Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Fond Farewell to my 1997 Honda Civic CX

Scott's 1997 Honda Civic CX

By Scott Araujo

About a week ago I did something I thought I might never do: I sold my Honda Civic. I really thought I might drive this car into the ground. You may remember this car from a posting Andy made some time ago showing the odometer at 200,000 miles. I thought I would at least get to 250, but it wasn't in the cards.

Flash back to a rainy October day in 1996 in New York. My air-cooled VW bug has just dropped a valve into the engine. I get on the phone to my buddy Ed, he has a spare motor for $50, I had gotten a transmission from him that summer for $25. I call my usual parts place and start checking on all the little parts I'll need. And then something happens and I just say, "Y'know what Billy, skip it." and I hang up. In that moment I had decided to buy a new car because I didn't want to spend a whole weekend in a rainy driveway shivering and fixing my car. 

At the time I was looking at several small cars. I didn't dig American cars so the Ford Escort was out. Coming from air cooled VWs I was looking at the new generation. I really did like the Golf, and it had four doors, but it cost a lot more than I had to spend. The Toyota Tercel was inexpensive but it was a bit of a turd. Vinyl interior, cramped back seat, and the quintessential gray hard plastic interior. I had no doubt it would go a million miles but it was totally uninspiring. The Hyundai Accent was a possibility until my friend at work who owned one told me about how great the warranty and service were. He had his in to the dealer at least once a month and they were so nice. I wasn't really sure how a car he had less than a year needed that much work but I was sure I didn't want to find out.

The Honda was a whole different ball game. It was a little more expensive than everything else in it's class but the reasons were obvious. While it was basic, everything on it was top notch. The interior was spacious and laid out perfectly, every control fell right to hand. The back seat was roomy enough for a grown adult to sit in without being cramped. While it didn't have any bells or whistles, the fit and finish was just as good as the top end Accord. And the grease monkey in me loved that it had fully independent double whishbone suspension all around. No MacPherson struts to be seen!

I bought it brand new in October 1996. It was a special order. Why? Well because no one is going to voluntarily stock a truly stripped to the bone 1997 Honda Civic CX hatcback (something that still happens today). This car came with no radio, no power steering, and no A/C. It had crank windows and it didn't even have a map pocket on the back of the passenger seat. The only things I did get from the dealer were the Honda floor mats and the cargo cover. Of course I did install my own stereo the first week I had it.

It took a month or two to come in and I was pleased as punch when it did. In short order I got some roof racks for hauling my mountain bikes and surfboards and then that little car took me everywhere. I was living in New York at the time and I think I put about 80,000 miles on it before I left for the west coast. Having just gone through all the paperwork, I was surprised that I couldn't find any repair receipts for it from New York. Then I realized I just didn't have any. I'm sure I got the oil changed and changed the air filter. I must have done at least one swap on the cap, rotor, and plugs, but what else was there? I think I remember going to our family mechanic for brakes once but that was it. 

Which brings me to around June of 1999. My love life had fallen apart and my job was crap. I realized I wasn't going to find the kind of work and life I wanted in New York and nothing else was holding me there. I had moved back in with my mom to save some money. I figured I'd work until the end of the year and then move to California. Then I thought I'd work until February since no one really gets hired in January. Then along came June layoffs and I wasn't even tied to my crappy job any more. I had paid off all my debt but I only had a tiny bit of money. Fortunately I was eligible for unemployment so it was off to California a few months early.

I packed just about everything I owned into the Honda and headed west. I stayed in Berkeley for a while with a friend. During this time the little Honda hauled me out to Vegas for a friend's bachelor party. After a while the friend I was staying with moved back to the east coast and I had about a week before a place I had lined up in San Diego was ready, so the Honda and I hit the road. For over a week we wandered the country and then some. We started in Yosemtie National Park. We went to Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Vancouver, BC and then into the American West to Utah and Arches National Park. There was also a stop in Carmel, CA where I spread some of my father's ashes. He had spent a few months there as a beach bum after getting out of the army and always remembered it fondly.

At this point I was pretty broke so I slept in the car a good deal of the time. If you kick the passenger seat back all the way it makes a pretty good bed. Then the only thing you need is a quiet road to park on or a spot in the truck stop where an overhead light isn't shining directly in your eyes. Since there was some car camping there were also a few skipped showers.  I'm betting the car did not smell too good near the end of this voyage.

