The. Worst. Used. Car. Ever.


Back in 1977 I was renting a little studio up in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago.  I was young, single, employed, carefree and making some bucks.

I needed a toy.  A sports car.  That’s the ticket.

I lived in the city.  I didn’t own a car.  Didn’t need one.  Didn’t want one.  Had no place to park one. So, of course, I bought one.  A British two seat convertible sports car.

My pal Albert said, “Anyone who buys a British Sports Car deserves what they get.”

He was right.  In the end it would cost $36 per mile to run, cost me my pretty blonde girlfriend and try to kill me.  I had fair warning.

What I found was a beat-up little 1971 Triumph Spitfire.  It was blue and, at 6’2” I was destined to look like a circus clown every time I got out of it.  It cost $1075.  It had 32,000 miles.  It was owned by a guy who sold advertising space for a living, just like me So I knew not to trust him.

Before sealing the deal we took it to a mechanic, just like you’re supposed to.  We left it and came back the next day.  He had looked it over, prepared a list of about $300 in repairs it needed and other than those gave it a clean bill of health.  The seller promptly agreed to pay the guy to fix everything if I agreed to buy it.

No, I can’t tell you why this didn’t set off ear splitting alarm bells in my head.

Yes, I’m not very bright sometimes.

But, a genuine mechanic looked at it and was fixing everything.  Right?  So unless the seller went back after we dropped it off and bribed the guy….. Wait.  What?  Hey!

I handed over the cash and brought the new-to-me Spitfire home.  I was thrilled and didn’t even mind that it was a little beat-up looking.  That was (I thought) what made it cheap and I’d be parking it on the street in the city.  Better to start with it pre-beaten.

The important thing was the top went down, it was a genuine Sports Car and I had a pretty blonde girlfriend to drive around in it.

(this is not the actual pretty blonde girl)

That first day we took it for a drive up thru the leafy, elegant and wealthy north suburbs.  Spring was in the air.  The warm Sunday evening was beautiful.  Life was beautiful.  By golly, this was exactly what I needed in my life.

Then, all by itself, it jumped out of 2nd gear.  Odd, I thought.  I put it back in.  The warm air was flowing over us.  The blonde was beautiful.

It jumped out of 2nd gear again.  Odd.  I put it back in.  We were waving our hands in the breeze, laughing.  Just like in the beautiful movies.

Jumps out again.  Then again.  And again, at more and more frequent intervals.

Now it won’t go into 2nd at all.

Now it is jumping out of 3rd.

By the time we found a Triumph/Jaguar dealer I was down to 1st and 4th gear.  The smiles and laughter were gone.  It was dark out.  Turning cold.  We parked it in their lot with a note and my phone number.  Walked thru the night until we found a pay phone.  Called a pal to drive out from the city to retrieve us.

Next day, the dealer calls.  The synchromesh is shot.  The gearbox needs a rebuild.  $450.  Serious money in those days.  I’ve driven the car a total of maybe 35 miles.  Since it is worthless without gears…..

Wednesday night my pal drives me out to pick it up.  Heading back into the city it shifts fine but is running rough.  Needs a tune-up I guess.  Not wanting to pay dealer prices, I drop it at a local shop near my apartment with instructions to give it a tune.

Thursday after work I go to the shop to pick it up.  They haven’t touched it.  Seems it has a bent crankshaft.  See how it wiggles down there where the fan attaches to the engine? What’s that going to cost?

Beats us, we just know we aren’t going to do it for you.

Friday at work I’m having a coffee with Alan, a pal who is into British cars. I’m whining about my Spitfire.  He takes pity.  Seems he knows some guys on the far South Side with a wrecking yard that specializes in Brit iron.  If I’d like, I can bring the car to him next week and he’ll drive it down for them to look over.

Monday I drive it to work, turn it over to Alan and ride the train home.  Carless.  I’ve owned it a week and a day.  I have driven it 58 miles.  It has cost $26.29 per mile.

Couple of days later, the wrecking yard calls.  This engine is so shot it can’t even be rebuilt.  Would I like them to look for a replacement from a wreck?  Since it’s worthless without an engine….

Over the next few months I get random calls from the wrecking yard.  They go something like this:

“We’ve found an engine.”

“Great, is it a good one?”

“No, it burns oil.  We don’t think you should buy it.”

“Ah, ok….”

“We’ve found an engine.”

“Great, is it a good one?”

“No, it won’t really fit in your car.  We don’t think you should buy it.”

“Ah, ok….”

Finally one late summer’s day:

“We’ve found an engine.”

“Great, is it a good one?”

“It’s from a car wrecked on the highway in an accident.”

“Ah ok….”

“It’s from a ’73.”

“Ah ok….”

“But it looks like a good one.”

“Ah ok….”

“But we can’t be sure.”

“Ah ok….”

“We think you should buy it.”

“Ah, ok.”

It costs $575 installed.  My toy is up to $2100 ($36.21 per mile, but who’s counting?).  Not quite double what I paid, but it hasn’t tried to kill me yet.  That’s still coming.

Alan picks it up and brings it into work.  He hands me the key.

“By the way,” said Alan.  “Did you tell me you had the gear box rebuilt?”

