What I Learned from Buying (And Wrecking) My Childhood Dream Car

What I Learned from Buying (And Wrecking) My Childhood Dream Car
A moment of silence for a fallen friend.

Every once in awhile, people get screwed. My time came on a Thursday. But before you hear about that fateful day, I need to take you back to the late 1980s when I was a little kid with a collection of Hot Wheels. The Ford Bronco was my favorite. It was yellow, but turned purple when dunked in cold water. I vowed a lot of things in the 80s. One was that I’d grow up to be a professional wrestler like my hero, Hulk Hogan. In 2003, I made an attempt and all I got was a lousy broken back.

In 2013, it was time to realize another one of my childhood dreams. An eBay auction showing a 1985 Ford Bronco appeared on my glowing computer screen.

  • Cosmetically, perfect condition.
  • Minor repairs required.
  • 35,000 original miles.

My bid was unsuccessful. Crushed, I called the dealership and told them to call me if the winning bid fell through.

A few days later, a thick North Carolina accent asked if I still wanted “the Bronco.” So eager was I to have my baby delivered to my D.C. home, I made my first impulsive mistake: I should have had the vehicle delivered to a local mechanic. There is more availability for parts for these old vehicles and the price would be lower than in my city. Cheaper North Carolina rents translate to lower repair bills.

Instead, I took my Bronco to my local city mechanic. He ran a full diagnostic and gave me a litany of necessary repairs. Some urgent, some minor, and some that could wait. We got to work and pretty soon, I was spending a fortune. Second mistake. Let’s say you take your first born child to the doctor and the doctor says he needs to give your child a lobotomy. And he’s going to charge you an arm and a leg. Are you just gonna be like, “Do it!?” No, sir. You’re going to get a second opinion. I should have found a suburban mechanic to obtain a second opinion.

When my girlfriend’s cat broke his patella, a city doc wanted $5,000 to surgically repair it. She drove to the sticks, found a cat surgeon, and paid $3,500. Hi, Monster! Oh, wait, he can’t see me waving.

I could have done this with my carburetor. I spent a fortune at my mechanic, tweaking and tweaking, eventually overhauling, cleaning, and finally, purchasing another one. I mean shit, if I’d have known I was going to spend $1,000 on ongoing carburetor issues, I would have just told him to replace it from the get-go for $500. Better yet, I would have just replaced the engine with a fuel injected engine. Carburetors are a bitch

Fast forward three years and $5,284.81 later. I was driving home from the grocery store. I’d just picked the beast up from my mechanic, who after charging me $150 for removing the steering wheel, discovered that the sound I’d been complaining about was simply low power steering fluid, which he filled free of charge. You know, since I paid $150 for nothing.

He said the brakes “seemed a little loose,” but hey. I’m not a mechanic—if it was really dangerous, I figured he would have told me to leave the Bronco. He didn’t; I left.

There I was, cruising down a quiet winding road in DC when suddenly, the truck went bonkers. Since it had snowed the night before, I assumed I’d slipped on black ice. I careened to the left. I corrected to the right, dancing like a drunk ballerina. My 5,000 pound vehicle destroyed a parked Mercedes, swerving back to the left, to the right and again into the Mercedes, to the left again, before finally, darting to the right, over the sidewalk and into the front lawn of a five million dollar mansion.

Ford Bronco wreck

The owner yelled at me for destroying her Mercedes. She yelled at me for destroying her manicured lawn. The police officer arrived, looked at the snow on the road and gave me a ticket for “failure to control vehicle to avoid collision.”

When the tow truck arrived to the body shop, the owner got in The Bronco and immediately noticed loose brakes. He asked if I really slipped on ice. After examining my Bronco, he told me the reality: My brake line had ruptured. There was no brake fluid in the reservoir. I was operating at 50% braking capacity—the front brakes were shot.

I could have been killed. Worse, if I had been on a busy DC road, I could have shot to the left into oncoming traffic and hit lots of vehicles or a pedestrian or several pedestrians.

Friends who are not car people expressed how lucky I was to be alive. Friends who are car people first expressed sorrow for my loss. This Bronco meant a great deal to me. Not only was owning this truck my childhood dream, but there were associated and deep psychological implications. As a little boy who grew up without a dad, I idolized manliness. Trucks. Pro wrestling. Metallica. I wanted to prove that I could take on something manly, like an old truck — learn about it, build a relationship with a trustworthy mechanic, and sound like I knew what I was talking about.

I know there are many other ways to define manliness. But buying and restoring an old truck was an operative definition for me.