This trip was the beginning of my love affair with the Pacific Coast Highway, route 1 or 101 depending on where you are. This legendary road winds up and down the west coast of America and is some of the most beautifully scenic driving I've ever experienced. I spent some of my days on this trip on PCH and some of my nights parked just off of it.

Finally, after several days of hiking in the desert and no shower I arrived in San Diego. My good friend Steve was now my house mate and co-worker, as he had offered me a room at his place and also scored me a job at his company. I was finally living the California dream! I had arrived with just $60 to my name. So after the essentials (a new bed and a new surfboard) I got to some overdue maintenance on the Honda.

The odometer had just clicked over 110,000 miles so it was time for a tune up, timing belt, and water pump.  Having a job again I could afford to get that all sorted at the local dealer, conveniently just a few blocks from work. Over the next few years there I remember getting some brakes, axles/CV joints, and having a faulty ECU replaced under warranty. I bought my longboard based on the longest board I could fit in the car and still lock it, 9'0" by the way. I made many trips to Vegas, plenty of runs up and down PCH, down to Mexico for surfing, and trips to the mountain for snowboarding. I got lost in Tijauana once, I don't recommend that in any car. All the while the Honda chugged along. I took care of her and she took car of me. I also finally got A/C installed. There was only so long I could hold out with a dark car in southern California.

Times change and the buckets of money in high tech dried up, I was out of a job again. Rather than join the rats scampering off the tech ship, I took a new direction and went to culinary school in Napa Valley. My girlfriend and I packed the little Honda to the gills and headed up. Culinary school was amazing, and so was living and working in Napa Valley. Once again I was broke so the Honda had another period of minor neglect. I changed the oil but not much more. Still, she managed to get me to school and work every day without complaint and side trips to San Francisco and the surrounding area. A few months after I started school my girfriend sold her place in San Diego and quit her job. She moved in with her family in the bay area. Now weekly trips to the city were a regular thing so we could see each other. 

School finished, she sold her house, and we needed a new place to call home. We looked at a few cities settled on Portland, OR. I found work at a great bakery and she went back to school. Not making much money, the Honda had another stretch of minimal maintenance. After a big winter storm the ECU light flashed a few times. Then it came on and stayed on. I took it to the dealer. 

I was working nights so was a bit sleepy when they called back. The woman started detailing the things they had already fixed: exhaust manifold, oxygen sensors, the list went on but I was already not listening. I was sleepy but I don't remember authorizing any work and this was not going to be cheap. When I finally managed to ask, "How much?" I was in for a surprise. "Oh, no charge. This is all covered under warranty." This is at 140,000 miles. It turns out that for a few years Hondas were running just a little dirtier than the EPA liked. Rather than retool the whole factory Honda just put a 150,000 mile warranty on the cars and included a free tune up as part of it. So the little Honda took care of me again and just saved me over $1,000.

The bakery gig lasted a while but after some time I ended up back in high tech. I needed money. And sleep.  But mostly money, and the allure was there again. During the next few years the car started to develop a nasty whine when it was moving, like an electric motor. It got bad, really bad. My friends started asking if I had converted to electric. A quick Google search showed that I had worn out a bearing in the transmission.  I was now faced with a choice of a seriously major repair bill or a new car. Not only did I need to get the tranny fixed, I was due for another tune up, timing belt, etc. At 184,000 miles it's tough to put a lot of money into the car but I went out to see what it would cost.

A good friend put me in touch with Mikey Five Speed. I have no idea what his real last name is, this is what everyone calls him and how he's now listed in my phone book. He said he could fix the tranny for $300 but wasn't equipped to get it out. He put me in touch with Thomas, don't know his last name either. Thomas could pull the tranny and fix all the rest of the delayed maintenance I've been hanging on to. It looks like it's going to be a steep bill but I bite the bullet and decide to do it.

It turns out better than I can imagine. Mikey informs me that I've actually burned out three of the four bearings, not just one, so it's going to cost $360. More than fair. Thomas fixes everything else including a new clutch (did I mention this was still the original clutch at 184,000 miles?) and everything else I've been putting off for about $1,150. So in the end I have everything fixed on my car for about $1,500. I was figuring I'd end up paying twice that. A bargain to be sure.

So that brings us to today, or nearly today. A rainy afternoon in February. We've had some storms and I had smelled a little exhaust in the car but figured it was just because I was warming it up longer. One peek under the heat shield kills that notion, another cracked manifold. This is common on Hondas I find out. I call Andy and ask how much trouble it is to do the job, he says it's just an hour or two. So I get a new manifold for $300 and have at it.

