#SaveEddie, Part VI: The Fortunes of Happenstance

This is the sixth part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous entries

Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia
Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic
Part IV: The Agony of Without
Part V: The Fragility of Fasteners

Credit: NBC/Getty

It’s funny, the people you meet in a bar. I should say, it happens more frequently when you work in said bar, perhaps to the point it become unfunny, but happy coincidences happen.

So it was that I had three gentlemen from a local body shop come in for lunch, still wearing their coveralls emblazoned with the company logo. As they’re digging into their burgers washed down with locally brewed IPA, I get to talking to them and mention I’m thinking about paint for Eddie. Turns out the guy on their left is the one to talk to about that, nudge nudge.

I show them all some pictures on my phone, explaining that the still-crumpled hood and quickly-painted bumper will be replaced. That said, they tell me it would be an easy side job, taking no longer than a weekend. Phone numbers are exchanged, and they tipped well.

So now another piece is in place for Eddie’s resurrection. I just need to source the bumper cover and hood, which can be found online, as long as you’re willing to spring for freight shipping, which sometimes costs more than the parts themselves. Sure enough, it does, but it’s either this, or try my luck at junkyards, and the whole point is to make Eddie look good. But wait, they offer financing!

I normally don’t like paying thigs off over time, since the future is forever in flux, but for whatever reason the short term I’ve selected has zero interest, so that’s a purchase made a little more palatable by distributing the load. Oh, and the bumper absorber finally arrived; after I’d resolved to use the old one, at least temporarily.

With a source for these parts checked off, I call up my body shop acquaintance so he can look things over and give me an estimate. It occurs to me I should ask if he could give some attention to the left quarter panel, damaged by a support pillar (my fault) and the slightly caved-in left-rear door, damaged in a parking lot (not my fault, and I wish I knew who to blame). The quarter panel looks easy to him, but the door would be easier on his team and my wallet if I could find a new door, then the whole car could be given a fresh coat. This appeals to me, since the roof has been fading faster than any other body panel due to sun damage these past 19 years.

I thank him for his time and double-check I have his number saved. Now I need the parts, and I’ve figured that, since I’m replacing the nose anyway, could I swap it out for the 2000 design?

Research tells me that everything lines up, so in theory it’s just a matter of parts. With a glass of bourbon in hand, I scour the Internets for pictures of the 2000 nose to compare to Eddie. From what I can tell, the only things I’ll need are new side marker and turn signal lenses. The units are discreet from one another on the 2000, but are integrated on the SE trims 1999 and older. Then comes the method of installing them, which turns out to be an odd 11mm nut designed to cut into a plastic post to create its own thread pattern.

This is all a matter as easy as buying new parts online. Sure, I could troll around junkyards, but my vanity wants new parts, and the emotional part of my brain has declared that Eddie deserves it. However, I’m forced to reconsider once I meet with my paint guy with the car in person, and he sees the big dent in the rear-left door from a parking lot incident.

“We could hammer it out, but it’ll be easier on us and you if you could find a new door.”

Okay. Where’s that junkyard, again?

Credit: WikiMedia


#SaveEddie, Part V: The Fragility of Fasteners

This is the fifth part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous entries:

Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia
Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic
Part IV: The Agony of Without

Perhaps it’s separation anxiety. I’ve had this Sunfire for nine years, which is twice as long as you have a kid before dropping it off at preschool. At least I think that’s the age for preschool. Given the mental maturity of some individuals I’ve met, preschool could start as late as eighteen, for all I know. Regardless, I’ve had time to grow attached to this little scamp, and now I have the urge to keep it for eternity.

Eternity will have to wait, however, until I can get him put back together. First off, nothing is getting done at my apartment complex, since the lease doesn’t permit on-site repairs, so I’ve set up shop at my parents’ house. It wasn’t hard to do, since most of my repair shop is already stored in Eddie’s trunk. That’s the reality of my situation: my daily driver is also my project car. At any point, Eddie could break down (though he rarely does), and I want to be ready for the occasion. True, the hundred and some-odd pounds of tools and a hydraulic floor jack add unnecessary weight, which spoils handling, fuel economy, and performance in acceleration and braking, but Murphey’s Law dictates I will break down within 12 hours of relocating these tools to a less mobile storage option.

