Saturday, September 19, 2015

Nobody's Perfect

The prior owner of the Mustang, Jeff, was the kind of owner you hope to buy a car from. He religiously had all the services performed at the proper intervals, fixed things when they broke or wore out and kept up the appearance of the car inside and out. It was obvious Jeff cared for the Mustang but, while he was fond of the car, I don't think he was a "car guy" to the extent that I and most of my friends are. This became apparent the first time I opened the hood. Though taken care of mechanically, the engine bay reflected disinterest; everything had a heavy coating of dusty grime that was simply the result of it never having been hosed down. Out of sight and out of mind to the casual car owner but almost offensive to someone like myself who enjoys the sight and feel of things mechanical. I think I had the car less than four hours when the engine compartment was squeaky clean once again.

Providing excellent care and being fanatical are two different things. I will classify myself in the latter to some extent but I'm hardly a toothbrush-in-the-crevices detailer. I like everything neat and tidy throughout along with functional harmony. As my new ownership turned from days to weeks I found a few things wrong with the Mustang.

In Earl Swift's stellar book Auto Biography he follows the complete life of a 1957 Chevrolet wagon through each of its owners. Swift recognizes that there are several stages in the lifespan of a typical vehicle. Paraphrasing, it is something like New, Slightly Used, Showing Wear, Slide Into Dereliction and Junk. Vehicles are much like the "broken window" theory with houses and neighborhoods; when a window is broken and left unrepaired the slide towards ruin accelerates. I've often looked at older vehicles in a truly sad state of repair and wondered what caused such wanton neglect? There is a time in every vehicle's history that it was shiny and new and the delight of the individual who purchased it. Over varying spans of time the owners will slowly lose interest in their expensive purchase allowing it to succumb to the elements, use and obsolescence. As all cars have become both more reliable and more generic I wonder if they have also rendered themselves more disposable?

The Mustang showed a few signs of the early stages of owner indifference despite the general upkeep. One item that incensed me was a failed clip on the lower seat side trim. Jeff had told me he snagged his pant leg on the piece one day and pulled it loose. Though perhaps not a conscious decision he had chosen to live with this detached part for years, not days. This clip would also become my nemesis; more about it in a future installment.

Leaving work one day after a heavy rainstorm I noticed water dripping onto the passenger floor mat from under the dash. Most owners would have reacted with anger or disappointment in seeing this, likely suspecting the previous owner of selling them a car with a troublesome issue. Since I had read everything there was on the internet about these cars prior to buying one I instantly knew what the problem was: a clogged drain grommet in the cowl. Still, I had to wonder how long Jeff may have lived with that leak (or had I been the 'lucky' guy to first experience it?). Removing the clog was very easy but led me to another item shown in the photograph above: the cabin filter.

The cabin filter has become a standard item on nearly every car these days, yet few people seem to know they exist; my Mustang's prior owner being one of them. This filter cleans the air coming into the interior, or 'cabin', of the vehicle. Most are hidden from view and some are quite difficult to access. Fortunately, Ford's engineers made it easy to access provided you knew where to look. Though most dealers are aware of their existence and eager to sell replacements the typical corner garage often is not. My Mustang, having long been out of warranty and no longer a regular visitor to a dealer service department had obviously not enjoyed a filter replacement for years. I could not, however, get too upset with the prior owner as even 'car guys' don't often think to check these for servicing.

Lastly, there is a piece of plastic trim in the trunk that spans the width of the car and covers the rear access to the taillamps. This piece was loose and I found that the plastic screw pins that were to keep it in place were broken. The car had once had bodywork done to the rear bumper and I found the broken screws bodged in place with some black goop. Replacements were easily obtained from Ford and cost a few dollars. Being in the auto body repair business myself this last issue was the most infuriating. The owner had entrusted his car to professionals to do good work and they failed him. I suspect he had no idea that a few plastic screws were the problem (in fact, the ones they had tried to use were not the correct ones).

Singularly, these issues are small and not a big deal. Once they are allowed to accumulate, however, the total can rapidly begin to diminish the owner's enjoyment and interest in the vehicle. This is how the downward slide begins and any owner should remain vigilant to keep their machine in good form.

For myself, these minor annoyances provided a good way to become more intimate with the car. A few minutes one afternoon installing a twenty dollars worth of new parts made the car better and provided me with a sense of accomplishment. Used car purchases are rarely perfect. The best we can do is to find the best example possible and be ready to curtail any further diminishment of quality.