Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reverse Orca - The Worst Car Thing I've Ever Owned

A few years back my wife and I were busy struggling through the most difficult part of our marriage thus far.  I'd been laid off for a period of time and was having a hard time finding work.  Bills piled up, credit cards were maxed, savings depleted.  I sold a lot of my stereo gear, I sold a lot of rare records, and when I ran out of those, I sold my baby - a minty '89 AW11 MR2 (which I later re-bought in a much worse state, a story for another time).

We were left with one car, which Anna needed to commute Monday through Friday, forcing me to rely on public transportation for the job hunt. This wouldn't have been a big deal back home in Chicago, but was a massive inconvenience in the Motorized Republic of Southern California - the infrastructure out here is just nowhere near as developed, and where it is it tends to be pretty unreliable.  

Enter my father-in-law, a fleet manager/lead mechanic at Cox Communications of San Diego, who came through in a pinch with a freshly decommissioned 1999 Saturn SL (gracias, Gil).  There's no 1 or 2 missing from that model name, it was the sub-stripper, sub-basement, bottom-feeder, homeless crack fiend garbage can corrugated cardboard soup kitchen edition, too skint for a fancy alphanumeric designation.  It cost us $900, had 70k well-maintained miles on the clock, A/C, an automatic, an AM/FM cassette deck, and massive oil/coffee/vomit(?) stains all over the formerly tan carpet floor.  It was refrigerator white with black bumpers, which in combination with its rounded body gave it a resemblance to a color inverted killer whale - we nicknamed it Reverse Orca.  It was, no exaggeration, the biggest piece of garbage anything either of us have ever owned.

not ours, we took no photos of it

For starters, the seats were made of two massive, flat, limp pieces of foam covered with school-bus grade beige vinyl.  They pivoted in the middle and slid back and forth but sucked regardless of their position, allowing your whole body to slide laterally during even modest cornering.  20 mile drives would leave your back aching like you spent the day moving house.  The quality of everything you saw, touched, or controlled was appallingly low.  I remember the dash has mold flash lines an eight of an inch high and hard enough to cut skin, and it all fit like together like a Soviet knock off Optimus Prime - the tape deck once popped out of the dash as it twisted through a long on-ramp.

The engine broke 4 motor mounts in 18,000 miles, and there was nothing wrong with it - they just do that.  It was rough, and sounded like an industrial generator amplified through a blown speaker.  The rev limiter cut in at 4,500 RPM, I kid you not, and it might as well because it made no power anywhere anyway, with the only noticeable affect of giving it more throttle the sensation of heavy pieces of 100 grit sandpaper rubbing together faster and faster.  The trans would hunt on inclines you couldn't detect without a bubble level.

Steering feel was shockingly inconsistent, with weight switching from light to heavy and back again through the same easily taken turn.  Brakes were soft and prone to locking regardless of how many times I bled them, and it handled like the suspension was made of water logged firewood, which is to say spongey and hard at the same time, a feat unmatched anywhere else in all of automotive history, and surely the lifetime achievement of Saturn's development engineers - here's to you, guys, your legacy will live on.

I hated that car, but it got me where I needed to go and eventually helped me get back to work, and for that I'll always be grateful.  It never broke down, always managed at least 27 MPG, and cost next to nothing to insure.  We sold it for a $100 profit to a guy who bought it for his daughter, who was about to start college - a noble job for the faithful heap of trash.

What's the worst car you've ever owned?  Here's your chance to vent, I'd love to hear about it.


  1. I think I'm with you on 'worst car'. I, too, own a Saturn SL.

    This was back when I was working minimum wage jobs, just struck out on my own and it was the first car I bought myself. So I was a little more than miffed when 5 months into ownership (and taking a massive paycut due to 'clerical errors' on my employers behalf), when the manual transmission decides to self-immolate and shoot parts of itself into the transmission housing. This, in turn, causes the housing to burst open and spray transmission fluid all over a hot exhaust connecting pipe and smoke all over the place. I though I had blown a head gasket, except the smoke was a bright blue. And the transmission fluid the SL used was a dark red, making my poor car look like it was bleeding to death.

    So, broken car, less pay and being young and stupid, I had to scrape and save and work 2 more jobs until I could scrape up the $1500 (2001-2002 dollars) to put a new transmission in the car. Since I had no more money or other options, I kept the car and drove it until I went to college and delivered pizza part-time. Then, one evening, after making a delivery, turned a corner and -BAM!- transmission self-immolates AGAIN.

    It's not like I was street racing the car or anything, just driving normal. Hell, I drove my Ford Festiva harder than this car. So, to me it's just the quality I've come to expect from Saturns (and GM in general). And needless to say, I got a little bit of smug satisfaction when I heard the news that GM killed the Saturn brand. May you rest in pieces...

    1. I feel your pain, Dug. Mine was an automatic, but I've driven a handful of manual Saturns from that generation and have to ask you - did you find that clutch to be the softest, limpest, most bereft of feel pedal you've ever operated in your life, too?

  2. Everything about that car felt glued-together.

  3. Worst car I have ever owned?

    Your post made me go back to a very dark time in my life when I had very little money and could not afford much. At the time, I was married to my first wife - a cold, life sucking excuse for a woman - but I digress... The worst car I ever owned was a 1987 Nissan Sentra.

    I hated that car. No... I loathed that car.

    The thing was a bone stock, blue, two-door coupe. It had a crappy engine, crappy 5 speed gearbox and yet, somehow got decent mileage. In the South Carolina summers though, this thing became an even crappier car when the A/C was engaged. It had no power whatsoever and the vents blew lukewarm air, even with a correct refrigerant charge. The "stereo" (hah! that's a stretch) was about as basic as they came: radio and a very poor excuse for a cassette player. Speakers you ask? One on each front door. They sounded like old timey telephone speakers.

    This car was the poster child for "basic transportation".

    I remember one time in particular. I had to make a work related trip to Atlanta. Since the company was paying for dinner, I decided to go to Houston's Steak House in Buckhead. As I am waiting to turn left on slightly wet pavement, I revved the engine and dumped the clutch in first gear. The damn thing started "walking"... STRAIGHT!! Even though I had the steering pointing left.

    The seats were cloth and they had the uncanny ability to absorb smell like nobody's business. No wonder this car smelled bad - I used to fart in it just to see how shitty I could make it smell. It smelled like a turd, paying homage to what it was. At least it kept the ex out of it - she refused to ride in it due to its delightful, "earthy" smell.

    Yet as much as I hated this thing, I drove it for near 4 years. Eventually I was able to move up the food chain, divorce that horrible woman and with a little luck made enough money to start affording nicer cars. You know, I suppose I should thank that crappy car because it made me appreciate nicer cars even more.

    1. I laughed out loud at this: "The seats were cloth and they had the uncanny ability to absorb smell like nobody's business." Ha!

      My brother had one of those when we were younger, and it was indeed terrible. Very similar to my '89 Tercel I drove for my first car--at least they were relatively well-built, though, the Saturn felt like the product of an off-brand dollar store Chinese toy factory.