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Hot Wheels 

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It was karma, I figured. This girl in San Bernardino needed cash and I needed wheels. The brakes on my beleaguered ’86 Volvo had frozen up for good, and the San Berdoo seller sounded desperate. Her premature baby was racking up hospital bills, she said. I could almost name my price. Can’t say why I set my sights on vintage Mustangs, but after 20 years of driving sensible cars, by the summer of 1999, I was ready to take a chance.

I called an acquaintance named Duke, a drinker with automotive expertise. I told him I had six grand burning a hole in my pocket. He picked me up in his shit-brown Caprice Classic, and we headed out. “Buy it cheap and fix it up,” he said.

An hour east of L.A., we pulled off Interstate 10 and there it was in a vacant lot. One look at the stocky, faded-blue body and I was intrigued. A peek under the hood and Duke was awed. “The engine alone is worth whatever she’s askin’,” he said, four beers into a scorching August afternoon.

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Moments later, the seller pulled up. She had to get back to the hospital and was in a hurry. “I’d like to get $3,000 for it,” she said. We went for a test drive. “I’ll give you $2,700,” I said, figuring the difference would cover the renovation.

The speed of the transaction was exhilarating. I’ve spent longer deliberating shoe purchases.

As we pulled back onto I-10 — me behind the wheel of the ’stang, Duke in the Caprice Classic — two things occurred to me: This car was a beast, and I might not be man enough to handle it.

For starters, the engine was bored out for street racing, not low-key cruising as I’d envisioned. The undersize wooden steering wheel and oversize mag wheels might have suited Steve McQueen, but they were a bit macho for me. Then there was the sound the engine made — a menacing rumble that set off car alarms, admonishing me that any speed less than 80 mph was unacceptable.

White knuckles on the wheel, I watched Duke fade in the rearview as I ate up the interstate. Thirty miles down the road, I noticed a nasty shimmy. A week later, I discovered that the drive shaft was a quarter-inch from snapping.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” a mechanic told me.

He would be the first of many to make that observation. The car was unsafe at any speed. It had no horn and broken seat belts. In a matter of weeks, my exhilaration turned to muted optimism, which soon yielded to denial. Repair bills mounted. I became more familiar with the bus routes.

One day the steering wheel fell off in my hands in the middle of an intersection. Then, after some guy had rigged the horn for me, the steering column caught on fire. I had to pull over and use my road atlas to tamp down the flames. Soon my insurance company discontinued roadside service for overuse.

The Stinger, as I dubbed it, became a topic of conversation. My friend Brim, whose father owned a small fleet of Mustangs when we were in high school, advised me, “Get out while you can.”

Jimmy, an ace fixer-upper, delighted in asking me how the renovation was coming. He knew I was fighting a war of attrition.

My wife’s first ride in the Stinger was her last. “Perfect for someone who works on cars,” she said. “You are not that someone.”

Yet there were moments of triumph. I enjoyed cruising Riverside Avenue on my way to work downtown, left arm out the window, right arm resting on the sunken bench seat. Gearheads would pull alongside me to ask what was under the hood. My friend Uncle Tim once set his beer on the roof at a Bad Company concert and declared, “The Stinger rocks.”

But when a bus T-boned me at First and Alameda — my fault, apparently — I sensed it was over. Still, I bought a new door in a final grab for redemption. Then I let a friend of a friend in Gardena work on the engine. Carburetor was never right after that.

The Youth Rescue Fund finally came by and took it off my hands — a tax-deductible donation. Once again, my practical needs and this Mustang could serve some higher purpose. Maybe an aspiring young mechanic will get to mess with it, I thought. More likely it’s been broken down and sold to specialty parts dealers.

I’d love to see where it ended up. I could drive over in my Honda Civic to check it out.

—Jeffrey Anderson

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