Avoidable Contact #133: When you have 11 cars and only one of them runs, then it doesn’t

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Jack Baruth

Owning a Honda means you should never have to open the hood. Or, at the very least, that you’re not opening it very often. So there was dust on the “EarthDreams” badge and a sort of cobwebby mess on every flat surface around the engine and radiator. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually cleaned the engine in just over eight years and 94,000 miles, and that I might be about to get my hands truly dirty searching out the source of the tick tick tick I’d heard bouncing off the wall of the Tim Horton’s drive-thru.

I needn’t have worried. The source of the ticking was easy to find, if not easy to accept: right under that dusty EarthDreams cover, in the far bank of my Accord‘s J35 V-6. A few minutes on the Honda forums, which are never wrong, gave me a WebMD-ish approximation of what was going on: the “J-series tick” in which the simple-but-not-that-simple mechanism that allows a single cam to operate four valves per cylinder gets a bit out of round and starts slappin’ the valve stems in a ticky-tocky way. I listened to it for a few minutes, thinking that perhaps it might go away if I paid attention to it, and when it did not, I shut the engine off and walked back into the house.

“That’s it,” I told my wife and son. “We have 11 cars and not a single one that really works, and we are almost two months away from being able to fix the problem. We have hit rock bottom.” But how did we get here?

As Hagerty readers, I’m willing to bet that you probably know someone with 11 useless cars. I’ve met readers of mine who have a couple dozen vehicles in various states of disrepair. Normally, however, that’s a conscious decision, something along the lines of: I want to collect 14 Nissan Stanza sliding-door vans and restore them one at a time. No, that’s not a situation I just made up. There’s a real pleasure to be had in buying hopeless vehicles and lining them up behind your home or barn. That’s kind of what I do with guitars. I could disappear into my basement and return with 30 or 40 musical instruments that are not, strictly speaking, in gig-ready condition.

My current situation is nothing like that. Five months ago, in addition to my idle-until-I-decide-to-sell-it Porsche 993 and the four race cars in my garages, I had several usable street cars. Two Miatas. One Silverado. My Lincoln MKT. The Honda Accord discussed above. Even my 1986 Grand Marquis coupe started and ran, although I’ve been trying to fix a serious stumble off-idle. (Replaced the IAC, to no avail, so now I have to start messing with the TPS.) Every day of my life was a true automotive buffet, a cornucopia of choices to be evaluated based on the desired mission du jour.

Total cars: 11. Usable cars: 6

Then the dominos started falling, in a fashion more “Southeast Asia, 1975” than “super-fun TikTok video.” My wife, Danger Girl, collected a deer in our Silverado, and the insurance company totaled it.

Total cars: 10. Usable cars: 5

The battery in my Marquis gave up during an extended bout of stumbling-and-stalling-off-idle. I jump-started it, put it in a storage garage, and resolved to think about it in the spring.

Total cars: 10. Usable cars: 4

It started snowing and the Ohio DOT started putting that de-icing stuff on the roads, taking the Miatas out of service due to their rust-prone nature and summer tires.

Total cars: 10. Usable cars: 2

We bought a Mahindra Roxor for use on a rural property. It can be driven on public roads in a pinch, but doesn’t have doors, a roof, or a legal Ohio plate. It’s ten degrees outside, by the way.

Total cars: 11. Usable cars: 2

I put in an order for a new truck to replace the Silverado. Pulled every string I had. It’s going to be built in February. This is astoundingly soon in terms of “getting a new truck in the chip-shortage era,” but not very useful at the moment.

Total cars: 12 (one in progress). Usable cars: 2

My Lincoln started making horrifying noises under acceleration. I dropped it off at the dealer.

Total cars: 12 (one in progress). Usable cars: 1.

They replaced the driveshaft, which fixed it.

Total cars: 12 (one in progress). Usable cars: 2

No, wait, it’s making a different noise that only appears on freeways. So we can use it locally, but to really use it, we have to return it to the dealer. And they don’t have any of the parts we are likely to need.

Total cars: 12 (one in progress). Usable cars: 1.