So the tools stay in the trunk, where they also come in handy when something needs fixing when I’m at work, where there is a limited selection of repair implements. Luckily, my coworkers haven’t figured out I always have tools with me, and therefore they aren’t constantly asking me to fix things.

First thing to come off is the bumper cover, albeit, with some convincing. Once that’s off, we can see the crushed absorber and folded bumper reinforcement. Taking those off, the radiator and AC condenser are untouched. Some quick measuring shows the left corner of the unibody is pushed in and slightly up. The left headlight is toast; we didn’t need any disassembly to tell us that, but the right one has damage from the previous owner, which is yet further evidence of Eddie’s careless history.

I wish I could remember the name of the guy who owned this little Pontiac before me so I could occasionally swear his name in vain. A front-right collision damaged many things that weren’t addressed, not limited to a bent front-passenger door frame, shattered inner fender and splash guard, damaged wire loom conduit, and (most recently found) headlight assembly. I don’t know how I lived with it, but the damage to the bracket meant the right-side headlight couldn’t be aimed properly. Perhaps it’s dumb luck it was already pointed in the right direction.

Throughout all of this, of course, we must pop loose those plastic fasteners. This is the aftermath of the corporate ecosystem Bob Lutz had to contend with when he took over as vice chairman of product development at General Motors, as detailed in his book which I’ve started reading, Car Guys vs Bean Counters. Eddie was built during an era of saving a penny here only to wind up losing a dollar there. As such, many components of the J-Body are held together with cheap plastic push-fasteners designed to go in easy and hold well, but destroy themselves when subjected to the forces necessary to remove them. If you’re mentally deranged, you can try and save these fasteners for later installation. Or you can take the path I did and order them by the gross on Amazon, knowing you’ll just break more of them down the line.

As we dig, some things worry us. The windshield washer pump and reservoir are in that general area, and since it’s a very interconnected system, might be a hassle to replace. I thanked my lucky stars it was undamaged. Same story with the battery. But key is this bent frame.

So first the entire front end is removed, then the car is repositioned, aligning with the decades-old maple tree at a similar angle as the impact. 1,200lb-test mule tape, a small square of pine to distribute the load, and a steel cable come-along from Harbor Freight are arranged to reposition the front left corner, and employed with marginal success. But at least it’s straighter than it was.

My work schedule at this time has me working most days during the week, but my dad works nights, so when he gets home in the morning he takes on some repair work while I sling beers at thirsty craft beer aficionados. In that time, he’s done well to hammer out the crumpling in the left fender, as well as fashion out of steel a little-known small bracket used to align the headlights. On my end, I’ve ordered parts to be delivered straight to the house instead of my apartment. As such, Dad cant help himself, and takes to the packages like a kid on Christmas, installing them post-haste. So by the time I can come down on Friday, he’s already put on the new headlight and reinforcement bar.

I’m still waiting for the replacement bumper absorber, so the old, damaged one will have to suffice now that the insurance money’s run out on the rented Jeep. (Damn, that Jeep was nice…) Eddie is road legal now. With one clear headlight lens and the other oxidized, he looks a bit like that that guy with the cloudy eye from Legion. The bumper is also a different color, now that Dad’s sanded off the chipping paint and given it a quick coat of a green shade from Ford.

I kind of wish he hadn’t told me it was a Ford color; feels wrong doing that to the nose of a Pontiac…

In the end, Eddie is put together. He ain’t pretty, especially with the hood still a bit cockeyed, but he can be driven. There’s still some work to do, and I won’t be satisfied until it’s done.


#SaveEddie, Part IV: The Agony of Without

This is the fourth part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous Entries:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia
Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic

I have mixed feelings about Uber.

