One piece at a time

_DSC7797Now, up to now my plan went all right
‘Til we tried to put it all together one night
And that’s when we noticed that something was definitely wrong.

The transmission was a ’53
And the motor turned out to be a ’73
And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone.

“One Piece at a Time” – Johnny Cash


The Craigslist ad seemed promising: 1999 Honda Civic, 163,000 miles, only 99k on the engine, price $3750. The age difference between the body and the engine raises some red flags, but the car was on my delivery route, so I figured it would be no harm to take a look, and if it was in decent shape, perhaps I could talk him down.


I text the number on the ad, letting them know I can come by in the afternoon, after I finish my deliveries. As it turns out, I get a break in my route, so I can arrive a little earlier. I text them with the change in plans.


“How long so I have some idea?” is the reply. Oh, about 30 minutes, I suppose. I get the address and head on my way.


As I pull off the highway, I see a used car dealership with a large number of nice, shiny vehicles in front. I don’t like dealing with salesman, but I’m reassured that maybe this will turn out to be a well-maintained car that just happened to have a legitimate reason for replacing the engine at 60,000 miles.


Unfortunately, the address I have isn’t for the car dealership. It’s for a building behind it, located in a warren of junkyards and auto salvage shops that sprawl next to the highway. I’m familiar with the area; this is where they took me to get the title transferred for the van I bought back in January.


As I pull up to the cinder block building, I see why they asked for my ETA. The car is literally being put together in front of me by a squad of mechanics, none of whom look old enough to legally buy alcohol. The moment I get out the van, I’m greeted by a man with a shaved head and mirrored aviator glasses who introduces himself as Allan.



“Everything works but the speedometer. The body’s a ’99 and the engine is a ’97, so they don’t seem to be talking to each other.” He’s got a strange sales technique; as we walk around the car, he points out where Macco screwed up the paint job (“Totally unacceptable”) and opens the trunk to reveal the remains of a sound system.


“I’m going to put these brackets back in,” he says, holding two rusty parts he’s fished out of the trunk. “These are the engine mounts, and this one holds the air conditioning unit.” Wait… engine mounts? What’s holding the engine in the car right now?  And the air conditioning is, literally, a shop-installed option: he’ll put the parts back in for an additional $250, he tells me.


He raises the hood. The rust-covered engine seems to have come out of a junkyard, though it is running, and rather smoothly at that. Allan tells me the car comes with a 12,000 mile/12 month warranty on the engine and transmission, which might be reassuring if his business – which he admits is just getting off the ground – didn’t look like it could completely disappear in a couple of months.


“Take it for a test drive”, he says. I really don’t want to, but he’s already shooing away the teenage mechanics, so I slide behind the driver’s seat. The car feels solid at least. We get out on the road… wait, did he even put a tag on it?


“Handles good, doesn’t it?” Actually, the steering is stiffer than the blown power steering on my Volvo; holding it in a turn takes some effort. “It’ll be even better once we replace these bald tires,” he assures me.


He asks what I do for a living. I tell him I’m a delivery driver who travels about 40,000 miles a year, and he begins telling me how he can put a better radio in the car. I drive it back to the garage and get out.


“Well, I’ve got some other ones to look at, and I’ll let you know,” I say. He’s disappointed, of course. I like Allan; his entrepreneurial hustle is infectious, and his “build your own burger” approach to selling used cars is, to say the least, intriguing. If I was making a “Scrappy underdogs build race car, win the big race and save the community center from the evil developers” movie, I’d no doubt cast him and his crew as the heroes. But I need a reliable car.


“Well, someone will buy it,” he says. As I’m pulling out, a wrecker is pulling up with a hatchback on it, and Allan and the mechanics gather around it, already focusing on the next project.

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