Avoidable Contact #131: The “UJC” was a lot of car for two hundred bucks

Jack Baruth

“TWO HUNDRED BUCKS? Are you serious? That doesn’t sound like enough money.”

No, dear readers, I wouldn’t last ten minutes in the “World Series Of Poker”. I can’t bluff and I usually speak my mind before using that mind to think about the consequences of what I’m saying. In this case, however, it didn’t matter. The man across the table from me at dinner was bound and determined to sell me his nine-year-old, good-condition, base-trim, new-tires-all-’round, Plymouth Colt four-speed for the very reasonable price of two Benjamins.

How could I say no?

The year was 1999 and I was, as usual, working two jobs. By day I was a contractor for a certain big blue computer company at a local hospital, and by night I was one-half of a web-hosting cooperative operating a single dual-Pentium-II box out of another web-hosting company’s closet. My partner in the latter enterprise, a brilliant but troubled fellow named Greg, was also my office mate in the former. We’d met on my first day at the hospital and had almost immediately decided to go into the web hosting business.

What a sweet gig that was. Our single computer had cost $950 to build, and we paid $150 a month for its place in the closet, but it was easily capable of hosting a hundred websites. Our clients each forked over between twenty and two hundred bucks a month to share their dreams, opinions, and products with the world. For a pair of twenty-somethings with very few actual expenses, it was a dream come true and the only problem was figuring out where to spend all the money.

Not that Greg was particularly concerned about the proverbial dolla dolla bill, ya’ll. We’d never heard of Asperger’s Syndrome, but looking back it’s plain to me now that he had a four-alarm case of it. He couldn’t remember his keys, his wallet, or his cell phone. He didn’t keep regular hours, return calls, or clean his room. He’d paid cash for a nearly-new Mitsubishi Eclipse some time previously but had never changed the oil or renewed the plates. He would often stay awake for days at a time, obsessing over a bit of Perl code or a potential for a “buffer overflow”, and then sleep for twenty-four-hours straight. Once, I helped him clean out his desk at work and we found three uncashed paychecks totaling just over six thousand dollars. You get the idea. He was in the world, as the Apostle Paul would say, but not of it.

Although Greg drove me nuts sometimes, I liked him—and I needed him. Running a webserver in 1999 meant writing a lot of custom configurations and code, and I couldn’t do it all by myself in the evening. My first wife and I started looking after him a bit. Eventually, we all moved into a hip, tall-ceiling condo. I used the webhosting money to furnish it with Herman Miller furniture, Aeron work chairs, and 21-inch color monitors in our “office”.

(Note to my younger readers: back in the day, a 21-inch flat-glass Samsung pro monitor would cost you north of fifteen hundred bucks.)

Greg chose to sleep on a bare mattress in a room filled to waist level with books, unfolded clothes, and pizza boxes. This is a true story: Greg’s itinerant girlfriend once filed a missing persons report on him because she’d hadn’t been able to find him at home or work, nor was he answering his phone. Turns out he was asleep on the floor behind his bed and had covered himself with empty food boxes in lieu of a blanket, so when the lady in question had looked in his room, she hadn’t seen him.

Where were we? Oh, yes: the Colt. The odd-hours demands of my hospital contract meant that Big Blue paid for our dinner pretty much every night of the week. We became regulars at a ribs place on Olentangy River Road called “Damon’s”, and those dinners soon swelled with the ranks of the contractors, the subcontractors, and the hangers-on. At one of those dinners, a sub-sub-contractor mentioned that the death of his father had left him in possession of an 85,000-mile 1990 Plymouth Colt. Base car, black bumpers, four-speed manual, no A/C. He wanted it gone. Two hundred bucks was the price. I had that much in my pocket, so the next day the title, and the car, were in my hands.

From the moment I put the Colt in gear, I loved it. The 1990 Colt was actually a Mitsubishi Mirage/Lancer, of course, which meant that it was an imperfect copy of a Honda Civic. With 81 horsepower to push 2200 pounds, it was sprightly enough, and the grey-vinyl interior was dismal but durable. Visibility was absolutely superb, the cowl was low, and the very small complement of controls was easy to operate.

