I close the door and take a step back. Thick black smoke is coughing out of the back of my car, staining a pile of snow behind. I'm in an impound lot in some town I don't know the name of, my car is sagging to one side, and it's shaking pretty bad at idle. "See?" I pronounce, not without a great deal of bitterness in my voice, "it starts right up!"
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
Let me tell you the worst thing about wrecking my car. It isn't the horrible crunching as it was winched by one wheel onto a flatbed out of a ditch, it isn't the nights spent dealing with my insurance, it isn't the cost of months in the shop. It's the uncertainty.
Not knowing where the car was being towed, not knowing if I'd get it out of the impound lot, not knowing if it'd be salvageable, or if a mechanic would even try to fix it.
When I was out in the cold and the rain for hours waiting for a tow truck, that wasn't so bad. When the tow truck came, and wouldn't let me start the car, and called the police, that wasn't so bad. But when he drove off into the night with my car going to some town I'd never heard of, where my car would stay overnight in an impound lot that I couldn't trust, that was bad. I watched my Baja Bug get swallowed up into the night in the Fahnestock State Park forest, and I had no idea how I was going to get it home.
How would I get to the car? What if it didn't run? I couldn't afford a tow an hour back to New York City — would I have to find a mechanic up there to work on the car?
The cop drove me to the nearest train station, I caught the first one back to Manhattan, and prepared to sort out the mess as best I could.
So I make it home and things don't get much better. The tow truck driver had wanted me to claim the whole thing as an accident on my insurance, and State Farm would pay him for the tow. He also had told me the bill was $984, two thirds of what my car cost as a whole. I get a hold of my parents and realize that no, it does not make sense to try and file a claim on a $1500 car, even with a $984 tow. I'd end up spending more, because State Farm would hike up my rate. So I call the tow truck driver back and tell him that I don't have damage insurance, that the cost of my insurance rates going up would be way higher than the amount of money I could save by claiming the thing as a crash.
He's not happy about this. He tells me he doesn't care what I do, so long as I paid, and oh yeah, he'll be ratcheting up the storage fees every night.
I get my dad to drive me to the impound lot the next morning and we spend the whole ride trying to figure out ways I could bargain the tow truck driver down - remind him how much quicker it is to deal with me rather than the insurance company, remind him I'm just a dumbass kid and not a faceless corporation, offer him cash so he wouldn't have to declare the tow on his taxes.
We pull into the lot, my dad watches me get out of the car, talk to the tow truck driver, start up the Baja, and talk with the tow truck driver some more. And then I walk back to the car, and my dad rolls down the window as I say,
"He said if we don't pay the full amount right now he's gonna call the cops."
So, bargaining has not gone very well. I pay the man the whole $984 in cash (not so easy to get on a Sunday morning), fully aware that I had tried to skeeve my way into a reduced price.
In the light of day, the Baja wasn't looking good.
The fiberglass fenders are cracked, the back driver's side body panel is bashed in, the whole car is leaning to one side and the thing is coughing out black smoke, dripping oil as it runs.
But it runs, and it drives. Last night, the tow truck driver and cop were adamant my car was inoperable. They were wrong.
And after a few frantic calls to fellow '73 VW owners Jason Torchinsky and Ben Preston, I realize that a spark plug wire had popped off during the roll. I plug it back in and the engine stops smoking so bad.
This is when things start going downhill again. The Baja makes it home to my parking garage fine, and it makes it to my mechanic fine the day after that. But then a few days later my mechanic calls me to say that the shop can't do any bodywork and I'll have to find somewhere else to get the bug fixed. The first shop they send me to takes one look at the car and turns me away.
I end up on the wrong side of the train tracks in Queens at Magic Touch Auto and my luck finally seems to come good. Lenny. Huge guy, with a smile that's even bigger than he is. He shows me around his shop, the '60s Stingray getting restored in the back, and the mystery numbers-matching muscle car hiding under a tarp on one of his lifts. Lenny thinks he can do the car for one or two grand.
It doesn't go that way. The weeks start to fall back and every one comes with a new call from Lenny.
The frame head is so rusted and cracked he can see through it.
He can't weld the replacement in because he keeps finding more and more rust.
The wires under the hood are stripped and bare. They're rubbing. They are held under flammable insulation. There are char marks on the insulation. The whole mess sits directly over my gas tank.
I have been driving around in a bomb for several months. Ulp.
The weeks turn into months, and the doubt that the car will ever make it off the lift eat away at me. I think about how simple it all might have been if I'd pulled the plates off and left the Baja in the woods. I keep calling State Farm and after enough uh, firm conversations (WHAT DO YOU MEAN? NO, I'M NOT RAISING MY VOICE) they agree to reimburse me the full towing bill. As it turns out, not all all insurance people are assholes.
Waiting for the Baja in the shop hurts, but it turns out to have been a chance to fix all the shit I didn't realize was so fucked when I bought the car at first. The rust gets patched, the frame head replaced, the wires made less explosive. I walk up to the shop one bright Sunday morning and I can see those fake Cadillac taillights lit up in the sun. It's been a rebirth, that's clear.
I'm smiling ear to ear as Lenny and his mechanic pose by their handiwork. They've done great work, but it wasn't easy. I'm four grand poorer even after State Farm reimburses me, I'm worn out, and I'm still ashamed.
It was my car, my first car, my dream car. My freedom, my chance, my responsibility. And I killed it and just barely managed to resuscitate the poor thing.
I take it out for its first drive since the roll and, not knowing where else to go, I head straight back to the site of the crash.
And then I break a spark plug and have to fix the car with my jumper cables, tape, and my teeth.
I ended up fixing the car properly, but it remains in a constant state of being broken, fixed and broken again. A few weekends ago, a headlight popped out during the car's first autocross, and now a turn indicator is held on with duct tape awaiting a replacement.
But it's that moment in Spring 2013 that sticks with me, rumbling back to Manhattan, the sun getting low against the skyline and two, no three cylinders shaking away behind me. I can't help but laugh — some things never change.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove