whoa-oh, black betty

See this car?

This is the 1996 Acura Integra I’ve been driving since May 1999.  My parents got it for me when I was 21.  I drove it in Houston, I drive it in Austin, I drove it all around the country.  If I’ve given you a ride anywhere within the last ten and a half years, it was in that car.  It’s the car I brought Maude home in the day I got her, when she was so terrified she wouldn’t look at me or sit down in the passenger seat.  It’s my favorite car I’ve ever driven, and it has more than 171,000 miles on it, only 40,000 of which are not mine.

Or maybe I shouldn’t call the car it. Her name is Betty. Betty the trusty Acura who, despite a few flat tires and some things that were not her fault, has never ever failed me in any significant way.

Betty’s sick, you guys.  She’s like an old lady who has retained her sound mind even as her body’s falling apart.  The engine runs just fine; I never have any trouble with that. But on Tuesday I went outside, unlocked the car and pulled the handle on the driver’s side to open the door just like I always do.

But the door didn’t open. I pulled harder, and that’s when the door handle broke off in my hand.

Since then I have become one of those people who has to get into their car through the passenger side.

It sucks. It sucks if you’re not wearing a skirt, it sucks worse if you ARE wearing a skirt, it sucks even worse if you’re wearing a skirt and two guys in a pickup truck point and laugh as they watch you try to crawl into your car without flashing anyone.

But this isn’t the first broken thing.  A few weeks ago I was in the car and I turned the little lever that washes the back windshield.  That lever is supposed to squirt washer fluid onto the back windshield and then run the wiper to clean it.  No washer fluid came out, though, so I turned the lever again. And again. Nothing came out, and the wiper kept waving back and forth uselessly. I guess I need to refill the washer fluid, I thought.

When I felt something wet on my shoulder, I looked up to see washer fluid dripping from the dome light.

And before that, I got pulled over downtown on a Friday night. I was on my way to drink one of Paul Rudd’s beers with friends during SXSW, and the cop that stopped me said I had a headlight out.

“Which one?” I asked.

“This one,” the cop said, and he walked over toward the passenger side. When he slammed his hand down on the hood of the car near the headlight, it went back on.

(“Like THE FONZ?” someone asked me later. Yes, it was just like the Fonz.)

The cop wrote me a warning and told me to fix the headlight. Since then I have to Fonz the headlight every now and then.

The fact that I still have this car is one of the many ways in which I’m like my parents, who tend to keep their cars forever. My dad drove both his Chevy Citation* and his Plymouth Grand Voyager into the ground.  The fabric on the ceiling of the Citation came unstuck and was sagging down onto his head, so he put a thumbtack through the fabric into the ceiling right above the driver’s seat so he could see to drive. Then he tore the fabric down, and my sister and I would play with the cracking foamy substance that was left on the ceiling. I used to reach up and trace my name in the foam with my finger and bits of it would rain down on me.

We complained to my father for months about the Citation. The radio didn’t work, the seats were sticky vinyl, and the car itself was embarrassing and probably toxic.  “It’s a perfectly good car!” my dad would say.

The Plymouth Grand Voyager (which I drove to Senior Prom) was fine until it wasn’t. My dad drove it to work one day, and that afternoon he called to ask my mom to pick him up and take him to the car dealership. He left the poor dead Plymouth in the parking lot of his office for the Salvation Army to pick up. He and my mom STILL have the used Ford Explorer they bought that day.

I don’t know what to do about Betty. The little Headley voice in the back of my head says, “Come on, it runs fine! You have no car payment! It’s a perfectly good car!” The other voice says, “It’s probably going to die in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. You can’t keep getting in and out of the passenger seat like that! You’re 31 years old!”

So, readers, I’d like to ask your opinion.  Here are all the facts I can think of:

Car pros:

  • No car payment
  • It’s very comfortable
  • It runs well
  • After 10 years, I’m awfully good at driving it
  • Nobody wants to steal it
  • It’s small and I can park it almost anywhere
  • But when I fold the back seats down it can carry a shitload
  • Its airbags and seatbelts are all good
  • Jeffrey Ross has been in it
  • It gets great gas mileage
  • It’s a hatchback, so I never have to drive a group of people anywhere unless they want to squish into the backseat like sardines
  • NO CAR PAYMENT. Did you get that part?

