Saturday, January 10, 2009

If Jesus Saves Why Couldn’t He Save My Austin America?

I have no idea why I’m fascinated with the Austin America (Which is known as the 1300 in most of the world. It was only known as the America in the U.S., Canada and, for no apparent reason, Switzerland.) In dead stock form it’s a slow car. It’s not especially good looking – It has sort of a generic small car look to it. Outside of the US, where it never sold very well, it’s not rare – The Brits made a lot of these cars. They rust horribly – It has been said that a flaw in the design created built in rust traps. Except for the engine, parts are nearly impossible to get in the US. And, of course, the electrical system is a nightmare. Despite of all that, or maybe because of all that, I’ve always wanted to own one.

Back in 1990 I was looking through one of those “Cars For Sale” type of publications (remember, back in 1990 eBay, Craigslist and things we're so used to now weren't available) and spotted an ad for a 1970 Austin America. The ad said the body was good, but the car didn’t run. Best of all, it was a 4 speed, not an automatic. It was located about an hour's drive from my house. I called on it, found out it was still available and arranged a time to look at it.

According to the owner, the car had been sitting in the garage for the last 6 years. It was driven in under its own power, but now the engine wouldn’t “turn over”. In fact, it wouldn’t turn at all. It was seized solid. But, as the ad said, the body was sound with only a few minor dings and very little rust. The price was right, $200.00, so I bought it.

I made a call and arranged for the Austin to be picked up and delivered to my house. By 5PM the next day the Austin was sitting in my driveway.

The plan was to remove the drivetrain and send the body out to have the little bit of rust and dings taken care of and have it repainted. With the help of a few friends, the seized engine was out of the car by the end of the next day. I once freed up a seized Sunbeam engine by filling it with Marvel Mystery Oil and letting it sit for a few weeks, so I did the same to the Austin engine hoping for the same results.

Now it was time to find a body shop. A fully restored Austin America isn’t worth much more than a junk one, so price was important. I took a few Polaroids (remember them?) of the car and starting bringing them around to body shops.

Most of the body shop owners flat out refused to deal with the car. A few gave me outrageous estimates and one told me I was crazy to even think about restoring the car.

I decided to call a friend who was an automobile insurance adjuster and ask him if he knew of anyone who might take on the project for a reasonable price. It turns out he did. A guy named Ron owned a small body shop and was always looking for side projects. My friend said that it may take Ron a few months to complete it, but he was good and, best of all, cheap. I called Ron and told him I’d bring my Polaroids to him the next day.

When entered his shop I wondered at first whether I had walked in the wrong door and entered a church by mistake. There were pictures of Jesus, crosses and bible quotes covering the walls. But there were also a few wrecked cars, a welder or two and a spray booth in the building - things not usually found in a church - so I figured I had found the body shop.

I showed Ron my Polaroids and struck a deal with him. He would repair and repaint the car for $500.00. He said he would work on it when his regular business was slow and it may take 3 or 4 months to complete. That was fine by me. Winter was approaching and I looked at it as free winter storage. I gave him a $100.00 deposit and arranged to have the car dropped off the next day. On the way out he gave me a 2” high stack of pamphlets about Jesus.

I drove by the shop a few days later and saw that my Austin had been dropped off on the side of his building in line with a few other wrecks. Once a week, for the next few weeks, I drove by and saw the car there, still outside. Weeks turned into a couple of months, but one day I drove by and the car was not outside, in fact all the cars along the side of the building were gone. Cool, I thought, he’s started working on it.

A week or so later I decided to stop by and check on the progress. I walked in the door, but no one was around. The pictures of Jesus, the crosses, the bible quotes were all still there and so was a wrecked Subaru, but I didn’t see my Austin. It must be in the spray booth I thought, but I felt weird walking further into the shop with no one around, so I left.

Two weeks later I stopped by and found Ron eating lunch. “Hey, how’s the Austin coming along?” I asked. Ron took a few bites of his sandwich and casually said, “It’s not here. It’s gone. It was crushed.”

“WHAT??!!?? CRUSHED??!!??” Ron very calmly explained that he needed money so he sold all the wrecks on the side of the building to a scrap dealer. He forgot to tell the guy not to take the Austin.

Two things came to mind… 1) Why didn’t he call me and tell me this when it happened, it had been at least 3 weeks since I noticed the cars were gone, and 2) He owed me $300.00, $200.00 for the car and $100.00 for the deposit I gave him. I brought up both thoughts to him.

Ron said he was “praying” for the Lord to tell him the right time to tell me and that he didn’t have any money to give me. He was praying for that, too. He told me I should pray, too. “The Lord will listen to you”, he said.

