50 spare every month. Not much, but enough.
I spent two months living with Eric, looking for jobs around Florence and trying to just survive when the car began having trouble starting. I checked the battery and everything and it progressively got worse, often having to be push-started and having the headlights cut off randomly. I checked the wiring harness and the connections to the alternator and battery and starter and everything was fine but it still kept acting up. Eventually it quit working entirely. Wouldn't start at all and was blocking Eric's driveway, so my father had to bring his truck, a chain, and a pole and tow it back home, leaving me at Eric's, walking everywhere.
Well after about a month, I was invited to move in with a friend in Pennsylvania who could help me get back on my feet, so I left the Saturn with my dad until he could get it working. I arrived in Pennsylvania in September and promptly found work and was using Kyle's car to get to and from. About a month after a moved up there, my dad got the Saturn running again. Turns out the starter and alternator AND hydraulic clutch assembly all had to be replaced. So another $300 or so into the car. Once it was running, I hopped a one-way flight back to S.C., grabbed the Saturn and drove it up to P.A. with no problems. During the next month in P.A., I wound up buying a new set of tires (I'd been running summer rubber and Erie, PA gets massive snow in the winter) with strong all-season tread, along with a oxygen sensor, spark plugs and oil pressure sensor.
During that month, I nearly had to junk the Saturn because it began stalling randomly, sometimes on the interstate and often chugged and shuddered and acted as though it was choking. I checked the oxygen sensor, throttle body, ECU, etc. I even had Advance Auto do a reading on the computer and it came back with close to 16 errors, including a knock-sensor error, which made no sense to me. Ironically, on the way home the damn thing stalled while I was exiting off the interstate and wouldn't roll start like I'd been doing when it cut off while moving. So, in my frustration, I kicked the footwell really hard and the car perked right up, giving only a few chugs on the way home. Once I got home I bent down and took a look and found out the wiring harness had just come loose.
Once that is fixed, the next week I'm downshifting on the interstate driving to work and my shift knob goes all noodly on me and becomes completely limp. Luckily I'm in third gear, so I can still pull out from a stop and drive up to about 50 mph without redlining, but I'm playing that clutch pedal like Lars Ulrich plays his bass kicker. Turns out the shift bushing exploded on me. I'm not going to go into detail about that. All you have to do is look up "Saturn Shift Bushing" to realize just how big of an issue it is with mid-90's Saturns. I can't believe they didn't do a recall over the issue. I wound up going to ebay to buy the bushing and cable end loop for $60 total because Saturn doesn't sell just the bushing. No, you have to buy the entire cable linkage set at $300 just for the cables, not including labor and dealer install fees. Screw. That. But, thanks to ebay, within a week I was good to go again. Though during that week I became intimately familiar with taking out the center console and adjusting the zip ties and lead battery terminal I'd used to hold me until the eBay parts arrived.
Anyways, so Thanksgiving comes around and the Saturn has been driving like a dream lately so I assume I can drive up to New Hampshire to visit my girlfriend at her college and have dinner with her family like all boyfriends are afraid to do but must do anyway. Before the trip, I pack my clothes, check the fluid levels and bring extra bottles of each type of fluid, along with a sleeping back, road flares, food, water, flashlight, tool kit, etc., essentially making sure my car has anything I might need in case of an emergency.
So I head out for New Hampshire. The drive goes fine, the car is behaving great and around 3 AM, I'm in Vermont, on Highway 9 aka 'Hog's Back Road' and having a blast. It's a twisty road, I have aggressive tires and a manual transmission and I can hit 70 just coasting down the back side so I'm saving gas like a madman and just having fun. But then I get out of the high mountain and into the flatter areas and after about an hour the car starts behaving oddly. The oil pressure sensor shoots up, then drops down to really lower and the car starts shuddering and my throttle response drops to Prius levels. I see the temperature gauge skyrocket, so I pull over onto the side of the highway in the middle of northern Vermont at 4 am. I can actually hear moose in the wood less than a mile away when I get out of the car. I don't see headlights from either direction no matter how far I look and it's below freezing.
So, I'm cold and alone in the middle of a strange state and my car is broken down, still two hours from where my girlfriend lives and half my worldly possessions in the back seat and only $200 in cash to pay for gas on my return trip home. I pop the hood and once the smoke clears, I see oil. Everywhere. I mean everywhere. I actually walked along the side and found oil dripping off my back right wheel well. It had shot out of the top of the motor and gotten slung along the underside of the car by the serpentine belt. Pulling out my flashlight, I realize that the valve cover is twisted like a licorice stick and I can see straight into the head and look at the cam shafts. My best guess is that one of the valve cover bolts was stripped and came loose due to the pressure.
So, I pull out my map and see that the nearest town is. West Lebanon. So, I grab some water, a backpack, my flashlight, and my mutli-tool with a large knife blade built into it and head out down the road towards the town, leaving my Saturn's flashers on and the doors locked. About an hour later, I arrive at a gas station and I promptly buy two gallons of oil, a large metal c-clamp and automotive RTV, electrical and automotive tape, along with a gas can and five gallons of gas, just in case. I begin hoofing it back to the Saturn and when I get there, scrape off the old sealant from the top of the head, spread the new RTV, use a tree branch as a lever to press the valve cover back down and c-clamp it in place before RTV'ing and taping the screw threads to make sure it doesn't vibrate loose. I also put J.B Weld on the crack that resulted from the warping of the cover. Then I refill the oil, throw the extra oil in the back seat and pussy-foot it all the way to New London to meet my girlfriend.
Long story short, I wasn't able to afford a bus or plane back to P.A. and pay for my belongings to get there as well, much less a tow truck for the Saturn to go to P.A. and my roommate Kyle and his folks couldn't come and get me because they'd have to take off work. During the time I was trying to figure out what to do, the college campus closed for Christmas break, so I had to go to her folks' house with her, leaving the Saturn in the parking lot of the only major shopping center in town and hoping nobody would report it.
No such luck. We come back three weeks later and the car is gone. Turns out it was towed two nights after we left and racked up $900 in impound fees. I finally, after going through over a year of hell, just said "fuck it, it's your problem now," handed the towing company the title and bill of sale, and got a ride back into town. The college has a two-night-a-week max for overnight guests, so I couldn't stay there. I wound up having to live in a homeless shelter in New Hampshire until a scraped up enough money to get a bus back home.
So that Saturn cost me three homes, two jobs, and over a year of my life. The worst part? I left the small stuff, like the windshield wiper motor fiasco, out in order to keep this under twenty pages.
All in all, I've had a buy buying experience, bad dealer experience, bad mechanic experience, bad parts supply experience, bad firsthand mechanical experiences, and bad driving experiences. If that's not an automotive horror story, I don't know what is.
Dude, we feel you. And (as if we didn't already have a million other reasons) we are never, ever buying a Saturn.
Have your own Garage of Horror story? Email it here with the subject line: "Garage of Horror."