It would have been an hour or two if one nut hadn't rusted solid. Thankfully I married that girlfriend I mentioned earlier and she bought me an angle grinder for my birthday this year. It was too late to dig in that evening but I took it out quickly the next morning. So two soggy sessions later and the manifold is replaced.

One more storm the next weekend and my exhaust is fine but the brakes started howling like a banshee. I tapped them a few times and they settle down, maybe it was a rock in there. No, they squeal again. I know the backs are about due so this means brakes all around. Another couple of sessions in a rainy driveway. One to do the brakes, one to redo the back brakes when the cheap brake shoes I bought made way more noise than was acceptable.

After those late night sessions I was feeling pretty bad, physically. I'm not as young as I used to be and neither is the car. We both need a little more to keep us going than we used to, and if I had to pay someone else to fix these things I would have just dumped the car. Once again, I'm not in the mood to spend my weekend fixing it in a rainy driveway. It's time to move on. 

The Honda has been a great car. It still has the original starter and alternator. The original clutch lasted 184,000 miles and would have gone longer if I hadn't needed to rebuild the tranny. The motor only ever failed to start once, and that was because the original battery had died, after eight years. This car has NEVER had an alignment and while it shimmies a bit on the highway the tires still wear evenly. Andy has owned several Hondas from this era. I own a 2012 and it's not the same. We both agree, they really don't make them like they used to.

So I clean up the car and post it on craigslist. I list it for a price that I think is fair. It's mechanically solid but it does have 215,000 miles, the A/C compressor is getting noisy, and there are a few other small flaws. I decide not to back down on price and not to wait around for anyone, I just want it sold fast.

I get three e-mails in the first five minutes. I get eight more in the next ten minutes. One stood out, a young man from Tacoma, WA. Unlike all the other callers he's not interested in a car, he's interested in my car. He seems like a really nice guy, he asks me to hold it for him. I've listed the faults of the car in the ad. I make sure he's aware, he is. He makes sure I have the title with me, I do. I tell him I want to call all the people who have e-mailed so far. No one is ready to come see the car right now so I call back the young man and tell him I'll wait. He texts me five minutes later, he's got a friend to drive him down. He texts me 15 minutes later, he's on the road and gives me an ETA. 

He gets to town. I give him the service records I have. We look the car over, take a short test drive, he likes it. It's going to be his little brother's first car. He calls his mom, talks to her, talks to his friend who came with him who has owned Hondas. He shoots me a low ball offer. I tell him that just during the test drive four people had texted me to see if he has taken the car yet, and two had already said they'd pay the full price. He buckles, what else can he do?  He just drove three hours to get here. I know he's got the money and that he wants it. But I give him $50 off.  I say it's because he drove a long way but really it's just because I like him. 

We exchange paperwork and money. He thanks me profusely for holding the car for him. I can understand why. Used Civics on the net evaporate faster than virginity on prom night. This was his one day off and he was just trying to get this done. I e-mail and text all the other buyers who were waiting, "Sorry, car is sold."

One last thing, I've still got the original window sticker. Since this is his brother's first car, would he like to tape it to the window? Big smile. Over the next couple of days I got a few more texts. His brother loved the window sticker and loves the car. 

I had a friend that told me when you're buying a car you need to be flexible. Both people have to compromise so you end up in the middle and everyone is happy. When buying from a dealer I don't care if they're happy, I only care that I get a good deal. Selling person to person is different and I do want both of us to walk away happy.

I sold the car in five hours from posting to cash in hand. That's two hours if you don't count the three hours it took the buyer to drive here. I said I wouldn't hold the car and I said I wouldn't back down on price, and I failed on both. I was happy to, it felt right on both counts. Could I have sold it for more? I'm sure I could have, but I'm happy with the way it worked out. I'm happy with what I got and the car went to someone who will appreciate it for what it is. Yeah there's a bit of paint flaking and it leaks a little oil. My first car had that too. It didn't deter any of my adventures in the least little bit.

1997 Honda Civic CX rear


Anonymous said...

This was a great post. Sad, but great.

Barry Traylor said...

I made the mistake of buying a Ford Escort in 1986 and did I ever end up hating that car. My son made the mistake of buying a Hyundai when he was in college in 1995 and would up owing more than it was worth after it was totaled one night by a drunk driver when it was parked outside my son's apartment. That pile of junk sure dropped in value in a short time. I wonder how the newer ones do?

Socarboy said...

That was a great post. That Civic was more than a car it was a life partner.