This does not regard their recent PR fiascos involving rampant chauvinism among senior management. It’s not about their investment in autonomous vehicle technology, which certainly isn’t in the best interests of its 400,000+ drivers’ long-term employment opportunities. I’m not even talking about the (until recently) utter absence of an in-app tipping system for drivers which, as a bartender, really should bother me.

My mixed feelings are about ride-share services in general, and Uber is just a good one to put in the first line of your post to grab readers’ attention.

On the one hand, it’s a great option for my nights out when I know I’ll partake in numerous libations. Definitely done that before, which my old roommate can attest. But as a commuting utility, it’s hard to justify the daily expense. I find travel time can end up being extended, since the driver may not know your shortcuts. I also find myself uncomfortable when in someone else’s car, as well as anxious, since I’m not the one driving.

Plus, most people who drive for Uber have rather dull cars. My heart sinks a bit when the app tells me Abdul will be here in 7 minutes, driving a Toyota Camry. But let’s be honest: nobody in an Audi A8 is gonna feel the need to drive for Uber to make some extra cash. In light of this, I have thoughts of winning the lottery, buying a Maserati Quattroporte and enlisting in Uber for fun.

The best Uber I rode in was also the last one before the insurance adjuster came the next day to drop the total-loss bombshell on my psyche. My driver picked me up from work driving a Lincoln Town Car, one of the last such examples of Ford’s Panther Body. A former hire car picked up at auction by my driver, this boat took only five of the thirty minutes I spent in it to convince me why it is what every cab and limo company used since their introduction.

The rear seat had the kind of legroom you get in the front seat when you’ve slid it all the way back. That’s impressive to someone of a 6’4” stature like myself. And the seat had some give at the edge, which eased entry and exit. The designers of my dad’s Honda Fit must have been aiming for seat support, so it’s stiff at the front, restricting already-limited movement when sliding to the middle seat. Not that I ever really sit in the middle-rear seat in any car since my final growth spurt somewhere back in high school; people now just look up at me and say, “Yeah, you should probably sit up front.”

Perhaps that’s my message to Uber: When you go to a fully-autonomous fleet (which you will eventually, let’s be honest), it’ll be in your best interest to equip a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars. This nearly-40 year-old platform nailed it for rear passenger comfort before your founders were allowed to use a pack of crayons with more than eight colors. At least I think so; I’ve never been in a 1979 Ford LTD, so improvements may have been made since then.

These are the thoughts that occupy my time as Eddie sits in my apartment complex’s garage, preserving his state until the insurance adjuster can take a look. Once he does and gives his verdict, I take the Sunfire down to my parent’s house, where the work can be done. Because my lease forbids auto repairs on the premises. On the one hand, I get it; they don’t want the place looking like a salvage yard with transmissions and orphaned bumpers littering the property. On the other hand, I had to be sneaky when Eddie snapped a brake hose in the garage before I’d set off for a movie date.

With Eddie squared away at la maison de ma famille, my dad can take a closer look at the damage. I defer to him because, despite my extensive YouTube tutorial viewing, he has far more experience with these things than I do. No matter how much you think you know, there’s always someone who knows better, and it’s usually Dad.

Dad’s eye sees it’s not too bad, frame bending aside. But that’s for another post. Until then, insurance has sprung for a rental, so we head to Enterprise, who must have seen that insurance is footing the bill and said, “Oh, you’re getting this car.”

The guy at the desk said, “Is a Cherokee okay?” and I’m thinking the Dart-based crossover, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” It hadn’t occurred to me he might have appended the “Grand” prefix to that model. With this behemoth, the insurance-backed rental budget will be depleted in about a week. Well, played, sir.

