1992 Mercury Grand Marquis, Take Two
Some of you might recall my paean, last August, to the 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis that has served me so faithfully over the years. As was, in retrospect, inevitable, it didn't take long before that same Grand Marquis chose to test my own faith, making me an unwilling player in the age-old game of Repair-or-Abandon.
All was well until a month or so ago, when I dropped the GM off at the shop for an oil change and tire rotation. About an hour later, I got a call from the service manager. They would, he reported, be unable to change the oil because the oil pan was so badly rusted that attempting to unscrew the drain plug would lead to a full-on disaster. In fact, oil was beginning to seep through the metal. Then he gave me the bad news: the oil pan was spanned by an immovable chassis crossmember and various other components. Replacing the pan would require them to lift the engine high enough to allow it to be slipped past the offending hardware. The cost, including parts, labor, and tax would be in the $700 range. Then, just by way of truly testing my resolve, he added that the car needed a water pump and serpentine belt.
The cost of these repairs approached the market value of the car, which meant that I had to do some serious thinking. The obvious alternatives were to a) dump a grand into the Grand Marquis, or 2) cut my losses and walk away from it. But there turned out to be a third, less obvious option, and to see how I arrived at it you'll need a bit more background. You see, a couple of years ago I noticed that the Check Engine light would come on for a brief period soon after I hit the gas hard, say to pass someone quickly on a two-lane. My local shop ran a scan, and found "two fuel lean codes, one EGR code, and a pass. system code." (Uh-oh!) They estimated that the needed repairs would run somewhere in the $4-600, depending on what was found when various components were examined more closely. The estimate also included the news that "none of the codes at this time will make the vehicle unsafe to drive." (Aah!) Thus reassured, I declined the repairs and opted instead to place a square of electrical tape over the offending light.
With that in mind, let's look at the implications suggested by the first two choices. Replacing the pan, pump, and belt would get me back to where I was the week before, which at the time didn't seem like a bad place to be. But I'd also be $1000 poorer with nothing obvious to show for it. Walking away, by contrast, would save me that particular $1000. It would also mean that my wife and I would have to share the '07 Accord that she drives to work every day until I found another car. Now, as the list of 50-odd cars I've owned over the years should make clear, under normal circumstances I've always leapt at the chance to go car shopping. But, as we all know, these are unusual times. Say, for example, I found "the best 1997 Grand Marquis in the world" that I mentioned in the earlier essay. It would certainly cost many times the price of repairing the '92, and still might turn around and bite me on the rear end a few months down the road. This was a financial leap I was unwilling to take.
What I needed, clearly, was a solution that 1) resulted in a tangible, obvious improvement over the present situation, and b) cost less than buying a new(er) car. That solution was found in the two words I uttered to the service manager: "fix everything." To clarify, I told him to not only go ahead with the oil pan, etc., but to address the various issues that were triggering the Check Engine light. And, just to make sure the overall results would be noticeable, I added a full tune-up – remember, it hadn't had one in more than four years – to the roster.
Four days later I sashayed down to the shop, where the Grand Marquis sat, freshly washed and sparkling, under the awning. Then I opened the door to toss my hat on the seat, and was greeted by the distinctive aroma of an interior that had just been shampooed. A quick look, and sure enough, the seats, door panels, and dashboard gleamed. Even the carpet was clean. On one level, I was pleased; on another, though, I was well aware that the shop was attempting to soften what was about to be a serious blow. That blow turned out to be just south of $2400, or roughly twice what the car was, and is, worth.
I took a deep breath, wrote the check, and drove off. Within a couple of miles, $2400 worth of pain had receded, having been replaced by the joy of driving what truly felt like a car transformed. The engine felt way more powerful, and during subsequent trips demonstrated that the extra power wasn't just wishful thinking. Miles-long upgrades that used to trigger a downshift were now handled with effortless ease in overdrive. Those two-lane passes that used to require flooring it now took just a gentle nudge on the accelerator. As a bonus, the car's overall mileage has jumped a couple of MPG.
The bottom line, then, is that biting the bullet and ponying up for all the repairs yielded a car that feels much improved. Had I just done the minimum needed to keep the old beast alive, I would have resented the expense and, no doubt, the car itself. Car Lust is, sometimes, a peculiar affliction, but it can also be very rewarding.