My 2014 Accord EX-L coupe, the only stalwart vehicle left in the lineup, and a car that has never let me down, is now making a ticking noise. I can drive it for a little bit; some people have done years of Uber service in Odysseys with the J35 tick. But this is a car that I regularly run at high revs and high speeds on racetracks. It should be fixed, and fixed correctly, as soon as I can manage it.

Total cars: 12 (one in progress). Usable cars: 0.

Two or three years ago, there would have been a couple obvious answers to this situation. The cheapish and smart way to handle it: get both the Lincoln and the Honda into service, rent a couple sedans for $120/week from my local Enterprise, and buy a new truck out of dealer stock after deducting 10–15 grand worth of incentives, rebates, and special financing offers. The impulsive and expensive way: trade in both ailing vehicles, buy new replacements, and get a truck while I’m at it.

Neither of those remedies will suffice in the winter of 2022. The price of rental cars is through the roof, and when you get one, it’s sitting on 60,000-mile all-season tires. Not great for a Midwestern winter. Getting a new truck off a dealer lot right now is virtually impossible, even if you’re willing to pay a staggering markup. The same is true of most new cars. A friend of mine took delivery of a new Maverick the other day, after waiting more than half a year for his order to be built; the dealer tried to bribe him out of taking delivery, admitting that the vehicle could be instantly resold for $5K over sticker to any number of mobile brokers.

I could buy a used pickup. A friend of mine sent me a listing to a 3/4-ton Ram the other day. “Best deal out there.” The Ram in question had 11,000 miles, quite a few scratches, and was available at a local CarMax for just $3000 over the original window sticker price. And yet, as Stephen Crane once wrote, the sage was a sage; every other similar truck I could find was going for more. The minute I do something like that, a Taiwanese Boy Scout troop will discover a forgotten cache of three billion automotive-grade embedded processors in an empty missile silo, the automakers will be able to bring all their stored 2021 trucks to market (which is another frightening story for another day) and that Ram will be worth … oh, gosh, twenty-five grand less than what I paid? Thirty? Which won’t matter, unless someone totals it at a stoplight and their insurance company offers me a non-negotiable sum that will require a new Civic’s worth of financial supplementation to pay off the loan.

With just one working vehicle, I can start another series of dominos falling. I can get my two sick cars to service and not worry about how backordered the parts are. My wife and I can carpool when necessary and stay at home when not; isn’t that what most people are doing nowadays? After some thought, however, I’ve decided to take the Zen approach of doing almost nothing. Both the Honda and the Lincoln are fine for short trips, so that’s all I’m going to use them for. When my new truck arrives, I’ll have the Honda serviced and repaired, at which point I’ll have …

Total cars: 12. Usable cars: 2.

I’ll either repair the Lincoln or trade it in on my truck; it’s under warranty, so they’ll have a chance to get paid both on the repair and the resale. Then I’ll get in that line for a new Maverick. Maybe it won’t be such a long line by then. When it arrives, I’ll be at

Total cars: 12. Usable cars: 3.

By then, it will be springtime, and the Miatas can come back out.

Total cars: 12. Usable cars: 5.

It will be warn enough for me to work on the Marquis and get it running.

Total cars: 12. Usable cars: 6.

I’ll get farm tags for the Mahindra, which will then be legal for short errands on side roads.

Total cars: 12. Usable cars: 7.

I’ll prep the 993 and sell it. (If you’re interested, now would be a good time to let me know; due to the Loofa Cult people, these are inexplicably popular now.)

Total cars: 11. Usable cars: 7.

Then it’s race season. My Radical has new bodywork coming to go with its new dampers, wheel nuts, wheels, and tires. I’m prepping my Accord for SCCA STU. My local NASA region just appointed a real hoopy frood as ST6 Series Director, so I’ll stop boycotting said region. And my wife’s car, as always, will be prepped and ready ahead of time, because unlike me she is an effective and serious person.

Total cars: 11. Usable cars: 11.

That’s the dream. Can I get there? I certainly hope so. Now, however, is the winter of my discontent. No doubt I could have prepared better for this day, and no doubt many of you would fare better in these circumstances; perhaps, for example, you feel totally comfortable doing a timing belt and valve adjustment on a J35. I ask that you have pity on me in my darkest hour, the same way I would if our situations were reversed. I’m just a hapless fellow in love with his cars, doing my best. What would Stephen Crane say?

If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools.

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