By David Thomas on September 14, 2012
The folks at Car Talk have been discussing some of the worst cars they've owned in their history all this week. We thought we'd join them with a run down of our staff's least fondly remembered cars that they've kept in their own garages.
1989 Toyota Van
My parents bought Toyota's people-mover in 1990, an era when the automaker built cars with names like Van and Pickup. The rear-wheel-drive minivan had every bad styling cue from the 1980s, and it didn't drive any better than it looked. Toyota put a gutless four-cylinder beneath the front seats, and the carpeted partition ahead of the second row would heat up as road trips wore on. The drum brakes took forever to slow you down, so you had to brake early and pray the Van would stop in time — because the hood-free design meant your knees were the crumple zone. Ours came optioned to the hilt with swiveling captain's chairs, dual sunroofs and a console refrigerator, but it drove like a nightmare. We sold it to a guy who planned to drive cross-country and said the refrigerator would be a good place for his "stash." You could probably find it at a police auction today.
Senior Family Editor
1985 GMC Jimmy
It was red with a rusted white stripe down the side — a gift for my 16th birthday. I felt totally cool, especially with the huge mobile phone that my dad installed for use in emergencies only. When driving it home from college one weekend, the alternator went out on it, causing the car to die completely on the side of the highway and rendering the "for-emergencies-only" mobile phone useless. I was 17 and had no idea what to do, but figured if I waited long enough, a police officer would eventually see me on the side of the highway with the hood propped open, and stop to help. After four hours, nobody had stopped to help — not even the two highway patrol officers that drove right past me. Finally, I managed to flag down a tow truck and got him to drive me to the mechanic's shop that my father used. First, however, he said we needed to take a detour through the shadiest part of the city to pick up some money he was owed because he wasn't really a tow truck driver, but was just filling in for his friend. As I started to panic, imagining all of the horrible scenarios that could possibly happen, he turned to me and asked, "Do I scare you?" Hell yeah, you scare me! Now take me to the mechanic! I'm still here today to share the story, so it must've ended all right. Needless to say, I lost all confidence in that car and sold it as quickly as possible thereafter.
1979(?) Mercury Bobcat
Just about the time I was deep into high school, my dad bought my mom a birthday present — my family's first "luxury" car ... a new (1979?) Mercury Bobcat. It had a lot of chrome, a "powerful" V-6 engine and a two-tone paint job. Unfortunately, it was a glorified Ford Pinto. To this day, I'm still not sure if my mom was insulted or happy to get it, but she drove it and never complained. However, when the chrome started peeling off from wind-shear, the rear hatch seals decomposed (well within the first year) and a simple tuneup cost about $125 (something about the need to loosen the engine mounts to change the spark plugs), the shine quickly faded from the little kitty. The car was subjected to quite a bit of "accidental" damage from Mom until it finally looked so bad that it was passed down to my sister ("No, thank you," I said, "I'll stick with my '66 Beetle"). I did like that the rear seats folded completely flat, but that's a story for another time.
1989 Ford Probe
My worst car was definitely my first car. Believe it or not, I was ecstatic to get a 1989 Ford Probe in high school because it meant I could take advantage of the senior schedules and hit the beach before 3 p.m. on a school day. This was a big deal in Florida. The problem was the Probe spent too much time in the senior parking lot with the hood up and me trying to figure out what was wrong with the starter — even after it had been replaced ... twice. It also had a sunroof that you could remove entirely but that took about three hours to put back on. Oh, and while brown is the new trendy color in the automotive landscape, the "mocha" color of my Probe was best described as "poop" brown, but "poop" wasn't the word my friends used.
1974 Buick Century
While I was in high school, my parents bought a '74 Buick Century. It was a good car, and my mom went out of her way to get a spiffy metallic paint job for it. But then my sister was rear-ended in it at a high speed (she was OK, thankfully), but the car was declared "totaled" by the insurance company. My dad stepped up and fought to get the car back, along with the insurance check. And that's when I got to drive it. It had numerous problems: The trunk that was permanently semi-open (still crinkled from the crash), and my friends would often throw out their lunch bags into it when I wasn't looking, creating a god-awful smell. It took about a quart of oil a week in the engine, and when I'd get on the freeway to go to school, it would hit 55 mph, but then drop back to 45, by which time I was ready to get off the freeway anyway. My friends referred to it as "The Heap."
1989 Ford Tempo
The Tempo was a hand-me-down from my older brother. It had cabbie-style seat beads, the turn signal was duct-taped on, the windows and doors all got stuck, the dashboard lights stopped working completely, the muffler fell off several times and I'm pretty sure the thing would explode if it went over 60 mph. Needless to say, I got very good at estimating my speed at night, and I avoided all the tollways and highways I could. On the plus side, it had an awesome sound system: A Sony Discman with 30-second Electronic Skip Protection with cassette-player adapter, taped to the dash.
1985 Volkswagen Scirocco
My college boyfriend (now husband) had it all: He was funny, smart and good-looking with a great family. There was just one problem: his car. His 1985 Volkswagen Scirocco was a death trap in every sense of the word. It would routinely try to kill us: One night, the dome light spontaneously started on fire. Every once in a while, the driver's seat adjuster would break, sending the seat to a full recline out of the blue; we wedged a broom stick between the seat back and the backseat to hold it up. The sunroof also leaked mysterious gunk every time it was opened. After we'd had enough, we gave the car to a friend (you couldn't actually ask for money for the thing) and it was totaled in an accident. Our friend walked away without a scratch. I was happy to see the car go, though I grudgingly gave the little tank a bit of respect for not actually killing anyone.
1995 Ford Windstar LX
This is the brief story of a green 1995 Ford Windstar LX that was known by my family and friends as "Godzilla." My siblings and I seemed to think of the Windstar as a giant science experiment: finding out how long melted chocolate could stay gooped together in the cupholders, how disgusting a spilled McDonald's Shamrock Shake would smell over time, and where we could hide Lego pieces in the van's many storage cubbies. Was it reliable? Sure, if you consider the fact that the head-gasket blew at 80,000 miles, along with the various transmission and overheating issues. For a beginning driver, Godzilla was great at conquering Wisconsin winters, hauling all my friends around, playing music through an aftermarket CD player and being super comfortable. I remember taking duct tape and trying to cover up all the rust near the rear fender. Surprisingly, the duct tape matched the van's two-tone lower silver accents well. Wherever you may be Godzilla, I hope you still continue to terrorize the roads (and your owners). I miss you, buddy.
Managing Editor David Thomas has a thing for wagons and owns a 2010 Subaru Outback and a 2005 Volkswagen Passat wagon. Email David