My first car was a 1981 Plymouth Reliant K station wagon, and I loved it. Its Mitsubishi hemi four was as smooth as a sewing machine, and just as powerful. I'd spend hours aimlessly cruising around, reveling in my new-found freedom, with that Pentastar hood ornament pointing the way. Little did I know that its sharply-creased flanks hid an undercarriage Swiss-cheesed with rust. (Note to self: Always inspect underneath before purchase.)
Ultimately, the automatic transmission mutinied, insisting on being manually shifted. Before long, it stopped transmitting altogether. So it was back to sharing a car with my sister: another Reliant, oddly enough, this one a silver '87 sedan.
Then I became entangled in European intrigue.
Nothing wears silver quite so well as a German car, and my 1976 BMW 530i was no exception. It sported the classic BMW sharknose profile, its full-width grille leaning urgently forward. Sitting still, it had the presence of a dog straining against its leash, wanting to run.
And boy, could it run. The overhead-cam six had considerably more power than a sewing machine, yielding an effortless wave of torque and a baritone growl. Being a BMW, it also had a finely balanced chassis that made cornering a giddy joy. The Bimmer's no-nonsense attitude won me over, too. It merely got down the road very quickly, no questions asked.
I was doing the poor college student thing at the time, however, and insurance for a BMW, even an old one, is not cheap. Also, BMW parts are made in Valhalla out of 100K gold by a team of specially-trained unicorns. Or they'd better be, considering the prices.
Most alarming was a birth defect that I was not aware of when handed the keys. It's called a thermal reactor, and they were used by some automakers during the '70s as a cheat for passing emissions standards without a catalytic converter. Without getting too technical, the end result was a car that guzzled fuel and was in a constant state of almost overheating.
I recall creeping along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. 224 in Boardman on a sweltering August afternoon with the heater at full blast in a futile attempt to keep the engine cool. Soaked in sweat and staring at the dashboard in despair, I watched the temperature gauge needle creeping up and fuel gauge needle creeping down in real time. I knew it had to go.
A parental hand-me-down 1989 Plymouth Voyager served me well for a while, and probably saved my life. It absorbed the forces of a violent crash on Fifth Avenue in Youngstown and was totaled. I'll always be grateful to that dull gray box for taking the hit like it did.
Then, a curvaceous Swedish beauty came into my life, in the form of a 1986 Saab 900S. OK, so the right rear quarter panel was a bit wrinkled, and there were some hydraulic issues to be sorted; as with the Reliant and the BMW, the price (cheap) was right.
I loved the Saab's aerodynamic lines and aircraft-style interior, particularly the velour-covered orthopedic seats, which remain the most comfortable of any car I've ever driven. The ignition hidden between the front seats was also a neat touch, a sort of secret handshake. Who knows how many would-be Saab thieves have been foiled by that ergonomic anomaly over the years? It wasn't that quick, but it had terrific handling, was much better on fuel and was just odd enough to appeal to my sense of weirdness.
Then, it tried to kill me.
One rainy evening, while attempting to turn left into the Giant Eagle parking lot on Belmont Avenue in Liberty Township, the clutch decided it didn't want to be slipped anymore. The car stalled in the oncoming lane, directly in the path of a semi. And it refused to start again.
I whimpered and prepared to accept my fate just as the truck swerved and passed harmlessly by. Since it was night, there was no other traffic behind it. Panic gone, I remembered that Saab manual transmissions had to be in reverse before the car would start. We made it to the store, where I managed to complete my shopping without crying, and the 900 returned me home without incident.
Then, it tried to kill itself.
Several weeks later, a friend and I drove to Armando's Porsche-Saab in Boardman to prowl around and see if they had anything interesting on the lot. Since it was a chilly late autumn night, I left the car running and the heater on. I glanced back at it after a few minutes to make sure that it was OK, and it was. We continued on. I glanced back after a few more minutes to make sure that it was OK.
It was enveloped in smoke.
My friend and I sprinted toward the Saab, which had plumes of gray smoke pouring from out of the grille, the hood vents, and everywhere else. I opened the door; more thick smoke. Coughing and squinting, I jumped inside and turned the ignition off, which had no effect at all. I groped for the hood release and pulled it. Finding no flames, my friend managed to yank a battery cable, and the engine finally died. The entire wiring loom and the fuse box were melted and smoldering.
Towed back to my friend's garage, the eventual diagnosis was worn wiring insulation that made contact with the damaged rear fender. Zap! The body itself became part of the circuit, which is why it wouldn't turn off with the ignition.
I haven't had a European car in my driveway since. They still fascinate me, of course, and I'd be happy to try another vintage example in the future. But until I've the time, money and patience to devote to the proper care and feeding of such capricious creatures, I'll stick with the Kia, thank you.
Or maybe a nice old Plymouth Reliant. Hmm
(Richard Sberna is a reporter for The Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)