The Lemon

The crap can we intend to whale upon

All that verbiage about the French in the first page was a red herring. We had no intention of racing anything made in France. We actually wanted to, you know, finish the race. Plus, no one on our team had any experience working on cars of that nationality- and they are very peculiar beasts, to be sure. Add to that their relative obscurity in the United States, the scarcity of parts, and serious misgivings about being able to even find one for sale for any price, let alone the Wal-Mart special price of 499.99, and, well, we never even contemplated the prospect.

We brainstormed. Past Lemons racers have been a motley assortment of cars- from Japanese subcompacts to old American iron to German technology, anything with 4 wheels and an fossil-fuel consuming plant goes. Cars that have done well (ie, finished the race) seemed to be smaller yet durable, possess good handling, and have a reputation for reliability. We also wanted a stick shift, both for driving pleasure and simplicity, and RWD, because frankly front-draggers suck and we wanted no part with them.

February 18, 2008 Brian wrote:

"We are dangerous. We have a car. Mike drove to Atlanta to get a 66 Volvo 122 Sunday."

And here it is:

What a piece of crap!

So how did we find this...thing?

I've been a fan of old Volvos for several years. My friend Dimitrios used to regale me with stories of the 122 wagon he used to thrash around the mountains near Athens when he was younger (and lived in Greece, instead of Austin, TX where he currently resides). So eventually, I went out and bought my own 122, a '68 2 door that I converted to race rally. Man that car was tough. I beat the everloving piss out of it, and then drove it home, usually a 2-3 hour drive after slogging through a course that left many other cars upside down, sideways, bottomed out, and broken.

I convinced the rest of the team that an old volvo would be the hot ticket. While not as fast as a Japanese car nor quite as good handling as a German one, it would be more durable than either, and after seeing some of the prior Lemons racers, that factored high in our decision. Simplicity would be the keyword here. Solid rear axle, manual steering and brakes, pushrod 4 banger engine, 4 speed stick, and everything made of strong Swedish metal.

So we began scouring eBay. Craigslist. Collector Car Trader Online. IWanna. Anywhere we could think to look. And soon we found it. The List of Craig provided us this terse, yet hopeful ad:

"1966 Volvo 122. Runs, good brakes, some rust. $500"

It was in Atlanta, GA, which was only about 2 hours away, so I called up the seller to see if the car was still available. What followed was a sequence of events that could only happen when attempting to purchase a car from Craigslist.

The seller (who I shall refer to as "Mike") still had the car, but had recently been contacted by a fellow who claimed to be from Japan and said he would mail him a check for the entire asking price of the car, without ever seeing it, and would arrange for pickup of the vehicle later. I smelled a scam, but Mike, wanting to give the man a chance, said he wanted to wait to see if the check would arrive. I asked him to please email the guy, call him, try to contact him, and find out if the check had actually been sent. It was Saturday, and I told him I was willing to come and pick up the car, and pay cash.

At about 11:30PM, a few hours after I had gone to sleep, my phone rang. It was Mike. "You can come tomorrow, but it has to be after noon but no later than 3 o'clock, since my wife and I have someplace to go".

Sunday, February 17th. 9AM. I tethered the car hauler to my trusty Dodge and dieseled out of the driveway. 3 hours and a Shoney's buffet breakfast later and I had arrived in Decatur, GA. I spied the old Swede peeking out from a half-blown-off tarp in the driveway of the house, in a fairly quaint little suburban cul-de-sac. It looked very abandoned, quite unloved, and most definitely out of place. I sidled my rig up the curb in front of the house, and was greeted at the car by Mike's wife, who told me he wasn't back from church yet.

Here is the crude, camera-phone-quality likeness of the beast that first beset my eyes:

So I waited. And...waited. And....yeah. Finally, 45 minutes later, a blue minivan rolls up the driveway and a man dressed in a black shirt, black pants, and sporting a white collar stepped out. "Father Mike?" "No, just call me 'Mike'", he said.

I'd never bought a car from a priest before, and wasn't quite sure what the protocol was. I decided to just carry on like normal and, if lightning struck down from the heavens or a chasm opened in the earth or toads began raining down from on high, I'd reevaluate. Mike was actually a really terrific guy. Clueless about cars, but as nice a man as you ever met. The volvo was...unimpressive. The interior was nearly non-existent. No door panels, a rotted out back seat, and front seats that wore seat covers like a tree grows rings. Headliner: gone. There were holes in the floorboards and several patches of metal mites on the body. Dents and dings abounded. The tires drooped on the rims like fat around an obese man's belt. The back of the car appeared to have been hit by some sort of high-riding truck. The taillights were secured (and I use that term loosely) with tape, and a bungee cord kept the trunk lid down. The rear axle was missing a brace.

We tried to start it. The battery, like the tires, was flat. Mike called in reinforcements: his "mechanic" and the neighbor from across the street. Together, the four of us swarmed the car, filling the tires, charging the battery, and dribbling gasoline into the twin SU carburettors. Eventually, the resilient little B18 motor cranked and fired. Amazingly, no smoke it made. It ran pretty well. The clutch was dead, so we couldn't drive it, but hearing that little engine tick gave me enough confidence that this could work.

Mike seemed a little ashamed about the condition of the car (it was, in all honesty, much worse than he'd made it sound on the phone) and seemed to feel bad that I'd driven all the way from South Carolina to find this pile. His wife was also apparently very enthusiastic about seeing the eyesore removed from her driveway. Hench, it became "Let's Make a Deal" time. I paused. What was a fair price? I wanted the car, it was perfect for our purpose, but it clearly needed work and volvo parts, while plentiful, do cost American Dollars and we needed a buffer between the price we paid for this car and the $500 cap to get this thing race, if not street, legal.

"$250" I offered.

"SOLD", I heard, without hesitation. "You saved my marriage!"

Luckily, the driveway slanted towards the road, so I angled the trailer up the drive and we rolled the 122 on without too much trouble. The brakes, I found, worked, which was a big plus. I handed over 2 Franklins and Grant, and after a few minutes of pleasantries and well-wishes on Mike's part, I bid adieu.

Wanna read more? Tough, nothing more to see on this page. Go HOME and find some other page to look at.

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