But that Jeep is nice. Like, ole-timey gangster-nice. Every fiber of my being is screaming, “Don’t get used to it, don’t get used to it…” But it’s so nice…

Objectively, the interior is well-constructed, electronic amenities are plentiful, and it has an opulence-inspiring sunroof. Subjectively, driving dynamics aren’t as direct as my Sunfire, especially with the eight-speed gearbox and high center of gravity. But it’s still so very nice…

Bear in mind, however, that my list of luxury features still includes “power windows.”

It’s also overkill for one guy commuting. So, I look forward to getting Eddie back to driving condition. Until then, I comfort myself in the knowledge that I can park just about anything as big as that Jeep.

As a side note, does anyone else find rear-view backup cameras disorienting? I found myself just turning my head around to park using my own depth perception every time.


#SaveEddie, Part III: The Inconvenience of Arithmetic

This is the third part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous Entries:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction
Part II: The Consequence of Inertia

I’m put in mind of the Soap Opera: so named for their mid-day time slot being so easy to market to housewives, which led to their primary sponsorship coming from cleaning product manufacturers.

First, if I may keep my Man Card valid, I never watch soap operas. Instead, I occasionally tune to them during a slow lunch shift and invite coworkers to provide their own dialogue. All I know is I see old interlaced camera sensors capturing underprepared actors in too much makeup under uninspired studio lighting. Spend five minutes watching one of these and you’ll find yourself mocking them. Three minutes, if you’ve already had a beer or two.

But if you find yourself sitting through an entire episode or two, suddenly you’re invested in the characters’ story. All at once, you’re worried who really fathered Zoe’s secretly-adopted twin brother and whether Skyler will ever come out of his sixth coma. Trust me, it happens. Not to me, obviously, since I keep it muted and supply my own material. But watch these long enough and follow along with everybody sleeping with each other while denying you a chance to get in on the action, you’ll start to get flashbacks to high school.

Without a doubt, the stories are formulaic and the cinematography is basic. But I have a bit of admiration for these daytime drudgeries: anything that can suck people in and get them engaged within 22 minutes plus advertising time, should be commended. They should also stand before a firing squad for abusing this power, but commended all the same.

So it is with Eddie: see him on the street or take a short trip, and this is just another late-90s economy car from GM. He makes a general racket as he rattles and whines at idle. The interior is a bit spartan, awash with hard plastics accented by the modern convenience of an aftermarket Bluetooth head unit. Power from the 134 cubic-inch motor is far from abundant, and is again hampered by the three-speed automatic. You’d be forgiven for dismissing this Pontiac Sunfire for the Smith-era, Canadian-built budget car that it is.

But then, you haven’t taken him on a road trip, taking most of it using cruise control at 70mph, letting the motor thrum along at 3200rpm for 400 miles and getting up without much fatigue. You also haven’t taken him down the Blue Ridge Parkway on a fresh set of summer tires. You’ve never goosed the throttle into second gear and rode the torque curve up to cruising speed as you enter the freeway. And you most certainly haven’t spent several hours with an odd assortment of tools trying to hold the engine from pitching forward while you install a new torque strut mount.

I’ve done all this and more. As such, I am emotionally invested in this car’s fate. It’s hard to shake the feeling that his destiny is tied to my own.

Cheesy as it sounds, there’s a communication here. In early 2012, the starter motor was failing, struggling harder to turn the crankshaft with each successive turn of the key. I learned to listen to these cues, so when I heard the fuel pump’s sickly whine four years later, I was able to replace it before it failed. And again, when he idled rich after driving some distance, I was able to diagnose a failing coolant temperature sensor before a check engine light ever illuminated itself.

So with that in mind, and considering everything I’ve poured in to maintain this car and all he has given back, you can imagine how much it hurts when the insurance man values Eddie at a paltry $1757.

Words hurt feelings, but numbers can crush a soul.

But I have to think objectively.  The car was purchased on Craigslist for $2600 back in 2008, meaning a depreciation rate of about $100/year, requiring only occasional repair, considering its methods of manufacture.  This may have been the deal of the decade for me, ranking up there with some $1200 speakers I once bought for a mere $200 (legitimately, I assure you) and the time I provided positive affirmation to a coworker and wound up dating a smart, sexy redhead who enjoys watching Doctor Who with me.

