For those of you lucky enough to never have had this happen, realizing your only car was stolen, stripped, and abandoned feels really, really shitty. However, there are times in life when what you lose in material goods is nothing compared to what you gain in love for humanity. This is one of those times.
Back in the long, long ago, I was once a penniless teen-turned-20-something that needed a car like a man needed several rhetorical roads to walk down before being considered a man by Bob Dylan. I also needed a fast car that had varying degrees of furiousness, so I chose a 1998 Nissan Maxima. Its 190-horsepower V6 engine got the car from 0 to 60 miles per hour in who cares, it chirps second! I suggest everyone go out and find and drive one of these ultra cheap gems at least once. It’s worth it.
After a while, the stock engine became hum-drum, so a new project was needed – a 3.5 engine swap from a newer, 2003 Maxima. Not only did the VQ35DE engine have much better power under the curve than the old VQ30DE, but it had a whopping 255 horsepower, bone stock. This was uncharted territory for my front-wheel-drive brain, so I got all the parts together for a meager sum, studied the factory service manuals, and with the help of a few key people in the Maxima community via forums that I was very active in, began the painstaking process of swapping over timing components, coolant tubes, and sensors.
The entire process took twenty five hours, non stop. Don’t ask me how I managed to complete such a task without falling prey to the vapors, and don’t ask how I managed to get a guy that I had never met until that point from the Maxima forums to tag along on this adventure of midnight swearing and impromptu games of “Where’s the goddamn 10mm socket?” Throughout the process, I managed to snap some pictures and made a lengthy tutorial, because info on the swap was harder to come by than a congratulatory concession speech by Kanye West.
After attempting my first-ever engine swap, I found that I was part of only a handful of people to ever attempt this on a Maxima . It was serious business in the Maxima community, but small beans in the larger car world, a fact that I proved by calling Sport Compact Car, asking to have a feature made online, and having an editor tell me that “it isn’t that interesting and won’t attract readers.”
Sport Compact Car was so good at knowing what attracted readers that they promptly went out of business, despite producing one of the best car magazines of the last 50 years.
On the first day of having the car buttoned up, it was time to take it on a short shakedown run, with a no better destination than a midnight run to Applebee’s, because where else are young men with stomachs lined with iron going to get their fix of half-off appetizers? The car ran remarkably well, and barring a few hard-shifting issues due to one of the bushings being too far forward, it was everything that I’d wanted from the arduous engine swap. I parked the car five feet from the restaurant, next to one of the side windows, in view of a security camera.
And then it happened.
As we departed from the mediocre chain restaurant, I couldn’t find my car. I thought to myself “ Crap, I think I ate too much, I can’t even remember where I parked!” That’s when I recalled one of my friends in tow placed a bottle of water next to the car for some reason before we entered the restaurant. I saw the bottle of water standing just as it was, with no car next to it, with a sprinkling of broken glass on the floor. Fuck.
The sinking feeling set in. I smashed my keys on the ground, destroying the fob with a recently replaced battery. It was of no use to me anymore. I went inside Applebee’s again, and robotically the hostess asked “ Party of three?”despite having seen me walk out the door 30 seconds prior, wishing her a good rest of the evening. I called the police and spoke to the manager, who I questioned about the security camera. “Oh those? They’re just for show.” I’m a patient person. I once sat through Maid In Manhattan without inflicting bodily harm to myself or calling in a bomb threat, and that’s almost physically impossible. But one thing that drives me up the wall like a feral cat being chased by a bloodhound is sheer apathetic incompetence. “Fat lot of good that did now, don’tcha think?!” I stormed out and gave the helpful officer an account of me parking, eating chicken wings, and coming outside to nothing more than a lonely bottle of water. My mom came to pick me up and I went home in the middle of the night with my tail between my legs.
My first car, the car that I spent all my money, time, and effort on, was gone. It was a cheap car, so I didn’t have full coverage insurance on it, so I’d be on the hook for finding a new one with a job that paid less than today’s minimum wage. Gutted just wasn’t the word.
At 4:21 AM, I got a call from the police department in Newark, New Jersey. They had located my car. I asked what condition it was in, and they told me “it’s completely stripped.” Oh joy. Before this ordeal, I made the car into a teenager’s paradise. It had two huge Sony Xplod 12-inch subwoofers in the back with a Kenwood amplifier, a screen in the front and a headunit that displayed graphics in the shade of blue that only appeals to the person who has never had to pay a dime in taxes. I also had a slim PlayStation 2 in the glove box with a borrowed copy of Need For Speed Underground 2. Seriously, paradise.
Two days later, after filling out paperwork and marveling at the impressive amount of disorganization of the government of Newark, I went to see my car and arranged a tow. Here’s what I saw when I got to the yard.
Everything was gone. I had my suspicions that the thief was a Maxima owner with a cloth interior, because they took all the necessary components for a heated leather swap (door panels and center console included). They also took the headlights, custom red/clear taillights, and all of my entertainment. My expert guess on why they left the car became apparent when I tried to move the gear lever. The shifter bushing that had been sitting too far forward had sheared, preventing the car from being driven, so it was left on the side of the road while a band of hooligans stripped it in a matter of minutes.
They left was the engine that I worked so hard to put in, and the wheels were still on the car, allowing it to roll. If these two items weren’t present, I probably would’ve let the car rot in that salvage yard and cried myself to sleep, seriously contemplating the utility of becoming a night-time vigilante crime fighter. I brought the car home and it was one of the most heart, gut, and brain-wrenching things I had ever seen up to that point. I posted what had happened online on various enthusiast forums, and word spread quickly. I wasn’t a prominent member of the community, but as I was documenting the process of the engine swap and other projects I had done, I did have a small following on my posts.
What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.
A mensch named Marc, who went under the pseudonym Digital, owner of an awesome web design firm called IC3D, and my personal friend, had set up a fundraising account in my name so forum members could donate money and parts to get my car back on its feet... errr... wheels (cars don’t have feet). Within a week, I had offers of nearly every single part of the car that was stolen by people across the country. I received a brand new set of JDM Cefiro headlights in the mail, along with other goodies that I had neither the funds nor the confidence to buy myself. I had an entire tan leather interior donated by a well-wishing member in Baltimore, a pleasant drive I’d do again in a heartbeat. In less than a month, every single part was recouped and then some, only via the power of good will and camaraderie through the forums.
Less than a year later, my car was named VQPower.com’s Maxima Of The Month, and I went on to install many more ridiculous mods on this car that had had more parts replaced on it than any car I’ve owned since then. To make sure the stealin’ malarky didn’t happen again, I installed a kill switch and a remote switch for starting the car and placed the car under full coverage insurance.
Not only had the cliche “restored my faith in humanity” moment occurred, but it let me know that car people, above all petty squabbles and rivalries, stick together. It’s the emotional connection that you share with complete strangers over a hunk of metal that you have lovingly made your own, forming bonds that last for years, if not your entire lifetime. I sincerely thank the people involved, the Maxima community as a whole, and any community that values the participation of its members, present company included. If there’s any lesson to take away from my retelling of events, it’s to always, always pay it forward.
If you want to start your own project that gathers community support, see what you can find here and make it amazing!
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.