Car cons:

  • The A/C doesn’t work very well–if it’s over 90 degrees and the sun’s out, I arrive everywhere covered in sweat, which is half the year in Texas
  • It’s a black car, which makes the above much worse in the summer
  • One time I left a pair of boots in there for a few months and they grew mold
  • The anti-lock brake system doesn’t work
  • Washer fluid leaks onto the driver
  • There’s only one door handle, and it’s on the wrong side
  • The tint is all wrinkled so I can’t see out the back windshield very well
  • It’s a hatchback, so I can never drive a group of people anywhere unless they want to squish into the backseat like sardines (Shaun used to say getting out of the backseat of my car was like being born)
  • The retractable antenna started making a CHUNK CHUNK CHUNK sound, so my dad had to replace it with a regular antenna, which is held on with electrical tape
  • There’s no CD player and the tape player doesn’t work, so I have to listen to my iPod through an FM transmitter/charger thing, but the cigarette lighter stopped working so my iPod doesn’t charge while I’m listening
  • Years of parking outdoors in Texas have melted all the paint off the roof

So, do you think I should:

  1. Fix everything I can on it and then drive it into the ground
  2. Get a new (well, newER) car soon and sell Betty for scrap metal or maybe have her bolted to one of those billboards where the crumpled car shows that people survived an accident because they were wearing their seatbelts

Right now I have enough for a small (SMALL!) down payment on an early-aughts Honda/Accura of some kind, but I’d rather not use it now if Betty and I can keep going for awhile.

What would you do?

*who names a car after a ticket?

31 thoughts on “whoa-oh, black betty

  1. if the engine and Other Important Bits are good and you can fix the door, run it into the ground! Fixing a handle and a headlight seems easier than starting 3-5 years of payments.

    I completely sympathize. My little trooper, a ’98 Altima I named Arthur (cause he is silver and I was single, so he was my knight), got his lock broken recently, but luckily I can unlock him from the passenger side and walk back to the driver side and get in.

    oh, and the rest of us don’t have back wipers, so just don’t use them :)
    regardless, it’s a tough call.

  2. I’d say… If you’re going to get a new(er) car, try to sell Betty. She’s not in that bad of shape and I’m sure you could get a few hundred bucks out of some high school kid for her. You can always take her to a mechanic and see what the estimate would be to get everything fixed first, then weigh your options. As for the tint in the back, just get some Windex and take it off.

    I feel your pain as far as the black car attracting heat goes. I have a black Grand Prix and even in Pennsylvania, it’s unbearable in the summer. And my a/c doesn’t work!

  3. Oh man. I’m generally the same way about cars, but my dad once pointed out to me that at a certain point, you’re no longer repairing, you’re restoring. And with the amount of work you’d need to do, I don’t think it’d be worth it.

    I’d at least get the driver’s side handle fixed, and then see what you can get for it. If the engine’s in good shape, you might find you get a decent deal at a used dealership (or, sorry to say, a auto salvage lot).

  4. Here’s my rule of thumb: If it costs me less than $1000/year to keep in good working condition, then I’m keeping it, which is why I still have my trusty old 1994 Ford Explorer with 180,000+ miles on it. This year it cost me a little over $500 in repairs (two tires and some suspension work). Next year I may need a fuel pump and some brake pads.

    Seems to me the little things wrong with Betty would be pretty cheap to fix, well under my $1000 allowance anyway.

  5. Dang! You should have done the car trade in and up sorts deal the gov just had! I agree at sone point you have to say what’s going to be cheaper. Restoring or buying another car for a few grand?

  6. I’m with Andrew – perhaps you should just get the door handle fixed for now. Then you could drive her more comfortably for a few more months … before it starts getting really warm (and you need AC) you could see about trading Betty. That gives you a few months to get used to the idea of a new car as well as save a bit extra before you buy.

