Have you ever had a car that you felt like was your nemesis? A car that only seemed to let you down in crucial moments? A car you felt trapped in, with no way out besides giving it time? For me, that car was a 2004 Ford Mustang, and I was all too happy to get rid of it when the time finally came.
You see, back in 2013, my then girlfriend — now wife — Judith needed a new car to replace her Cavalier that had bitten the dust, and so I dutifully started to help her come up with ideas. She didn’t want to buy another cheap car with cash, so she raised her budget a bit with the idea of getting a loan and realized that she wanted something sporty. I tried to push her in the direction of a Miata, but the fact that the Mustang had a “back seat” was too compelling, so we started looking at Mustangs, as a manual transmission V6 would be a fun, rear-wheel drive car that was faster than anything she ever owned. I then went on vacation with my family, thinking we would pick up the search again when I got back.
About halfway through the week, I got an excited call from her saying that she and her dad went and looked at a black Mustang out on a car lot, and she bought it! I was immediately worried. Her dad at the time had been driving a 1993 Honda Civic he bought from a friend with almost 300,000 miles that a large tree branch had once fallen on, and neither of them really knew what to look for when buying a used car like this one. My wife is a fiercely independent and strong person, and she wanted to buy the car more or less on her own, and she loved the way she felt in it.
When I came back home I got the full picture. The car had about 98,000 miles on it, and it cost my wife about $6,900. I immediately knew she overpaid. Every time you took a turn, a loud clunk would sound off from behind the front wheels as the ball joints were in desperate need of replacement, the brakes needed to be replaced and the power steering whined tremendously. There were also many scratches and chips, especially on the hood and roof, there were three different brands of tires (none of which I recognized) and there were signs of overspray and paint runs even though the Carfax was clean. Also, the trim in the interior had been shoddily replaced by a laughably fake carbon fiber trim. The driver’s seat looked like part of it had melted, and all comfort was gone by then. The loan for the car was several thousand dollars underwater almost immediately.
Worst of all, it had an automatic. I would have been willing to overlook most of that stuff if it had a manual, but the automatic transmission versions of those Mustangs were disappointingly slow and unexciting. It robbed the engine of so much power that the Mustang was about a second slower to 60 miles per hour than my 2010 Jetta, even though it had an advantage of about 25 horsepower. Even after getting everything fixed that it needed, it still handled terribly — and it wasn’t exciting in the least.
As time went on with this car, problems continued to pop up. First, the fuel pump broke, which cost some serious coin to fix. Then, one cold winter morning later that year, the car started shuddering hard as the check engine light blinked after Judith drove half a mile in the car, which had left its coolant on the driveway at home. It needed a head gasket, which would cost $2,800 that she didn’t have at the time. The car then sat for several months in her parents’ driveway, and I made the drive every morning to her house to pick her up and take her to work. Several months later, it seemed to be doing better, so I took it to a different mechanic who diagnosed it as needing a $25 radiator cap. That problem never came back.
We got married in 2014, and the car was suddenly my problem. I was let go from my company a week after I returned from our honeymoon — and since I wasn’t driving as much, my wife started driving the more comfortable and fuel-efficient Jetta. I was getting few call backs and interviews were frustratingly sparse, but I finally landed a job interview with a company that hired people extensively from my previous company. That cold December morning there was ice and snow on the ground, and the Mustang had a flat tire. I was late for the interview and did not get the job.
Things did start to turn around after I got a new job in January that paid better, but I still had to drive it. My wife started nannying for a family and needed the back seat of the Jetta for car seats, so I had to drive the Mustang an hour each way to work. Eventually, we paid off enough of the loan that we owed less than it was worth, and with my new job I could finally afford my attainable dream car — a Volkswagen GTI. I found a fully-loaded 2013 GTI nearby with a certified pre-owned warranty for a good price, and I arranged to come see it the next day. On what was going to be my last drive home from work in the Mustang, the check engine light came on one last time, ruining any equity I had and preventing me from trading it in. It was a $5 plastic clip that was used to open the intake manifold, but as plastic does when its next to a hot engine, it failed. In order to get to this cheap clip, you have to remove the entire top of the engine, which ended up costing quite a bit in labor. What a great example of the bean-counting reputation American car companies are still trying desperately to get away from.
I still bought the GTI, but we couldn’t sell the Mustang until after I had the issue fixed, and I fixed up a few other issues like replacing the door trim. I ended up selling the car to a guy who bought it for $3,700 for his 16-year-old son, who was excited to receive it — but not as excited as I was to see it go. I’m still fairly certain that kid was probably the Mustang’s last owner.