Personal, Stories Told

Requiem for a Toyota

Have you ever become irrationally attached to something you owned?

Replacement Matrix

I bought this 2003 Toyota Matrix in 2009 after wrecking my previous car, also a Matrix, on vacation with my sons. My first Matrix had been the base model, but this one was the top-of-the-line XRS with its peppier engine. She’s a blast to drive. I made this photo the day I brought her home from the dealership. Doesn’t she look good?


But after eight years she has rolled over 185,000 hard miles. It’s shocking how badly the paint has worn on this car — it has faded heavily on every horizontal surface, and has chipped off a large portion of the hood. The front ground effects broke off in a mishap, but by then the paint was already in bad shape. I spent the reimbursement check on other things. Her body is scuffed and dented from other minor mishaps, including a low-speed rear-end accident and that time I broke the side mirror while backing out of my garage. Truly, she looks awful.

Systems are failing. I suppose the least of the failures is the windshield-washer motor, but it’s surprising how much you really need it. Yet given her age and condition I didn’t even bother finding out how much it would cost to replace. I just plunked a bottle of Windex into the center console and drove on. More seriously, she’s developed a slow oil leak. And the Check Engine light comes on from time to time to warn me of a problem with the engine’s variable valve timing system. My mechanic’s advice was clear: “Don’t fix it. Not on a car this old. Just keep her oil topped off and drive her gently. She’ll run for a long time like that.” I bought my own OBD II code scanner so I can check for that error code and shut the Check Engine light off.

Key signs your car is a beater: it looks beat up, you are choosing not to fix some of its problems, and you bought your own OBD II code scanner.

When the Check Engine light came on again recently, however, the error code pointed to catalytic-converter failure. And I’d been hearing an ominous clicking sound from the front end when I turned the wheel hard.

You know you’ve gone the distance with an old car when your mechanic calls you by a nickname. “Aw Jimmy,” he said, “I can fix these problems if you want. But it’s gonna cost you big. Two or three times more than this car is worth. You might want to stop and think about whether it makes sense.”

In the end, I let logic prevail over emotion. It’s time to let the car go.

Dog in the wayback

And I’m sad about it. I love this dumb car. I bought it because my first Matrix worked so well for my family. Even though a Matrix is small on the outside, it offers enormous interior room. I could put my two sons, the dog, and a weekend’s worth of luggage in there. We could take on any adventure we wanted in the Matrix.

Wagon Full of Sod

It has been incredibly useful for moving things. Folding down the back seat opens up a giant cavern of cargo space. I’ve moved an assembled gas grill, a dining room table and six chairs, and many loads of sod. When I recently moved into my new home I moved all my boxes in the Matrix in just a handful of trips.

Brick Lincoln Highway

Along the way she was a great road-trip companion, prowling many old alignments with me. Here, she’s on the Lincoln Highway near Ligonier, Indiana.

Snowy day

Five years ago, as old age began creeping up on my car, I bought a used Ford Focus to be my daily driver and relegated the Matrix to backup duty. I taught my sons to drive in it and let them use it when they needed a car. I used it like a small van to haul house-project supplies home from Lowe’s. And I drove it to church, because then I drove it at least once a week. Though one especially snowy winter I shoveled her in and waited for the thaw. All together I’ve put just 20,000 miles on her since buying the Ford.

I don’t really need her anymore. I haven’t in a few years, really. But I’m sad to see her go just the same.



Matrix, Parked
Kodak Ektar 100

I photograph my cars a lot. They’re easy subjects. While the composition here could be a lot more interesting, I love the jewel-like color the Yashica-D returned on Ektar. It makes my beater car’s flank look better than it does in real life. And I love how the camera captured plenty of detail, whether in light or in shadow.

Film Photography

Photo: An evening shot of my car parked on the street in front of my house.

Stories Told

Cars of a Lifetime: 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS

My Cars of a Lifetime series ends today over at Curbside Classic, and it makes me a little sad.


My last story is about the second Toyota Matrix I’ve owned, this one a top-of-the-line model with a more powerful engine.

This is the same car that got rear-ended twice last year and had several other cosmetic mishaps that has left it looking quite forlorn. My poor car just couldn’t catch a break!

Go read the whole story now over on Curbside Classic.

Stories Told

Cars of a Lifetime: 2003 Toyota Matrix

My Cars of a Lifetime series over at Curbside Classic is quickly reaching the present day. Today I write about my little red Toyota Matrix.

My car

I ended up with this car in my divorce, and it turned out to be a great little hauler. Well, except for the multi-thousand dollar repair, which came a few months before I wrecked it.

I owned this car when I started blogging, and have shown you many photos of it and told many stories about it. But now I’ve had a chance bring them all together.

So now go over to Curbside Classic to read all about it!


Toyota bashing

This is my car the day I bought it (used) in 2009, all shiny from a fresh dealer detailing. It’s had more than its share of nicks and dings, as I wrote about a couple years ago.

Replacement Matrix

This year, my poor car hasn’t been able to catch a break. In March, I took it a little wide backing out of my garage and broke off my side mirror. I bought a mirror off a junker on eBay and replaced it myself.

Then in April I was rear ended. I was waiting for an SUV to turn left on the Michigan Road, right in front of the 1852 Aston house. I saw a car coming up fast in my rear-view mirror and could tell there was no way he was going to stop. Sure enough, I got clobbered. It felt like justice that the other car was so crumpled that it had to be towed away, while I drove mine home. The other driver’s insurance paid for a shiny new bumper, which believe it or not cost over $2,000.

