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Tell Us About the One That Got Away

Illustration for article titled Tell Us About the One That Got Away
CountersteerYour true stories of good and bad things that happen in cars.

I hear two sad-sack things from you jokers all the time: “I should have bought that car when I had the chance” and “I never should have sold that car.” We all make mistakes, and now it’s time to share them with the class.


In the world of cars, what’s the one that got away from you? The one you still think about. The big, lingering regret, the purchase or sale or ownership experience that should’ve gone differently.

As for me, I’m happy to say I don’t have too many regrets, in cars or in general. I recently passed on the chance to get a smoked-in, automatic, BMW 530i sedan, the E34 with the forgotten baby 3.0-liter V8 for just $1,800. Do I wish I had gone for it? I dunno, it wouldn’t have been a car for forever. But it could have been a weird, fun car to fuck around in for a few months. I’m convinced I can do better, though.


How about you? Which one is the one that got away from you, and how?

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.

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Story time.

In 1989, I was 9 years old as my family escaped the former Soviet Union and began making its way to the US via Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Italy. The USSR was bereft of foreign cars (unless one spent time in Moscow in the zone open to foreigners) and our city had an air base and was thus a city closed to foreigners. Thus, prior to us leaving, the closest I got to a non-Soviet vehicle was a Skoda visiting from Czechoslovakia.

So, we leave in the middle of the night, catch a train through Poland and end up at a train station in Vienna, Austria. We got off the train and onto a bus that took us to Gablitz, where our hotel-for-wayward immigrants was (At this time, anyone Jewish leaving the USSR on a permanent exit visa was required to go through Austria and Italy, where their final destination was determined at various consulates and organizations in Rome).

There are some things I remember from Gablitz. The creek behind the hotel (it smelled terrible, very sewage-ey). The supermarket called Mondo a couple of blocks away (where I saw a drunk guy fall off an escalator and crack his head open a couple of feet away from me, resulting in blood spraying on my hand-me down shoes. The fact that the hotel owner was named Michael and had a blue W124 Mercedes.

But, the most important thing I remember was this… Gablitz was where I first laid eyes on the Mk2 Golf.

We had just stepped off the bus across the road from the hotel when I spotted it. Black, with single-round headlights. As it passed by, a young child’s head was poking out of the sunroof. This is the first time most of us had seen a sunroof. “How is he doing that?!?,” my grandma exclaimed. My dad, a worldly man who obviously knew things, somewhat patronizingly responded: “It’s a sunroof, mom.”

This was to become my dream car. I was in love with the Mk2 Golf.

Flash forward to 1996 America. I had been working my ass off since the age of 12 to get my “Golf” money. I sold candy door to door after school (“Hi, I’m from the Junior Work Program, and what this program does is help kids stay off drugs and out of gangs… wait, no, I’m lying… What this program does is let me keep $1 for every box of $5 candy I sell, with the remainder going to a dodgy Aussie fellow named Marc who drives 20 of us around all around town in a commercial van with no windows and a smelly couch inside that we newly-arrived immigrant kids all fight for.”), worked for far below minimum wage at my aunt’s medical lab pushing paper every summer, washed windows for $0.50 in the Smart and Final parking lot near my house, passed out Thai restaurant flyers door to door, etc.

Now I was closing in on 16 and had $4200 of my hard-earned money to spend on a car. I had my permit, but didn’t have my license. I began buying AutoTraders and Recyclers (Thursday – publishing day – couldn’t come soon enough). I still have many of them, too. Stacked away in the garage, potential car purchases circled, reminders of a dream destroyed…

In early 1996, my mom comes home from work and tells me her co-worker is moving out of state in the next few months and he’ll be selling his car.

“What kind of car is it, mom?”
“Um… It’s black… I think.”
“But… What KIND is it?”
“I don’t know. But, he says it’s reliable and a lot of fun.”

Great… You can imagine what went through my mind. Black and reliable? Probably something bizarre like a Mercury Lynx or a Ford Escort EXP (yes, yes, I know everyone reading this would kill for one of those now, but this was SoCal in 1996, people!). Wait, reliable? Corolla? Civic? No, definitely a Corolla.

So, I ask my mom if she could have him write down what kind of car it was. Not that I didn’t trust her, but you can’t expect much from a woman who referred to the Dodge Viper as “the frog-car” every time she saw one…

A week later, she brings home a piece of paper… And here’s what it said:

“1991 VW GTI 16v, black. Neuspeed springs, Bilstein shocks, K&N filter, exhaust, Momo steering wheel, Soundstream Amp, Orion subwoofer – $4000”

I’m pretty sure I lost all control of my body functions, right then and there. This was the one! This was fate! This was happening! When could I have it? Now? Right now? Can we go now? I want! No, we couldn’t go now… We had to wait until he was actually moving. I took the piece of paper, and stuck it into a picture frame. Then, I nailed it to the door to my room. Any friend who came over for the next 30 days or so got an earful of “GTI”… I ate GTI, drank GTI, slept GTI. My life was GTI. And in June of 1996, my mom got the word. The car was available, and it was mine. The guy was bringing it over in the next coupe of days… I don’t think I slept at all those couple of days.

Finally, it was time… GTI-Day… My father was on the phone with the guy, giving him directions. My best friend, Allen, was over. He was one day older, and neither of us could legally drive until early July, but he already had a car waiting for him. Now, I’d have one waiting for me, and I wanted him to see it in its full glory.

I could hear my dad’s side of the phone conversation. Wait, what’s this? My heart dropped… “We’re not going to get the car. Yeah, sorry about that… It’s not going to work.”

My heart dropped… Why was I not getting my car?

Turns out, it was a manual (of course, I knew it was, but my parents didn’t).

“What? What? Huh? It’s my money! I earned it!”
“Well, you’re not even 16, and if you were, you still can’t have it in your name. We want you to have a car that every member of the family can use in an emergency.”

I’m pretty sure I remember losing it and possibly crying right then and there. And if I cried, I had a right to. The car… MY CAR…was on its way over and I had the cash in hand.

But, remember, Allen was there… There to hear it all. And Allen was a smart dude. Remember, Allen already had a car waiting for him. It was a hand-me-down from his dad, a ’90 Nissan Stanza GXE. And it was automatic. Allen didn’t want to drive a Stanza. What kid wanted an automatic Stanza in SoCal in the mid-90’s? Like I said, Allen was a smart one… He looked at my parents and said “I have 1990 Stanza, it’s an automatic, and he can have it for $4000.”

My parents looked at each other… And that was that… I had a Stanza…

That… right there… was the death of my dream.

Finally, when I turned 18 and could actually have a car titled in my own name, I went to the bank, pulled out about 7k in savings and got myself a lightly-used Mk3 GTI.

Since then, I’ve had many, many cars. From Miatas to M3s (E30 and E36) to a Skyline and now a 993. I even have a black Mk6 GTI as a daily. 

But I never did get that Mk2…

Me with the Stanza (holding removable Clarion faceplate in carrying case)

The Mk3 I ended up buying once I turned 18.