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The City Is Forcing Me To Fix My Broken Cars Because Someone Complained. I Have Six Weeks

Art: Jason Torchinsky
Art: Jason Torchinsky

The end of an era is upon us. David Tracy’s House of Misfit Jeepsonce a Michigan institution known for championing the potential of, and giving hope to, even the most down-in-the-dumps automobiles—is going to have to go through a bit of a transformation after five years of high-intensity, unrestricted wrenching. This comes after a heartless Ebenezer complained to the city about the aesthetics of the property.

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Yesterday, my landlord emailed me a letter that I can’t say I didn’t see coming, given that I live in the suburbs that are Troy, Michigan. Behold what I consider the ultimate badge-of-honor of any car enthusiast, and something that I will definitely frame and hang on my wall:

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The letter comes from the Housing and Zoning Inspector, who is notifying me that my residence—a place that I’m using to store and wrench on some seriously amazing automobiles, some of which admittedly are a bit “functionally impaired”—does not comply with the city of Troy’s Property Maintenance Code.

Specifically, I’m not complying with chapter 82, which defines an “inoperable motor vehicle” thusly:

Chapter 82 Property Maintenance Code

INOPERABLE MOTOR VEHICLE. A vehicle which cannot be driven upon the public streets. Inoperable vehicles include, but are not limited to those that are unlicensed, wrecked, abandoned, in a state of disrepair, or incapable of being moved under its own power.

As mentioned in the letter, chapter 82 goes on to say Troy residents aren’t supposed to have an inoperable car outside of a garage for more than 14 days, and it says vehicles must be registered:

302.8 Motor vehicles. No person shall permit the accumulation of one or more inoperable vehicles outside of a completely enclosed building for a period of more than fourteen (14) days. Inoperable vehicles are those that are not in operating condition and eligible for use in accordance with the requirements of the Michigan Vehicle Code, being MCL 257.1 through 257.925. These minimum conditions include, but are not limited to: an engine that runs, four wheels and four pneumatic tires capable of holding air, working battery, and current license plates. This prohibition applies to owners, tenants, managers of private property, last registered owners of motor vehicles or transferees on a bill of sale covering a vehicle.

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I spoke with the property inspector over the phone, and he was actually quite kind. He said he’d never had an issue with my house, since—though there were many broken cars outdoors—I was always actively working on them. Unfortunately, someone who either hates cars or detests joy in general dimed me out.

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I’m not going to talk much about how silly I find it that someone can (or would even want to) force a neighbor to make significant sacrifices solely because that someone doesn’t like the aesthetics of the neighbor’s yard (The whole concept is subjective and a bit silly. For example, I think my neighbor’s Hummer H2 is much more hideous than any of my broken cars [and I don’t find broken cars to look any uglier than functional ones], but I’d never complain about it). Instead, I’ll just think of this as an opportunity.

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The way I’ve been living these past five years, during which I’ve poured my heart and soul into fixing and accruing cars pretty much nonstop not just for my own pleasure, but for the pleasure of you, dear readers, could use a strategic transformation, and this letter could be the catalyst to make that happen.

Rebuilding transmissions in my kitchen was a great time. Cleaning a timing cover in a dishwasher was hilarious. Rolling entire axles out of a snow-covered backyard was awesome. Yanking motors from my Jeeps in the driveway was a hoot. Covering my clothes in oil was a riot. Cooking food using garage tools and car parts was amazing. I got to the point where I didn’t even feel bad about drowning one of my vehicles, because I knew I could just yank the motor and rebuild it.

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My unchecked antics have been tremendously successful from a readership standpoint, contributing to Jalopnik garnering the most traffic the website has ever seen. Plus, over the past five years, I feel that I reached the tallest peaks that a car enthusiast can possibly reach. After helping engineer my favorite new vehicle, I became a writer for my favorite website, and it’s been here at Jalopnik that I’ve been given the tools and encouragement to live my life’s passion to its absolute fullest.

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While I arguably went overboard with it by buying all these project cars that I’ve wanted to own for so long (they’re cheap, and readers want to hear about them, so why not just buy them?!), I think anyone given the chance to live out their passion like I was would have done the same. It was an easy, and extremely fun hole to fall into.

But the obsession has left some holes in other parts of my life—holes that have recently been brought to light. This letter I received yesterday could be the straw that broke my wacky wrenching lifestyle’s back, and that could be a good thing for me and for readers.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to continue to live this passion to the max, and I’m going to keep buying junkers. But I want to do so in a more strategic way that doesn’t involve me living in quite as much automotive squalor, maybe allows me to broaden my personal life beyond wrenching, and lets me focus on bigger, more meaningful projects. Before I explain that, allow me to describe my plan for getting the city off my back.

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The Plan

I asked the housing inspector for an extension from June 25 to July 31, as I’m out-of-state, and COVID has made registering and titling cars a difficult affair. The inspector was kind enough to grant me the extra time.

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Here’s what I have to do if I decide not to move out to the middle of nowhere or rent an airplane hangar to hold all my junkers.

I’ll start with cars that have to go at some point:

1979 Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle

Note: The tires/cardboard on the roofs and hoods are there to protect against a recent hailstorm.
Note: The tires/cardboard on the roofs and hoods are there to protect against a recent hailstorm.
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The most problematic vehicle in my fleet is my Jeep Cherokee Golden Eagle. Not only is it missing a hood and fascia, but its engine is in 1,000 pieces in my garage right now.