In August I was rear-ended again. The damage to my bumper was slight – a little cracked paint, a dangling trim piece. But this time I also hit the car in front of me. I only scuffed its bumper; the driver wiped if off with his thumb and didn’t bother to wait for the cops. But I came away with this dented fender. I decided that another body-shop trip wasn’t worth the hassle, especially when fixing the fender would go against my insurance, so I glued on the dangling rear trim and moved on.

Then in September, as part of the big sewer project in my neighborhood, the pavement was removed from the main road outside my subdivision. Dirt ramps were built to ease the transition, but I didn’t know that they had eroded considerably one evening when I sailed off the pavement at 25 mph. My front end hit hard, and all the ground effects on my front bumper broke right off.

The impact badly scuffed the ground effects but broke them cleanly off the bumper, leaving behind the mounting holes. I waffled for a week about whether to contact the sewer people about paying to repair the damage. After all, the car is 10 years old and has 150,000 miles on it, and as you can see the bumper already had some paint damage. But in the end, I decided to give it a try.

This latest story, at least, has a happy ending – the sewer people are going to pay for this repair, to the tune of almost $1,000!

This Toyota Matrix replaced a red one I wrecked while touring the National Road. Read that story.

Stories Told

How to replace the side mirror on a 2003 Toyota Matrix

Backing out of my tiny garage the other day, I took it a little wide. The passenger-side mirror hit the garage door’s frame and – crack! crunch! – quickly and efficiently removed itself. D’oh!


This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The last time was about ten years ago. I was driving my wife’s car down a narrow road, and clobbered the side mirror against a telephone pole that stepped out into the road just as I passed by. I fixed it myself with a mirror I got off a wrecked car at a junkyard – read that story.

In the modern age there’s eBay, which lets you pick through junkyards from the comfort of your living room. A little searching found this dented doppelgänger of my car sitting around doing nothing in a junkyard in Quebec. Of all places.

The donor car

I don’t speak French, but fortunately the Québécois and I both speak PayPal. $60 later the mirror you see attached to the donor car’s passenger’s door was inside a FedEx jet, on its way Stateside.

Fortunately, replacing a side mirror on a 2003 Toyota Matrix is easy. As a public service to the entire Internet, here’s how it’s done. Tools needed: A standard screwdriver, a socket wrench with a small handle, and a 10 mm socket.

Step 1. Survey the damage. 
  • Try not to weep.
  • Fortunately, Toyota designed the mirror to break off cleanly. Unfortunately, in my case it crumpled a little sheet metal on the way.
Step 2. Remove the speaker cover.
  • Open the door.
  • Stick a standard screwdriver between the speaker cover and the metal window frame and pry it off. It should come off easily.
Step 3. Pull the interior door panel back a little bit.
  • Near the speaker, there’s a small gap between the interior panel and the sheet metal. Place your fingers in the gap and pull slowly.
  • Plastic pins hold the door panel to the sheet metal. You will hear them pop from their sockets. Do not panic.
Step 4. Disconnect the mirror’s electrical connection.
  • Look down between the door frame and the interior panel for two wire harnesses.
  • Carefully insert the screwdriver’s tip until it touches the tab atop the harness farthest from the door’s hinges.
  • Press the tab down and gently tug the wire until the plug comes out.
Step 5. Remove the mirror’s three bolts.
  • Use the socket wrench to remove the exposed lower bolt. You may have to hold the door panel back with one hand while ratcheting the wrench with the other.
  • Snake the socket wrench around the wires and behind the speaker bracket and remove the other lower bolt. Get your curse words ready, because the socket will probably keep slipping off.
  • Pull the speaker bracket away.
  • Use the socket wrench to remove the top bolt.
  • Try not to let the bolts fall down inside the door frame, especially if your replacement mirror is missing one or more of its bolts, as mine was.
Step 6. Remove the broken mirror.
  • Pull it right off.
  • Guide the wire harness through its hole in the sheet metal.
Step 7. Mount the replacement mirror.
  • From the outside, push the mirror’s wire harness through the squarish hole.
  • Insert the mirror’s three threaded posts into the corresponding holes on the door.
  • Thread a bolt onto the top post until it’s finger tight.
  • Pull the door panel back.
  • Insert the wire harness into the receptacle, pressing until you feel the locking tab click. I tested the mirror at this point by turning the car on and using the remote mirror buttons on the dash, to make sure the mirror was electrically connected. It was.
Step 8. Tighten the bolts.
  • Place the speaker bracket onto the lower two posts
  • Thread the bolts onto the lower two posts.
  • Use the socket wrench to tighten all three bolts, and be sure to have your curse words ready as you try to access that lower bolt that hides under the speaker.
Step 9. Reattach the interior door panel to the door.
  • Press the interior door panel back against the door until you feel the pins pop into place.
  • A trim strip attaches to the interior door panel along the windowsill. These little tabs are supposed to bend down inside that trim strip to hold it close. Give up, you’ll never make it happen. Fortunately, it won’t affect anything.
  • Press the speaker cover back on. It has a pin that goes into the only remaining unused hole in the door frame. Press gently until you feel it seat.

That’s it! Now you can bask in the glow of success. That’s a really nice feeling after the embarrassment of having broken the mirror in the first place.

Mission accomplished!

Post script: I wrote this a few days ago and scheduled it to be posted today. Last night, on the way home from work, someone rear-ended me. I’m fine; the car’s bumper will need replaced. But this poor car just can’t catch a break.

I’ve had the worst luck trying to keep this car looking nice. Check out everything else that’s gone wrong.