When I went to Germany in 1984, our family’s only vehicle was still that Chevy van with the unattached rear seat. Dad may have been content to let his children rattle around loose as he drove us around town, but something about a 120-mile Interstate trip from South Bend to O’Hare Airport made him think twice. Dad borrowed my grandparents’ car for the trip.
While I was gone, Dad decided it was finally time to buy a car. When I flew home from Germany, the family picked me up at O’Hare in this 1983 Renault Alliance.
This wasn’t just any Renault Alliance; it was the top-of-the-line Renault Alliance MT. The MT stood for Motor Trend magazine, as this car had been named the Motor Trend Car of the Year. The car had a little plaque on the dash that read “Motor Trend” and “1200″ – apparently Renault thought these cars were special enough that they numbered them. The Alliance MT had every option and was, by 1983 standards, totally tricked out. My favorite options were the AM-FM-cassette stereo and the three-way front seats. A clever “rocking” adjustment set the entire seat’s angle, making it comfortable for tall and short drivers alike. This was a very small car, after all – the rear seat was a torture chamber for all but the vertically challenged. My brother and I, at 5’10″ and 6′, knew that all too well. Mom is 5’2″; she loved the just-her-size Renault.
Just after I got my driver’s license, a friend from my Germany trip started her freshman year at Notre Dame and wanted me to come see her. So I borrowed the Renault and headed across town. As I came off South Bend’s only in-town onramp I managed to hit a low concrete divider, shredding the left front tire. I mean, that tire was destroyed. And then it turns out that Discount Tire had put one of the lug nuts on at a slight angle. Did you know that when you do this with a high-powered pneumatic lug wrench, the nut instantly fuses to the stud? I’ll spare you the details of just how beside-himself angry Dad was and skip to the part of the story where we drove the car on the rim to get it repaired. Discount Tire, at least, considered the flat to be covered by the road-hazard warranty. I never made it to see my friend.
Just before my senior year in college, Dad sold the van and bought himself a Ford Escort. He told me I could take the Renault with me to school. But a few days before I was to leave, my brother had a minor accident that creased the front left fender. We were sure that Dad would put my brother through the grinder over it and probably make him get it repaired right away – and I’d never get the car. So we engaged in a bit of subterfuge. For the next few days, we parked the car at home in ways that limited Dad’s likelihood of seeing the damage. But when I had to load the car for the trip, Dad wanted to help. My brother thought fast and said, “Dad, just bring Jim’s gear to the door, and I’ll load it in the car.” It worked. When I got to Terre Haute, I put the car right in the body shop, and sent my brother the bill.
It was on the trip to Terre Haute that I learned another of the Renault’s great features: it got 45 miles to the gallon! Its light weight, 1.4-liter engine, and 5-speed transmission equalled top fuel economy. That was great news for someone who still thought $10 was a lot of money. I could drive approximately forever on a tank of gas! The tradeoff, however, was that the car was slow. I mean, this car was sloooooow. It had trouble getting out of its own way. One day, I took it out on a deserted highway, clicked a stopwatch, and punched it as hard as I could. It took 45 seconds to get that car to 60 miles per hour! If you think that’s bad, I had a girlfriend who also had a Renault Alliance, but hers had an automatic transmission – and it was even slower.
By now it was 1988. Alliances had been on the road for several years and were gaining a reputation for poor reliability. Ours had only 75,000 miles on it, but it started to fall apart. The first repair was when a fuel injector failed, to the tune of $236.98. I’ll never forget that price because as a broke college student it shocked me to the core! Then the clutch failed. I had a rebuilt clutch installed for $400. One frigid day, the driver’s door handle came off the car in my hand when I tried to get in. The door wouldn’t latch, and I had to hold the door shut as I drove the car to a mechanic. Did you know that no matter how hard you’re holding onto an unlatched driver’s-side car door, when you make a left turn it’s going to open?
The cassette deck died that year, too, and I couldn’t afford to replace it. Because I went to engineering school, I had plenty of budding electrical engineers as friends. One of them said he thought he could fix it, so I removed it from the dash and handed it to him. Weeks went by. I asked about it, and he said he was working on it. More weeks went by. I went to his room to check on it, and found that he had un-soldered every last diode and capacitor from the circuit boards. Each bit was carefully placed and labeled on newspaper spread across his room. I thought my poor tape deck was a goner! But he found a single diode that had failed, replaced it, soldered the whole thing back together, and installed it in the dash. The cassette deck worked again! But ever after, turning on the radio also turned on the parking lights.
I had my first white-knuckled driving moments in that car. I’ve already written about the time I spun it halfway through the town of Fulton. Another day I was driving at night down a lonely state highway in a downpour when a semi passed me. Not only did the water pouring off its tail blind me, but the turbulence knocked me out of my lane. I slammed on the brakes and stopped inches from a farmer’s fence.
Then there was the day I couldn’t avoid a giant pothole. I shredded another tire and knocked the front end out of alignment. I was hopping mad about it and started making phone calls because somebody was going to pay for this damage and it wasn’t going to be me! The short of that story is that the Terre Haute city attorney determined that the pothole was in CSX Railroad’s right-of-way. It turns out that a railroad has to maintain the pavement within so many feet of a crossing. So I called CSX and, with considerable tenacity, got through to someone with the right authority and explained my story. He didn’t flinch; he cut me a check.
After I graduated and got a job, Dad wanted his car back so my brother could drive it his senior year at school. I bought a new Chevy Beretta and Dad and my brother came to get the Renault. My brother drove it that year and most of another. By this time the Renault was having more serious mechanical issues and didn’t always start. Dad wanted to sell the car to my brother for $1,000. My brother offered $500 but thought even that was too generous as he had put $500 into it just keeping it running. Dad dug in and they couldn’t negotiate a deal. My brother eventually decided to just pay Dad the grand, but before he could write the check a teenager in a beater Ford Maverick with neither insurance nor license plate ran a red light and T-boned the hapless Renault.
My brother wasn’t hurt but the car was a total loss. The insurance company wrote my dad a check for $1,500. My brother still gets mad when you bring up the story of how he could have broken even on the old clunker.
My goodness, I think the only car or driving story I didn’t link to here was the one about my Ford Pinto. And look, now I have.