    I drove an Acura Integra for many years too (mine was white). It broke my heart when I finally had to get rid of it – it had 200K miles on it and I can count on one hand the times it wouldn’t start for me. I upgraded to Martha, my 1995 white honda civic. (I still love Martha, but rarely get to drive her anymore since the car seat doesn’t fit in her.) All of that to say, I totally understand how you feel.

  7. I’m all for getting a new car if you can afford it. I think you should try to find a gently used Mini Cooper (preferably with some of its warranty left).

    Then again, the things you’ve described all seem pretty minor. Get a recommendation from a friend for a good, honest mechanic and see what they say.

  8. Sweetie the ground has already been driven into. I think the condition of your car has become a safety hazard. Buy a newer used car. When I boughtthat 2003 Jetta last year(that I later totalled with you in the back seat–sorry bout that) I paid $10000 put no money down and only had to pay $165/mo on a 4 year loan. Do it! Then donate Betty to KUT.

  9. your parents had a Citation, too? mine did as well, and it also had lots of problems. in fact, because the emergency brake kept failing, i ended up getting run over by the car when i was 9! (no one was driving.) i think that’s when they got rid of it.

    as for your situation with your acura, i can totally relate. i had the same experience with a honda accord. i never wanted any other car; i just wanted that one to stay healthy forever. it’s a really tough call. although i would probably ignore this advice if it were me and my honda, i think i’d go ahead and let betty go. it’s inevitable, and keeping her will probably end up costing you more in the long run. you can probably find another car you’re almost as happy with…it does mean car payments, but it also means the benefits of newer technology and knowing you can depend on it. i now drive a honda fit and, to my surprise, i like it almost as much as i did my accord.

  10. I agree with Jake, the things you wrote about it in the main body of your post – door handle, washer fluid, and headlight – seem pretty minor. If it were me, I would try and get them fixed, especially if you think the engine still runs well! If a couple hundred dollars allows you to drive Betty for another couple years, I’d say that’s well-spent.

  11. I agree with the other jennifer. Take Betty in to a shop and run down the list of problems and ask them what it would cost to fix each thing. I would say the washer fluid and door handle should be higher priority. Most of the other stuff sounds pretty minor.

  12. You need more data.

    See one or more good mechanics (recommended by a friend, or yelp, or both) and present them the list of problems. Probably needs a tune-up or oil change anyway. Ask for a rough estimate of cost to fix these things, and an estimate of what trouble is on the horizon.

    And I say that unless the mechanic is impressed or gives a pretty glowing review, it’s time to move on to a new car to help define the next chapter of Your Identity.

  13. Yeah, like Ryan says, you should consult with a reliable mechanic.

    To compare with my situation: I have a ’95 Corolla that I’ve been driving since ’97. For the past few years it’s needed some kind of major repair work each year; most recently, the struts have worn out and need to be replaced, which will cost around $700, on top of the other repair work it needed earlier this year that cost around $600. So I asked my mechanic whether it was worth doing the repairs, continuing to throw money into this car. He pointed out that overall it’s still in decent shape, the engine runs well, and I’ve kept it well-maintained. So yes it’s old enough that I have to spend a thousand or two a year to keep it running. BUT, if I buy a new (even used) car, I’ll have to make a down payment of a couple thousand or more, monthly payments that’ll add up to at least a couple thousand a year, and my insurance costs will increase.

    The only problem you mentioned that sounds potentially serious is the anti-lock brakes not working. The rest of them are either inconveniences or should be fixable, probably for whatever you can afford as a down payment for a new car. But do go get an informed opinion or two on the shape your car’s in and what it’ll cost to fix the current problems, and also as Ryan says some idea on what kind of repair/maintenance work you can expect to need in the next year or two. Then you’ll have a better idea whether it’s time to retire Betty.

  14. You can charge the AC system on the cheap and do it yourself, the brakes MAY be as simple as a fuse. Who needs washer fluid for a rear window? Pay to fix the door handle and be done with it.

    I bought a new Ford Explorer and was laid off 4 months after that. I really, REALLY regret buying that car.