And at the same time, there’s the emotional component.  $1700 barely begins to cover the cost of the work done to this car.  $1000 was dropped early on an entirely new air conditioning system.  Last year I bought new wheels and summer tires, totaling $900.  I’ve saved money by installing the replacement fuel pump, alternator, radio, cooling fan motor and gaskets for the valve cover and transmission pan myself, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a value on sweat equity.

I’m not turning the car in, so instead the insurer cuts us a check for what it’s worth and we set to work.  But first, I’m gonna need a rental, since Eddie isn’t quite street legal right now.


#SaveEddie, Part II: The Consequence of Inertia

This is the second part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous entry:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction

I’ve been in traffic collisions before. Never at high speed, only ever in stop-and-go traffic. That’s when you’re paying less attention, because there’s less at risk.

Nearly ten years ago, I failed to stop my hand-me-down ’93 Dodge Caravan. Normally, a 10mph collision would be nothing. But I drive in an area with pickup trucks, which just happens to be what I hit. And this pickup just happened to have a trailer hitch mounted perfectly level with the Caravan’s front grill.

A trailer hitch needs to be strong, so they tend to be forged from substantial steel and either bolted or welded directly to the vehicle’s frame. This makes them very immobile compared to the rest of the car or truck, which is why there is no flex in them when you whack one with your shin. It also makes it much stronger than the ABS plastic that makes up the crosshair grill of the early-nineties Chrysler AS platform minivan. And the air conditioning coil behind it. And the radiator behind that. So much stronger, in fact, that it pushes said radiator far back enough to punch a hole in the battery.

Nowadays, I might have tried to salvage my Caravan. It might have been easier then, given automotive engineering at the time of its manufacture. Instead, we, the insured, accepted the insurer’s verdict of a total loss and surrendered the minivan to the wrecker. Some time and a Craigslist search later, we found Eddie.

Flash forward to today’s age on that slick road in Arlington. Friction has failed to overcome momentum, and carnage is the result.

Time doesn’t really slow down like in the movies. Instead, it’s just over. Expletives are uttered and on go the hazard flashers as I step out to check on the other driver. In hindsight, it’s curious the other driver was on his phone before even opening his door, but Eddie is my primary concern now, as it was then. He’s up and moving around, not complaining of any injury, and I’m fine, so I get on the phone to my insurer.

While I’m describing the event and damage in triplicate to the claims agent, a county cop pulls up behind us, confirms we’re okay, and instructs us to turn onto a side street, out of the way of traffic. He takes our information, writes it up on an incident report, gives us copies, and goes on his way. I’m on the phone another twenty minutes, if feels like, before the agent asks if I need a tow truck.

Eddie isn’t leaking any fluid and there’s no apparent suspension damage or misalignment, so Eddie is drivable, even with only one headlight properly aligned. I drive him the remaining two miles to my apartment’s garage, where I take multiple pictures with my phone for an initial damage assessment.

Immediately noticeable is the driver’s side headlight lens, broken free from its mounting points, is tucked up underneath the hood, which has crumpled under the stress of impact. Paint flicks off the bumper in spiderweb patterns at the whim of a slight breeze. The left fender is creased at the leading edge and bows out above the front wheel, and the black plastic inner fender is in two pieces.

These are all relatively easy fixes, and good news is the windshield washer reservoir and the battery, both in close proximity to the impact, are untouched. However, some measuring shows the subframe is bent back, so new parts may not fit properly if we attempted to install them.

Two things worked as advertised, however: the bumper reinforcement, a tube of steel protecting the radiator from damage in all but high-speed crashes, and the front absorber, which is a grid of plastic designed to collapse before any structural metal takes damage.

All signs show relatively minor damage, save for the bending in the subframe. I’m not a professional mechanic by any means, so I suspect I won’t be able to fix that by myself. Doesn’t mean I won’t try.