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Snail Shoes: When just what you want turns out not to be what you want

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photograph by the author.

Ever have a grand idea to do something to your car and, after a number of torturous, laborious, and expensive steps, it turns out to be not what you hoped it would be?

I had that day yesterday. It was like one of those Family Circus dotted-line maps, where Billy promises to come straight home for dinner and then does curlicues around the neighborhood, visiting every house along the way and wandering in an hour later, the ghost of Ida Know ever-ready in the excuse bank. One mission, a thousand distractions.

So, I recently bought a set of wheels for my little RHD Nissan S-Cargo van — a little something to freshen it up. The 16-inch aftermarket wheels it wore when I purchased it were ugly and fussy, I thought, and were both badly curbed and tarnished beyond any hope of refurbishment. I bought a set of optional 16-inch alloy wheels from a Nissan Cube, which fit my 4 x 4.5 lug pattern and would also fit my existing tires. These wheels, which I thought really helped spruce up the Cube, were a cheapie place-saver. I didn’t want to buy new tires too: mine had plenty of tread left, and were holding up fine. If I was looking for wheels and tires, I’d go with a 15-inch Watanabe-style wheel, charcoal finish and all, and a slightly taller tire.

Yesterday was the day I decided to get the wheels swapped. I hadn’t driven the S-Cargo in about a month. It was 7:30 a.m. It was a rare 32 degrees in Phoenix. With a house that faces north, the driveway gets little if any sun, ever. My hope is to be wrapped up by lunch time. HA!

I get in, and it cranks but won’t start. That’s not unusual: The incline of the driveway, and an emptier-than-it-should-be gas tank, means that fuel doesn’t always get to the sender. I roll it onto the street so it’s level. Still won’t start. I check the fuel gauge on level ground, and it’s on E. The needle hasn’t moved, even with the key in. No problem, I grab a gas can, hop in the daily driver, get a couple of gallons, and head home.

This is where the problems start. First, the S-Cargo has an externally locking fuel door on the passenger’s side (American driver’s side), which uses the ignition/door key to open. I try the key and … nothing. The lock won’t turn. I try the spare key. Nothing. The key goes in, it’s not iced over, but it just won’t turn. I have a friend who owns a shop that is 5 miles from my house; my thought is to limp it there. I put him on high alert. Then I pop the hood, throw some fuel down the carburetor throat, start it, shut the hood, and go.

I’m idling at a light, in the left-turn lane, facing due west, ready to enter the main road at a T-junction. It’s now 8:30 a.m. A string of morning commuters lined up behind me. Light turns green and … silence. The sputtery buzz from below the hood ceases instantly. When does the fuel I poured in the carb run out? Just as I hit the gas when the light goes green, of course. Cue honking and histrionics from the commuters behind me. I hop out and wave them around, and when the light cycles through I get enough fuel in the carb to start and idle, and get me to a fenced-off dead-end area across the street when the light goes green again. I’m still pointed due west.

So I call AAA. Through the computerized menu I go, tra la la, and I’m told that a locksmith will visit me in 20 minutes. I get a call back, and I tell him what I was not able to tell the computer: that I was not locked out of my car, that I needed the lock on my gas cap sorted out. He’s stunned. “I can’t do that,” he told me. “I only break into cars. You need a locksmith for that.” and I’m left wondering, just who did AAA connect me with? He did call a tow truck for me, which arrived in 35 more minutes. It’s now 9:30 and, although it’s still not yet 40 degrees, the sun is up and shining on the passenger’s side of the S-Cargo.

The tow-truck driver follows me to the gas door, and in a grand demonstration of my strange issue, I insert the key … and turn it, opening the fuel door, accessing the cap, rendering his visit pointless. Even getting the gas in was an issue: my can has one of those useless ecologically friendly caps that make it impossible to pour fuel anywhere but down your pants leg, so I opened it up, we coned up a four-color junk-mail restaurant advert (as we both lacked a funnel), and dropped a gallon-and-a-half down the tank. It fires right up, and I’ve now burned up almost 2.5 hours, one of my limited calls to AAA, and a healthy piece of my remaining sanity.

All of this before I actually get to the tire shop, which is why I went on this mission in the first place.

It’s a whopping 4-mile drive, and miraculously nothing goes wrong in the 8 minutes it takes me to get there. After the usual chortling about how funny it looks, I settled in at the Big O waiting room for the 90 minutes or so it would take to sort things. Except …

Big O wouldn’t reuse my tires. Turns out the tires I bought on the car, from 2006 (!), were too old to put new wheels on. (To think, I was going to drive cross-country on them….) Unless I was sold a bill of goods by Butch at the front desk, Arizona apparently has a law that bars tires more than 10 years old to be reinstalled at a shop. So now I needed new tires too. Mix in mounting, and balancing, and warranties, and all of the other just-in-case add-ons, and somehow four $75 tires turned into a bill for $500. Oh, and instead of waiting for it to be done, they had to get the tires from the warehouse across town, and it would be wrapped up around 4 p.m. By 10:30 a.m., all I wanted to do was take a nap and make it all go away.

The cost savings I sought simply did not happen. The whole reason for changing the Snail’s shoes in the first place has been completely negated. I could have had the wheels and tires I actually wanted, rather than these that were meant to be a stopgap measure, for roughly the same money. Should I have just stopped the madness and gone home, saved my money and worked to get what I actually wanted? Oh, hell no. I’d come this far, I was determined to get something accomplished for the day.

I’m skipping the part where the tow-truck driver sprayed the lock mechanism with a PTFE spray that now seems to have jammed the lock again, in all temperatures. I’m skipping the part where they removed the rear wheel spacers and returned them to me in an envelope because “these wheels didn’t need them,” and acting shocked when I told them that the old wheels didn’t need them either, and asking them kindly to please put them back on where they found them.

Here’s the kicker: After all that nonsense … after wasting a day … I’m not happy with how it looks. I don’t think the style of the wheel works with the lines of the car; they look weirdly flat, which makes sense on a car called a Cube but not on my Citroen 2CV Fourgonette wannabe. I have never gone through so much BS, or spent more money, for a result I wasn’t happy with … although putting dual exhaust on my old ’64 Dodge Dart convertible (a move I was so disappointed with that it actually helped convince me to sell the car) was a close second. Some things I’ve done to cars were a hassle, but well worth it. Some easy stuff wasn’t worth doing, but were cheap enough that it didn’t matter. But so much time spent on getting to a result that I wasn’t happy with … it’s just a bummer. I need to stop futzing around and just drive the damned things.

And inevitably, it’s all my own fault. My goofy car, my dopey ideas for it. My running it till it was empty of fuel. My vision not matching with reality. My money, wasted on wheels and tires I didn’t want and in the end don’t particularly like. My 3.5 hours of sleep the night before that doubtless contributed to my piss-poor decision making every step of the way (although I make plenty of those on a full night’s rest, too). Feh.

So. You’ve heard my nightmare. Ever have a grand idea to do something to your car and, after a number of torturous, laborious, and expensive steps, it turns out to be not what you hoped it would be? Tell us about it below.