In the days that followed, I learned a lot of things to share in the event that you total your classic car:

  1. If you don’t know anything about classic cars, consider buying one that’s been fully restored.
  2. If you ignore #1, find someone who knows a lot about classic cars—maybe a relative or someone on a Reddit forum who can suggest the right questions to ask, like: “Is there adequate braking fluid in the reservoirs?”
  3. Get collision insurance. I did not have it because my insurance agent said a $6,000 30 year old vehicle wasn’t worth repairing.
    • Alternatively, do not get collision insurance. If you do total your vehicle, your insurance company might deem the vehicle totaled instead of forking over the money for repairs. If totaled, they will give it a salvage title, which means if you choose to keep the vehicle and repair it, you might have difficulty selling it in the future. People see “salvage” and assume the car is junk, but the truth is, if you get it fixed up, it might be a safer vehicle. Of course, you’re honest and regardless of what a title says, you’ll tell potential buyers that an accident occurred but the car has since been meticulously repaired.
  4. Obtain classic car insurance. I did not have it because I did not know it existed. It’s available through your auto insurance company, but they have too many qualifications. You’ll get it elsewhere and you’ll be able to set the value at which your car is insured. You bought a 1985 Ford Bronco for $6,000 and put an additional $6,000 into repairs over a three year period. Insure for $12,000.
  5. After you total your vehicle, make no immediate decisions. After your precious vehicle has been wrecked, you are going to feel a litany of emotions from sell that fucking death trap to we will rebuild!! If you live in a city, you might feel pressure to make a decision. The body shop will charge you $65 a day storage fee and if you do not have a garage or property, what are you gonna do? Rent a space for a month if you have to. Give yourself time to mull things over.
    1. Sell it on Craigslist. Someone might give you a pretty penny if they’re looking for a car with many good, new, working parts or a pristine interior.
    2. Strip it yourself and part it out. A low mileage engine, new transmission, and rebuilt carburetor will bring in a lot more than …
    3. Sell it to a salvage yard. They will offer you peanuts. I was offered $350.00.
    4. Allow the body shop to repair it for $4,300. Thems city prices! No thanks.
    5. Post on Facebook, Reddit. Ask around. Maybe an old friend from high school rebuilds old cars. Maybe your relatives in North Carolina have a buddy who quotes you half the price for repairs.

Whatever you decide to do, know this: The process will be fraught with anxiety and unknowns. For example, I have a friend from high school who repairs Broncos. But I will need a backup plan if he is unable to help. I’ve placed a call to a body shop chain; they need to see the vehicle in order to provide an estimate.

Seems fair. But Triple A is not my personal towing company, which means if I want to receive an estimate, I’ll have to pay around $120 for a tow. And if his estimate is too costly, then I’ll need another tow to return my damaged goods. See how even the little things add up?

In an ideal world, my friend could make repairs for a couple thousand bucks. I could sell the Bronco and recoup some money. If that falls through, I have two options left: I invest untold thousands to repair the Bronco, or … give it away to a salvage yard for peanuts. Eventually, time will not be on my side.

In the end, this truck is just that: A truck. It’s not a representation of manliness or a defining feature of you. And yes, even though it is obvious that you are alive and okay, take a moment to realize how lucky you are to be both. Life is too short to be upset over a material item.

In an ever increasing hostile, angry, materialistic world where we seem to need to find something to be upset about, be grateful that you were able to purchase a dream care in the first place and then restore it. As the Triple A tow driver said, “It’s just metal. It can be replaced, but you can’t.”

A note from Primer's editor

I was so sad when I saw Kenneth's destroyed Bronco on Facebook. Long time readers will remember my own experience with buying my childhood dream car, a C3 generation Corvette. While I haven't wrecked it yet – knock on wood – his buying and repairing process almost mirrors mine exactly. In the day-to-day, excited to have bought the car of your dreams then to find it needs thousands and thousands of dollars of work so that it won't leave you sitting by the road, can be one of the most defeating, infuriating experiences.

A man standing in front of a c3 corvette

Read my full article on how to buy a 38 year old sports car here.

But, she runs like a champ now and I love driving it with the tops off and listening to old Chicago Blues – literally one of my favorite things to do while en route to some Old Fashioneds. But I do tell friends I'm glad I bought it when I did, because even 4 or 5 years later now, I don't know if I would spend the money the same way. If you've gotten to a place where there's a little left over in your bank account and you can make your dream car happen financially, I say go for it. Because you may never be in that place again– spouses, kids, and mortgages generally frown upon vintage car purchases.

If you don't know anything about cars, just know it will be more expensive than the sticker price. If I were doing it again, like Kenneth mentions, I would probably buy a better maintained, more expensive version. But hell, that's a crap shoot too especially if you don't know anything about cars.

In the end, it can be a stressful process, but as long as you're smart about it and don't get in over your head, it can be one of the few things that make all that slogging through your 20s worth it. – Andrew

Kenneth Suna

Kenneth Suna is a writer and self-employed stock trader who lives in Washington, D.C. His novel, Roman, was recently published. He is the founder of Revolvist.com, an online magazine which features human interest stories and social commentary. Follow him @KennethSuna