This vehicle is inoperable and not registered. I regret not having bought that $1,000 engine that a friend offered me, but now it’s clear that I either have to sell the machine as-is, or I slap the motor back together and get the Jeep running.

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I think I’m going to try to mend the Jeep, and then I’m going to part ways with it eventually, since it’s an automatic, and I strongly prefer the manual transmission in my Jeep J10 (which is basically the pickup version of the Cherokee).

But before I get to wrenching, I’ll roll the Jeep into my garage so it’s out-of-sight. This should give me time to perform the engine assembly and install properly.

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1991 Jeep Cherokee 5-Speed

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Another inoperable vehicle out front of my house is the 1991 Jeep Cherokee that I bought a few years ago. It’s a completely rust-free, manual transmission example with the coveted vent windows. It is truly my favorite vehicle of all time, but I think I’ll have to part ways with it.

Right now, the front axle—which I bought from Colorado back in December while on an epic road trip—is torn apart, and there’s still the matter of getting a new fender and wheel liner installed.

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All I have to do is button up the axle (whose ball joints are being a pain in the arse), and throw on a fender that fits properly. Unfortunately, since the car has a salvage title, it has to be inspected. Whether that can happen in these COVID times, I’m uncertain. But the inspector seemed understanding of the limitations associated with the current health and economic climate. Worst case, I roll it into a friend’s garage temporarily.

2003 Kia Rio

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The Kia is going to the junkyard. Why it’s still on my property, I’m unsure. If you live in the Troy, Michigan area, and you’ve got some stress to relieve, I’ll leave a nine-iron leaning up against the car until I have a chance to tow it away. Have at it.

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1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer

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After some tinkering, I got my free 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer running this spring. I just need to see if I can title and register it in my name, at which point the city will leave me alone. I’ll eventually sell this vehicle, though.

2000 Jeep Cherokee

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My $500 Jeep Cherokee has few miles on its odometer and runs and drives well aside from squishy brakes and a starter motor that needs the occasional bang of a hammer. I’ve given it to my brother, who’s been daily-driving it.

1948 Willys CJ-2A

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I just installed the refreshed motor in this 1948 Willys after I decided to flood the Jeep and kill its Go-Devil engine. The Jeep hasn’t run yet since my friends and I completed all that work, but I think I can get it going. Even if not, all I have to do is renew the registration, and because the Jeep appears to be complete, it should be okay in the inspector’s eyes.

In time, though, I’ll sell the Willys. I just don’t drive it much.

1995 Land Rover Discovery

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The mysterious 1995 Land Rover Discovery doesn’t run, and frankly, the situation surrounding it has gotten so complex that I’m just gonna move on to the next vehicle, which is the first on the list of cars that I will actually keep:

1992 Jeep Cherokee

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When I am rid of those seven cars, I’ll be left with five. This 1992 Cherokee was my first Jeep. It runs and drives, and I plan to keep it for a while.

1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee “Holy Grail”

This 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee (five-speed!) is in basically perfect mechanical condition. I’ll slap some new tires on it, and roll with it. I have some huge plans for it.

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1985 Jeep J10

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My 1985 Jeep J10 runs and drives perfectly. I’m currently in the middle of a 3,000+ mile road trip with it. I will never sell it.

1966 Ford Mustang

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This 1966 Ford Mustang belongs to my brother. It is in the garage, so it can remain as broken as I’d like it to be. But I don’t want it to remain broken; I plan to fix it soon.

1991 Jeep Comanche

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This $500 Jeep Comanche runs well. I’ve been driving it, and though it is insured, I still haven’t registered it due to COVID. This Jeep will remain my beater until I decide to move, at which point, it will go.

Then What?

Okay, so basically, I just have to junk the Kia, roll the Golden Eagle into my garage (if it fits), fix my 1991 Jeep Cherokee’s front axle (or try to find a garage for it), get rid of the Land Rover, and register everything else until I can sell them. It doesn’t sound that hard, and honestly, these are things I should have done a while ago anyway. If anything, my complaining neighborhood Ebenezer is just making me wrench a little faster, which is kind of exciting, in a way. I do like a nice, hard deadline.

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If I can execute the plan, I’ll end up with about twenty grand in my pocket and only five cars in my driveway. That seems reasonable.

Not only will it appease the city and our friend Mr./Mrs. Scrooge, but it will allow me to spend an occasional weekend doing things other than wrenching, which is pretty important, given that my 20s are coming to a quick close.

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More importantly, the cash influx will let me focus on bigger car projects that I’ve been dreaming up. They’re going to be incredibly challenging (making my triumphantly improbable Postal Jeep project look like a cake-walk); one is going to involve lots of engineering, one will be the most epic road trip of all time, and the other is coming up soon. Very soon.

I’m not ready to announce it yet, but by the end of this summer, I’ll begin a project that is going to require me to renew my German passport and learn about interior design. More on this, soon (and yes, that was intentionally cryptic).

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Focusing on these fewer, but more challenging projects seems like a smart move. I’ll also try to do more wrenching on other people’s cars. I helped a friend fix his Mini Cooper S a few months ago, and the articles resulting from it were tremendously successful. I need to do more of that, especially since the greatest part of this job is meeting new people.

For now, I have until July 31 to fix and move lots of old iron. Wrenchfest 2020 has commenced!

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

Good for them. I’d hate to live next to a junkyard too.