(There’s a TL;DR version if you scroll down toward the end.)

When I bought my car for $500 in late 2016, she had 180,000 miles on her odometer. I’d been a year without a working vehicle of my own, and the feeling of being stranded and isolated took a heavy toll on me. Combined with the end of a relationship I treasured, it was a major contributing factor to a deep depression hole that took me months to crawl out of.

I had some car trouble in the beginning of 2018. I took her to a specialty shop with incredible reviews, a place called Auto Centro, and had them look her over extensively to identify every repair issue they could find, give me an estimate, and begin to address each of those issues. The timing belt was overdue for replacement – $1200. The valve pan covers were leaking -$400-500. Seven of her eight control arms and one of her tie rod ends needed to be replaced – $1200. The heater core was bad and needed to be replaced, a process that necessarily involves removing the entire dash and the steering wheel from the car to replace a $150 part – $1800.

That’s a lot of money.

Feel Cute

It took a lot of help from friends, and hitting up everyone I knew and their cousins in the DC area to line up paying photoshoots, but I raised enough to get started. If the timing belt were to snap when she was moving, it’d trash the engine entirely, so we started there. Next I had the valve pan cover gaskets replaced. We were off to a good start, at least she wouldn’t break down catastrophically, and she’d stop leaking oil.

The first thing I noticed was that she was still leaking oil. Well, that could have been from another part of the engine that also needed attention, certainly. We’d get to that in time.

I took her down to my son’s, in Jacksonville, NC. While I was there, I asked about the possibility of the two of us tackling some of the work. I brought her to his shop, detailed the list of problems Auto Centro had found, and asked for his opinion on what should be next on the list. The control arms and tie rod end, maybe? They’re parts of the suspension and steering of the car, so it seemed like that might be a good place to start. He put her up on the rack to take a look.

“Dad, your control arms are fine. You’ve got one tie rod end that’s a little loose, but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Are you sure? The Auto Centro guys said they were all fucked but one, and the tie rod end needed to be addressed as a safety issue.”

He called over one of his fellow mechanics, and asked him to look at the suspension and give an opinion, without telling him what I’d relayed.

The mechanic said the control arms were fine, one tie rod end was a little loose, and would have to be replaced at some point down the line, but he wouldn’t recommend bothering with it yet.

The shop’s Master Mechanic happened to arrive about that time, and my son repeated the exercise. The Master Mechanic gave the exact same advice.

I was pissed.

I asked about finding the oil leakage to get that taken care of. It was leaking from the valve pan covers. Y’know, the ones I’d just paid Auto Centro four or five hundred dollars to fix.

I was more pissed.

I had to head back to DC at that point, but just before my next visit, I asked my son if he’d do the heater core. Being without heat in the car was inconvenient, but being without a defroster was a safety issue when it rained. It’d be a big job, and I was going to order the heater core and have it delivered to his house before I arrived. He suggested I hold off, and wait ’til I got down there.

After I arrived, we took it over to his step-dad’s shop, also a mechanic, and with a lot of experience. Mike doesn’t work on Volkswagens as a matter of principle and self-preservation. They’re notorious pains in the ass to work on. But my car is his one exception, when absolutely necessary. Mike spent several hours doing research, and decided he’d try one thing before my son and I dug into the dash.

The heater core in this model Passat is the highest part of the cooling system, and thus tends to get air trapped in it anytime the cooling system is worked on. There’s a small hole in one of the intake or outtake hoses that’s there by design, for bleeding the air out of it, via a very simple procedure. Sure enough, the bleeding process took five minutes, and heat was restored.

I didn’t think I could think any less of Auto Centro, but I was wrong.

There’s been some trouble here and there since then, but nothing I wouldn’t expect from a 19 year old car. I broke an axle in DC, related to either the ridiculous speed bumps in the parking lot of an apartment complex or the gargantuan potholes that adorn the DC Metro area like Christmas lights on a tree. The hoses to the oil cooler blew while I was in a canyon in Idaho. Expensive, but manageable and not unreasonable, given their age.

I’ve wanted to give Auto Centro a thorough review either here or on Google, but I’ve been so goddamned angry, I didn’t think it would be fair. I’ve been waiting until I’ve cooled off some. It’s been a year and a half, and I’m still not there.

Then the timing belt broke a few weeks ago. The timing belt I just had replaced 30,000 miles ago a year and a half ago.

Remember when I mentioned above that if the timing belt breaks while the car is moving, it’d trash the engine?

I was doing 70 mph on I20 in South Carolina at the time. The engine’s fucked, and needs to be rebuilt.

And given the history, I can’t even trust that Auto Centro ever even touched that fucking timing belt.

Broken Gypsy

Now, it’s hard to say at this point how much the engine rebuild is going to ultimately cost, but it’s certainly beyond my means. I’ve been asked why I don’t just get a different car, and there are several reasons I’ve elected to repair this one.

First, this car and I have been through some shit together. Really big shit. Really little shit. A couple of break-ups. Two complete trips around the country. Almost getting eaten by bears. A dead body. I’m emotionally attached to this car, and I don’t want to give her up. She’s taken me to Canada and Mexico, Texas, California, Montana, the Dakotas, and all the lower forty-eight states except Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Next summer, we’re going to Alaska, just because we can. I love this car.

Second, I don’t have the money for another car. I just don’t.

Third, if I did have the money and bought another used car, I’d be starting all over again. What problems would it have that I could or couldn’t see that would require repair? First and foremost, the timing belt. When was that last changed, and who did the work? Remember what Auto Centro charged me? It’d be $1200, in addition to the price of the car, right off the bat.

I’m not getting another car. I’m fixing this one. (Well, my son is. I’m going to hand him tools and bring him cold beer.)

I can’t travel to do paid shoots, and have even had to pull the plug on my Stock Photography project until I can get back on the road. I can’t even go look at birds or visit friends. I am well and truly stuck.

TL;DR version –

My 19-year-old VW has taken me over 70k miles since I bought her, and she had just gone over a quarter million miles on her odometer when the timing belt broke.

We’ve traveled all over taking pictures of this beautiful country, one of which was even published by NatGeo. She is my freedom, my independence. But after shoddy work by a shop in MD, she needs her engine rebuilt to get us back on the road, doing what we love to do. It’s maintenance that’s now beyond my financial capacity, and I need your help to get her rolling again, and keep the tires turning. Please throw a couple bucks in the kitty on my Patreon I have set up for the purpose, or PayPal me at louis AT seductionbylouis DOT com, if that’s more convenient for you.

Thank you for your support.

Quarter Million