I had just purchased a used 1993 Volkswagen Cabriolet from a friend’s dad in New Jersey. Two hours later, I sat on the side of the highway, smoke pouring out of its hood.
He hadn’t really wanted to sell it, but I convinced him with my enthusiasm. I had traveled to Glen Rock, New Jersey — a borough of Bergen County named for a giant glacial boulder in the center of town — to buy the car. I gave my friend’s dad under $3,000 for it, I had the oil changed, I replaced the rotted tires, I locked down the ragtop, and then I hit the road with my girlfriend riding shotgun.
It had rained earlier, and there was a little water on the inside — just another thing to address after a short trip to my mechanic, I thought. I had navigated through Glen Rock to the highway, and I was going 70 miles an hour. "Isn’t this fun?" I nervously asked my girlfriend, noticing her hand tightly wrapped around the door handle. Seeing the traffic ahead approaching the George Washington Bridge, I started to slow down. We found ourselves in stop-and-go with the last exit approaching. It was at that moment that the oil pressure lamp, which was already flickering, turned persistently on, and smoke started to sneak through the hood. I pulled over.
I had never bought a used car before, let alone a seldom-driven 24-year-old convertible. To be fair, it had just as many miles as my daily driver, a 2009 Honda Element with a 5-speed manual. There aren’t many rules or protections for used-car buying. There’s always risk involved — and unlike buying even a certified pre-owned used vehicle, the only warranty afforded is that your pockets could be emptied at a moment’s notice.
I called my insurance company, who told me I didn’t have roadside assistance (their mistake). Even worse, they told me I had to call 911 and get a police escort just to get off the highway. Seeing the exit ahead, and not wanting to make an emergency call, I fired the car back up, crossed my fingers, and miraculously limped the car across six lanes of traffic to the last exit before the bridge. I drove to an easy tow spot, phoned it in and waited.
Thirty minutes, a bubble tea and a Good Samaritan offering coolant later, my tow showed up. The $400 I thought I saved by driving to my mechanic just flew out the window, and the pleasure cruise I thought I was going to have with my sweetheart had now become a sweaty 2-hour drive with some interesting repo stories from our new friend. He regaled us with tales about where luxury car brands import and test their vehicles, how he found and apprehended reposessed cars, and how all new cars are the same inside, with different plastic on the outside.
I managed to drop off the car with my mechanic a minute before the 5 o’clock closing on a Friday evening. I had booked an earlier appointment, believing a few things would be gone over quickly and I could hightail it to the beach and sun of the Hamptons. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong! I realized a list of repairs was coming my way.
The repair list was not terrible. On my test drive with the previous owner, we noticed a few things. Getting the car into first gear, for example, "needed a little finesse." I also thought the clutch caught awfully high. I knew there were plastic bits in the shifter that wear out, so I ordered a short-shift kit upon my mechanic’s recommendation. The clutch was wearing out, but the problem was exacerbated by two broken motor mounts. I had the mounts replaced, the short-shifter installed at a 30 percent reduction, the radiator flushed and the oil sensors replaced. The supposed leak in the soft-top, which was only evident by water filling the rear footwells during my test drive, was actually a clogged drain in the space between the firewall and dashboard. The air conditioning functioned fine, but it needed a recharge. I sidelined the clutch replacement until the winter, which I will do alongside a transmission swap to a Jetta GLI gearbox — a transmission known for its close gear ratios.
As of this moment, I have $5,000 invested in the Cabriolet. I rolled the dice and gambled on a 24-year-old used Volkswagen — however, I knew enough about the car beforehand to not get in over my head and go totally broke. I bought this summer car to prove it’s actually possible to ball on a budget, and own a cool, fun second car with just a little extra coin. With all of this preparation and work behind me, now it’s time for the real fun, driving with the top down. Find a Volkswagen Cabriolet for sale