I told him that wasn’t a good answer. I wanted some compensation. I asked him if he had insurance. He said it had been canceled, but that I shouldn’t underestimate the power of prayer. I told him that he shouldn’t underestimate the power of my attorney. He told me that Jesus taught us to forgive. I reminded him that Jesus never had his Austin America crushed.

I called my attorney the next day. “How much money are you out?” he asked. “Three hundred dollars”, I replied. The problem, he told me, was this; he could write Ron a letter, but Ron could, and probably would, ignore the letter. It had no legal weight. That would cost me $50.00. The next step, he said, was to go to court with it. We’d win, he said, but you can’t get “blood from a stone”, and if Ron really had no money I’d still be out my $300.00 and I’d have a $500.00 legal bill on top of that. It just didn’t seem worth it.

He had another idea though. “You may not like this, but you could just tell him you want $300.00 worth of body shop credit. You’re always buying some sort of old wreck, you’ll use it soon enough.” I thought about it and realized it was probably my best, and only, option. My attorney told me to talk to Ron and tell him I was willing to settle the whole thing in exchange for the “shop credit”. He said he’d write something up on his letterhead (because, as he said, “people are intimidated by law office letterhead”) and, if Ron agreed to the idea, I could pick it up at his office and have Ron sign it.

I went to see Ron the next day. He liked the idea. In fact, he seemed ecstatic about it. He told me that he wouldn’t be in the next day, Friday, but I should come by Monday with the agreement and he’d sign it.

Monday morning I stopped by my attorney’s office on my way into work. I picked up the agreement (which he did at no charge) and then headed over to Ron’s. When I got there the door was open and towards the back of the shop there were two guys grinding away on a Toyota. All the pictures of Jesus were gone, replaced by Pirelli calendars. They saw me come in, stopped what they were doing and one of them asked “Can I help you?” “Is Ron around?” I replied. “Nope, he’s not here anymore”, one of them said. “What?” I asked.

They went on to explain the Ron hadn’t paid his rent in quite awhile. Faced with eviction, he struck a deal with the landlord to vacate the place that weekend, but leave the spray booth and some of the tools as compensation for the back rent he owed. Now I understood why Ron was so happy to make the “shop credit” deal. He wouldn’t be around to honor it.

The guys working on the Toyota had just signed a new lease with the landlord and agreed to purchase the spray booth and tools. I told them about my Austin. They seemed sympathetic, but explained there wasn’t much they could do about it. In fact, they told me, this was the first day they had been open for business and already 3 other people had come looking for Ron (including a sheriff) and none of them (especially the sheriff) seemed pleased to find out he was gone. They took my name and phone number and told me if they heard anything about Ron’s whereabouts they’d call me. They seemed sincere.

That night I called the friend who had originally recommended Ron to me and told him the saga. He was genuinely stunned. He had no idea. He told me that he knew where Ron lived and that he’d pick me up the next morning and we’d go “talk to Ron.”

We arrived at Ron’s house about 9AM the next morning. Right away things didn’t look good. There were no cars in the driveway, no curtains in the windows and a big yellow sticker on the front door. The sticker said, essentially, that a bank now owned the house and we (or anyone else walking on the property, for that matter) were now trespassing. Ron’s house had been foreclosed on.

My friend had one more idea. “We’ll go to the junkyard where Ron bought a lot of parts. The owner, Sammy, is pretty tight with Ron. He’ll know where he is”.

Sammy did in fact know where Ron was. He was in Arizona. It seems Ron had been sending all of his money (and mine, too, I guess) to a religious compound that was promising him a house and a job as soon as he arrived in Arizona. He had packed up for Arizona that past weekend.

Sammy said that Ron was a decent guy at heart and maybe after he was settled in Arizona he’d send me a check. That was a nice thought, but I knew I didn’t have a prayer.

A year or so later I bought a part from Sammy’s junkyard. I asked him if he’d heard from Ron. He did, he said, about 6 months prior. It turns out the house this religious group was offering him was a trailer. Not a mobile home, but an actual trailer. Someone built a few walls in it to make rooms and cut out a few windows. Cooking, bathing, etc. was done in a communal “hall”. The job, it turned out, was doing chores around the compound. The trailer and meals were his pay. Ron was completely and utterly miserable. I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe Ron was right all those months ago.… Maybe “the Lord” really had listened to my prayer.

The Marvel Mystery Oil I poured into the Austin’s engine did its magic and freed it up. I was able to sell it to a guy who wanted to convert a 998cc Mini to a bootleg Mini Cooper. I got $50.00 for it.

The picture above is the actual badge from my car. It’s all I have left. It now sits on my desk.


otto said...

Wow! That is such a sad and hilarious story! Poor little car didn't do nothin' to nobody!

Graham Clayton said...

Karma, karma, karma......