  15. I know honda/accura engines are legendary for running forever, but that many miles on any engine is starting to push the envelope. i would at least get the headlight and door handle fixed, and then look into unloading it for some cash to put towards a newer vehicle. cars, no matter how beloved, can only be expected to run relatively well without increasingly more frequent issues popping up for so long. Say good bye to Betty while you still love her, before she becomes “that damn car”.

  16. If the engine is still mostly good, I would donate the car to a charity, preferably one that fixes cars. Since you like the Integra, you could look for a used one, maybe even one with high mileage, which would be cheaper.

  17. I agree with Tom. Fix the minor (but unsellable) problems and then sell it. Let her go on a high note….as for a new car, it is time. I have been driving (or driven) in that car since high school. I am ready for a happy change! (don’t get me wrong, I will miss betty!!)

  18. Do something meaningful with her, because that will make you happy. Like donate her to a charity you are particularly fond of.

  19. I say use the money on a down payment on a new(er) car. I’m on my 4th car and I’m 33. The first was a piece of crap Ford Tempo that my sis and I inherited from my parents. It started to cost too much (replaced the alternator 4 times…), so my dad actually spent the money and bought our second car, a 1983 Audi Coupe. I loved driving that car, but it got to the point where I couldn’t share with my sis anymore (we no longer worked together), so I bought a 1991 Nissan Sentra. It died on a busy highway… I then leased a Hyunadi Accent and loved it :) In January, Hyundai started a special promotion and I turned in my lease early (at no extra cost to me!) and bought an Elantra. :D I really enjoy driving it – though I still haven’t named her yet… may I suggest a Hyundai – there are hatchback versions… they are a good car and cheaper than Hondas :D

  20. Hmmm…I’m inclined to say run it to the ground. I wouldn’t spend any money on large repairs, but dropping a small amount of money to fix things like the washer-fluid-thingie (proper term) will cost you less than the impending payments. When the engine does die, or you’re faced with repairs that aren’t worth the money, you’ll have more saved up towards your down payment for the next car. Why get rid of what you have, if it hasn’t stopped working yet?

  21. I second the recommendation to look at Hyundai hatchbacks! You know, when I retired the Neon (which was a total lemon) I didn’t think I would need some of the newer car features–things that used to be “fancy” but are now pretty standard. Turns out I really like automatic locks and a sunroof, go figure. If you can get a good deal on a new car that’s iPod/cell phone ready, has gps or that crazy Lexus mind reading feature I don’t really understand, how might that affect your enjoyment of driving and quality of life? Just a thought. Before anyone yells at me about being consumerist and greedy, I have already stated that I drive a Hyundai…

  22. Acura’s are known to go 200K plus easily. Your problems are common for a car of this vintage.

    1. AC. Needs a recharge. If it is Freon you would have to get it retrofitted for the new coolants which would costs more.
    2. Antilock brakes not working is more serious but it could just be a wheel sensor gone bad which isn’t terribly expensive. If it is the main module it is costly.
    3. You washer line to the rear is probably clogged and/or cracked. Solution is to take down the headliner, a pain, and replace the line.
    4. The door handle is a junk yard item. You would have to take the door apart and find out the problem then go get the parts. Get a Haynes manual for this car and figure out how to do the jobs yourself. You are smart and resourceful and some of these tasks just require basic tools and some time.
    5. A new antenna is easily gotten. You can buy one of the short black ones that look cool.
    6. You can buy a replacement radio online at a place like Crutchfield. I bought a radio for less than $150.00 with a USB port on the front. I load up mp3s in a stick memory. You can get hours of music on a 2 gig memory stick. You can replace the radio yourself. Get the Haynes manual.
    7. Your car’s looks are a thing of the past. You can put in a bit of money and some time, fix the nagging problems and get a few more years out of it.
    8. If you buy used you will be back in the place you are in now in a few more years. Fix it up, save diligently and buy a new car in a few years.

  23. Most of the things you need done, you can do yourself. Lenny is right – you can easily get 200K or more out of an Acura motor – IF – you make sure to replace the timing belt when you’re supposed to. If that goes, you lose the whole motor.

    ABS is likely a sensor, relatively inexpensive to fix.

