How Not To Buy A Used Car

Does writing whimsical posts about cars qualify one to buy a 17-year-old Japanese car in Eastern Europe? It does not! The true story of a doomed voyage to Armenia and my volatile love affair with a Subaru Sumo.

It was the summer of 2011 and the plan was to drive a car from Budapest to Yerevan. The plan had been the same in the summer of 2010 but it hadn’t happened back then and we were determined, bordering on desperate. Because, road trip! Team Budapest to Yerevan consisted of my wife Natalie, my brother Gábor and my friend and occasional collaborator Máté Petrány.

The trip was planned by Attila, a friend of a friend, and it was not the quickest way from Budapest to Yerevan. The route headed south from Budapest, cut across Croatia near the village where my father was born, snaked through the valleys of Bosnia and Herzegovina, went across the hills of Kosovo and Albania, shot through Greece and Turkey, then touched basically every road in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia to arrive in Yerevan. It’s about as grand as you can get in Southeastern Europe.

We had originally planned to buy a Lada 1200. A Lada makes a lot of sense. Dirt cheap, seats four, easy to fix, easy to get rid of in a post-Soviet country.

We should have bought a fucking Lada.

Then I was having a drink with Attila, the guy who was organizing the trip, and he mentioned that he’d just bought a Subaru Sumo and had taken it on a trial run from Hungary to Albania and it had been awesome.

Oh dear.

How Not To Buy A Used CarS

The Subaru Sumo is a weird, wonderful car. It’s a JDM microvan with a bigger engine for export. It’s tiny. It’s got four-wheel drive. It’s got three rows of seats, two of which fold flat. It’s got splendid ground clearance. It’s got a sunroof. It’s got a pair of sub-sunroofs with built-in vinyl blinds.

Mention a car with a pair of sub-subroofs with built-in vinyl blinds to a man who knows very little about the practicalities of old Japanese cars in Eastern Europe and you’ve got him hook, line and sinker. Attila casually mentioned that the guy he’d purchased his Sumo from had another one for sale.

Did I say hook, line and sinker?

A Sumo sells for about four times as much as a decent Lada. This immediately stretched our budget to the breaking point. It also meant that we wouldn’t be able to abandon the car in Yerevan and fly home but would have to drive the Sumo home and either keep it or sell it.

I met the Subaru salesman. The car had minor issues. Like, say, a carburator built out of three broken carburators. Did I care? I didn’t. Because, a pair of sub-sunroofs with built-in vinyl blinds! The guy must have had a field day when I handed him the $2,500 worth of Hungarian forints. His name was Lajos Murczin. Never buy a used car from Lajos Murczin. To be on the safe side, avoid all Laji.

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It was a lovely August day. I drove off. Thirty minutes or so later, I noticed a gauge deeply in the red. Water temperature. I know infinitely more about the poetry and aesthetics of obscure race cars than about the liquid cooling systems of real cars but something about that gauge felt wrong. I called Nino Karotta. He told me that no cooling is, in fact, a problem when you’re driving a vehicle with a water-cooled engine.

It was a long drive back. The car would drive for 15 minutes or so, then I’d get out, dismantle the rear to uncover the engine, and wait for 45 minutes or so. Repeat. I drove the car to a shop owned by a friend of Lajos. Orosz, are you driving your crap Subaru to a shop owned by a friend of the scumbag who’d sold you your piece of shit jalopy Subaru? Well, yes I am, yes I am.

Three days and $200 later, the Sumo was fixed. Something about piston rings. Piston rings, shmiston shmings. It was a lovely August day. I went for a drive across the Buda hills. My elbow may have been cocked out the window. The car was perfect. I was ready for a test run! Twenty miles in, the car overheated. I parked it in the Budapest suburb of Érd. Érd is a lovely little suburb. Fuck Érd. Fuck Subarus. Fuck lovely August days, fuck Lajos Murczin, fuck sub-sunroofs with built-in vinyl blinds.

After the engine had cooled off, I drove it back to Budapest. Before it got a chance to overheat, it stopped at a red light in the middle of a six-lane highway and wouldn’t start. What makes a Subaru Sumo a great choice for such a situation is its low curb weight. This allowed me to put the car in neutral and push it off the highway all by myself. I could have killed someone.

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Natalie and her brother showed up and towed me to a shop owned by another mechanic. He was a great guy. Really. He’d once owned a Sumo and had loved it. He also told me it’s a terrible choice for someone not intimate with old Japanese cars in Eastern Europe. What happens to old Japanese cars in Eastern Europe is they’re treated like shit and turn into fickle, unreliable cars. My Sumo, pretty decent on the outside, was actually a rustbucket made of two Sumos.

Note that this doesn’t explain the persistent overheating. The guy called me the next day to say the car was fine. Not overheating at all. He charged me peanuts. I was happy. I drove off. It overheated after 20 minutes. Top speed dropped to 30 mph. The trip to Yerevan was cancelled.

It was at this point, $3,000 in with taxes and gas, that I first thought of my friend Kari. Kari is a great guy. He owns a lot of cool Alfa Romeos. He’s also one mean used car salesman. Orosz, maybe you should have called Kari before buying your Subaru Sumo? Why, yes, maybe I should have.

Think of Kari as Winston Wolf in a lime-green-and-white Alfa Romeo GTV rally car. He solves problems. He told me that his man Tom would put the Subaru on a trailer the next morning. Before that, Máté drove it off to move a friend to a new apartment. He hadn’t believed my horror stories and was pretty disappointed that our trip had had to be cancelled. Returning to my place at midnight with his friend Stella, he lol’d and shook his head in disbelief at the same time. He said he’d seen his share of shitty cars but my Sumo was a new low. Stella and him had spent a lot of time waiting for the Sumo to cool off. I got the keys and drove it up a hill to park it. It was the last time I drove the car. My love for its sub-sunroofs with built-in vinyl blinds was gone.

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Tom picked it up the next morning and trucked it off to Kari’s place. After a week or two of prodding, it turned out that some idiot, in his great wisdom, had fitted the radiator of a 1.0-liter Sumo to my 1.2-liter Sumo. He must’ve been a Lajos. The reduced cooling capacity was close enough to allow the car to pass a thirty-minute test drive but reduced enough to cause the car to overheat in the August heat. I felt a little guilty having it sold instead of setting it on fire and pushing it into the Danube but Kari managed to find a Subaru dealer who picked it up a few weeks later. On a lovely, late October day, Kari counted off a stack of Hungarian forints and we shared a plate of buffalo mozzarella. I love buffalo mozzarella. All in all, I lost $1000, an awesome vacation and all faith in the kindness of strangers and my ability to navigate the treacherous world of used cars.

The Sumo was the only car I’ve ever owned. From now on, if I ever buy a car again, it’s going to be a new car. A Subaru, of course. The Toyota GT86.

Photos by Peter Orosz. Vintage ad shows 1996 Daihatsu Hijet, a microvan very similar to the Subaru Sumo. No sub-sunroofs with built-in vinyl blinds, though.