“Yep,” I said.

“Well my mechanics tell me the gearbox on your car has never been opened.  The bolts are covered with years of grime.  They are untouched.”

Ah, ok.

Within 500 miles it was burning oil.

But I was starting to get used to its quirks.  For instance, with the top down it was loud.  To hear the radio you had to crank up the volume.  At stoplights it would then be too loud so I’d turn it down. Up and down. It got to be a habit.  I didn’t realize I was being set up.

The day it tried to kill me I was coming up to a red light at a very busy intersection and, boy howdy, no brakes.  None.  Zip.  They were there at the last light, now nothing.  We went sailing into the traffic and managed to miss everybody.

Or at least they managed to miss me.  Tires squealing.  Horns honking.  Curses flying.  They were not happy.  I was not happy.  I needed new underwear.  This is not a car you want to have a wreck in.

Then the brakes came back.  Like nothing had happened.  I should’ve named it Christine.

 It did manage to wreck my romance with the pretty blonde girl.

(this is still not the actual pretty blonde girl)

 She was into country music.  I was trying to be into country music because, well, she was a pretty blonde girl.  So country music is what we had playing on the car radio, with the top down one fine and sunny day, when we stopped at a traffic light.  And I turned the music down.  Like always. Opps.

“Ah ha!”  She said.

“Ah ha?”  I said.

“I knew it.  You are embarrassed to have country music on your radio!”

Now if at that moment you could have convinced her that “No honey, I always turn the music down at traffic lights,” well, you’re a better man than I.

Kept the little beater for about two years and dumped another $500 into it with various repairs.  Ton of money to me in those days.  Sold it for $1000.  Somewhere that guy probably has a blog and is writing a new post:  “The.  Worst.  Used.  Car.  Ever.”


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  1. Trish Rempen says

    We had one of those at the Old Rectory. Yellow. New. 1971 Spitfire Mark 3.
    Convertible. And: without learning the valuable lesson – I bought an old really-cool-looking Jaguar.

    Pfft! I could barely GIVE it away!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Ha! I’ve been soooo tempted to buy an old Jaguar over the years. my mechanic tells me they are the one brand of car he refuses to work on…

      Which one did you have?

      Maybe having a Spitfire in Ireland made sense?

  2. Bruce says

    I almost bought one of those about a year ago.I think I told you guys about it. It was $1800.00,and in pretty good shape.A later model one.I know all the caveats about owning one,but hell they’re so cool looking,and a blast to drive.Plus,I figured for $1800,how much did I have to lose.Besides,I used to ride,and still own,lots of old English motorcycles,so I’ve at least got a little idea what I’m in store for.

    Anyway,it was parked in front of an import car repair shop,and the seller was never there whenever I stopped.It was there about 4 days,then sold out from under me.I guess if it were meant to be,I’d have made more effort to contact the seller.For the best,I’m sure.Still……….

    I guess the reputation those things have for being POS’s trumps their cool factor,because you can get them all over the place,in good shape,for under 3K. Hell,you can’t touch anything else decent from the ’70s for that.Not even a bloody Pinto!

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Hey Bruce….

      If I had your mechanical skills I might buy one again. they are very cool and fun to drive. and safer than a Pinto. although Pintos gave rise to the all time best bumper sticker:

      “Caution: Explodes on Impact.”

  3. Mr. Risky Startup says

    Great story. I hope you marked this as “education costs” in your budget 🙂

    Those cars are like fake $100 dollar bills – you get screwed, and your only options are to either screw the next guy and sneak in the lemon, or write off the losses and shred the bill.

  4. kris says

    Yeah I guess I have found your blog before your recent MMM post (but I don’t know where or how) because I remember reading this story last year. I always get a kick out of “finding” something you all ready knew.

  5. Cline Hall says

    I had an illness in the late 70’s and early 80’s that caused me to use my student loan money to purchase a TR3A ( a lot of it in boxes), then I traded a perfectly good Pontiac for a Spitfire with the rocker panels completely rusted out because it looked so cool. Of course it had the identical self destructive engine as yours. Then, during my first job out of college I bought at TR6 with a credit card. (Still had TR3 in the yard not running) It broke in two one day while driving over a railroad track. I had paid 2300 for it, 400 in welding the frame back, and sold for $4500. I guess that financed my losses on the other two. Moral of the story, you need to buy a couple more Triumphs, kind of a dollar cost averaging thing. (What I learned in college with the rest of the student loan money)

    • jlcollinsnh says

      “It broke in two one day while driving over a railroad track.” ROTFLMAO!

      That got coffee sprayed all over my keyboard!

      Too damn funny! And I’ll bet those reading who have never owned a Triumph (lucky devils) think you exaggerate. Ha!

      So, I should DCA into a couple more, you say? Mmmmm. Spoken like a man who has a couple to unload…

  6. sean wallace says

    What a great story!!! Back in the late 80’s I bought a Saab 900. Fuel pump failed within the same week purchased. Transmission failed after the fuel pump was replaced. All of this happened before I burned my first tank of gas.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Thanks Sean!

      An interesting tidbit…

      …your comment came in just as I was looking at a CL ad for a Saab 900. 🙂

      I used to have a 9-3 convertible.

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