    The only potentially costly item I see is if the AC needs a new compressor or evaporator – those can be very expensive. A regular freon charge you can do yourself, but those parts are labor intensive.

    Integras are still high-demand cars, so you could fix it and get a reasonable amount of money for it. However, not having a car payment is a special kind of freedom, Alison.

    I say fix her.

  24. I say you fix the doorknob, clean your back window from the outside, and get an estimate on the anti-lock brakes and air conditioner. If all of that comes in under $1K then you’re better of keeping Betty for a bit. If you decide to repair her, then start saving money equivalent to what you want to spend for a car payment. That way when Betty bites it you can either get a nicer, newer car or you just have less to pay off and less time to pay it off in.

    When you do think you need to buy a car, call your bank and get pre-approved on a loan. Then permit the auto dealership to run your credit and give you their rate. If it’s lower call your bank back and see if they’ll meet or beat it. I figured out that Andrew and I saved $5K by doing this when we bought Sparky.

    When you buy a new car it isn’t just payments and increased insurance. There is also quite a bit you’ll need to spend on regular maintenance to keep your warranty valid if it has one. We drove more than normal, but we had 4 scheduled maintenance visits the first year we had Sparky and spent over $1K on them.

  25. I had nearly the same sort of situation with my 87 Honda Acord named Elvis (who I also got when I was 21 and am now 31. And I also drove that car cross-country 4 times…oh the parallels between our stories!). I put up with all of the little problems (no radio due to broken antenna, a/c that “peed” on front passengers’ feet, trunk filling with water when I had to drive through big puddles, small gas line leak, door locks not working, etc, etc and on and on). I just got used to it all and made do. I did this until the headlights refused to turn on unless I was holding the high beam switch. I would drive home at night holding the switch and apologizing out loud to any oncoming traffic for blinding them (don’t you just hate that guy who drives around with his high beams on all of time?!?). Then I would get home and some nights the lights would refuse to turn off….until I would have to disconnect a fuse so as not drain the battery overnight. What finally really got me was the burning smell the high beams started causing mixing with the gasoline aroma wafting from the fuel line leak. Not a good combination. After getting brother and father opinions on the problems and calculating the cost of fixing said problems, there seemed to be no choice. If you go to a dealership for a new or used car, walk away the first time. They are so desperate to sell you a car right now that if you play aloof (it’s such a pain, but well worth it) you can get a lower price, better financing, and even money for your trade-in. They gave me $1000 for my 87 Honda- paint peeling from the AZ sun, no headlights, rusty holes throughout the bottom, etc. I was sad to let me car go….I know it sounds weird, but I felt like I was abandoning it. Like you, I made a lot of memories with that car….brought my 3 legged shelter cat home for the first time in it, slept in it some nights, drove it to some great places, had some great people along for rides. But it was time. I’m 31 and have an ok job…I can afford the insurance increase and the car payment and I’m starting to get attached to my new car- Honda Fit….I totally recommend it! Great gas mileage, small, but with the seats down, you can fit some stuff in there, hatchback but with 4 doors! Actually, it would probably be a great car for you too! You’ll know when it’s time….so if you’re not sure…wait a bit. Oh and btw…my first car was an ’82 Chevy Citation…LOVED that car…named Sally….drove it till it just died completely and then donated it to Goodwill….the parallels continue. At any rate, good luck!!!

  26. I am currently in the exact same position as you are – only with a ’95 Lancia.
    After many months of weighing pros and cons, my decision is to buy a newer car, before this old one becomes a black hole for my earnings…

    That’s how it’s going to be, you see. You fix everything that’s wrong with her now – and in a few weeks/months new problems start to appear. And these problems become bigger and bigger and then you wish you’d used the money to get yourself a more recent ride.

  27. I had an Acura and I drove it into the ground. Great cars but when the downhil slide started it got slippery very fast. I would recommend fixing a few things, stash a little more cash and then find a clean, low milage Acura or similar car. Some comments have advocated keeping it but I would be afraid to get stuck middle of the night middle of nowhere and you being a girl and all . . .

Comments are closed.