When I was a kid, the phrase “UJM”—Universal Japanese Motorcycle—was popular. A UJM was any four-cylinder, air-cooled, standard-style Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, or Yamaha. Think Honda CB550 as an example; I’ve owned two of them and have been very happy. All the UJMs were well-made, durable, a bit bland, and difficult to precisely identify at a distance.

I think of the Colt, Civic, Corolla, and Sentra of the early Nineties as Universal Japanese Cars. They were all under 2500 pounds. They could be had with vinyl floors and, usually, four-speed transmissions. Nothing went wrong with them, but there wasn’t any gingerbread to be had either. Only rust could take them out of circulation, really. They were good cars. For a while, I thought the Hyundai Elantra might aspire to modern “UKC” status, but it turns out that the Koreans would rather put heated rear seats in the things than quarter-million-mile engines.

So. The Colt. Forget two hundred bucks. This car would have been a screaming deal at two thousand. Or four thousand. It returned an easy thirty-five miles per gallon in all circumstances despite buzzing like a Sikorsky on the freeway. Nothing went wrong with it.

If only the same could be said for Greg’s Eclipse, which finally responded to three years of operation on the same four quarts of oil by swallowing its crankshaft. Greg left it by the side of the road, walked home, then forgot where he’d left the car. Although he had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, he couldn’t exactly go get another whip; in addition to never renewing the tags on the Eclipse, he’d forgotten to renew his driver’s license or purchase any insurance. The State of Ohio’s hammer was going to come down on him hard. In the meantime, he needed a car. I gave him the Colt and crossed my fingers.

Months passed. In April of 2001, my first wife and I finally bought a house and moved out of the condo, which I then filled with five expatriate Bolivians who owed me a variety of favors as a consequence. That’s another story. One day, I was working on our server and I received a “talk” request from Greg. “Talk” was an old chat protocol for two people logged onto the same UNIX system.

Greg: hey i have a question

Jack: ok

Greg: do you have the keys for the colt

Jack: There was only one set and you have them

Greg: I lost the ones I have

Jack: Have you looked everywhere?

Greg: yes it’s been a while

Jack: How long is a while?

Greg: I guess 20 days maybe 25

Jack: how the **** have you been GETTING PLACES?

Greg: mostly I’ve been walking

I called a locksmith, who popped the door and made a new set of keys. Unfortunately, the Colt didn’t start with those keys. We swapped the battery and it cranked but wouldn’t turn over. I was up to three jobs, having added a small vendor-consulting operation to my list of occupations, and didn’t have time to mess with it. There was a 230,000-mile Plymouth Voyager sitting in my driveway, something I’d acquired along with a few other assets when forming the new business from the ashes of someone else’s previous venture. I took Greg back to my house, put him behind the wheel of the Voyager, and considered myself lucky to have the Colt back. A grand of repair, tops, and I’d be four-speeding my merry way along again.

Unfortunately for me, however, my spouse did not share in that happy vision. She much preferred riding around in the brand-new BMW 330i Sport I’d picked up a few months before. “Make it go away,” she said. Four days later, I was standing next to the Colt, talking to two rather rough-looking fellows.

“It don’t run,” one said to me.

“Don’t look like it’s got no oil,” the other said. There was a moment of silence.

“Two hundred bucks,” quoth the first.

“THANK GOD!” I replied.

(Note to the reader: This is a light rewrite of an April, 2011 piece I wrote for a little website called “The Truth About Cars”. That site, affectionately known as “TTAC” and pronounced “Tee-Tac”, is pretty mommybloggish nowadays but it was once fairly pretty good at living up to its name. In honor of my days there, and in light of the fact that I broke my thumb in two places at a skatepark last week and don’t want to write two thousand new words, I’m reviving this tale for all of you who didn’t see it the first time.)

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