I think most of us have our first car near and dear to our hearts. I was lucky to be able to drive my family’s Mitsubishi Expo during the later years of college. Talk about glamour. Prestige. My friends loved it or hated it, loved it because if you sat in the front seat it would automatically buckle you in (high-tech!) hated it because if you sat in the back there was only one way to get out and you had to slam the door to get it to close properly.
The locks were knocked off– once from when I locked my sister out of the car and we played the “try to get in while your cruel sibling teases you by unlocking and locking the door,” which we blamed on the dog, and the second one we think was actually because of the dog. My mother used it to haul manure and other unsavory things for her garden, so it always had an earthy smell.
However, when I struck out on my own I didn’t trust Harold to drive me halfway across the country. Besides, I could save by just taking the bus to work. So that’s what I did, taking the bus to work nearly every day, on the weekends driving to get groceries in Mr. Mechanic’s car.
One car for the two of us was probably enough, but I wondered about when he’d have to take work trips away. At the new place we moved to, grocery stores were far away, and to get to them you had to take many un-bike-friendly roads. Besides, I wanted to be independent and have a car for myself.
My first car buying experience was a little different than most.
My umbrella of acceptability was wide at first. A subaru perhaps? Old outback would do just fine. I started to read forums online for “dependable,” “cheap,” and one time I threw in “fun,” why not? On nearly every forum someone brought up the Miata: easy to work on yourself, compact, and definitely lots of fun. It was almost a joke, no matter what, Miata Is Always The Answer would show up. With that piquing my interest, I went down a rabbit hole. I found a coworker who owned two and took me out for a drive so I could see how it felt. I read up on miatas, I dreamed miatas, I scrolled through craigslist every day looking at them.
Since there wasn’t a rush to buy, I figured I could take my time, learn the market and pounce when I found something right. My range narrowed, and price started creeping up. I decided on a third generation, starting the year 2007 when a hardtop was added. A 2009 would be nice because there was an engine upgrade that year, but I was fine with anything above a 2007. Copper Red Mica was my ideal, with peanut butter seats, but I could live with blue or really any color, I wasn’t picky there.
This is the part of the story where I start to sound like a potential crazy person, because the search overcame me. I knew what I wanted and for how much, I had let a couple good deals in the area slip through my fingers early in the search because I wanted to have a better grasp of the market before buying. Now, months were passing and I had anchored myself to those first couple deals.
Six months passed. I found an online forum for miata owners and would read that, followed the miata subreddit, and was pretty committed to the idea of a miata at this point. A two-seater, one that I could easily find parking for (I was scarred from when I first moved here and we had to find parking for Mr. Mechanic’s hulking beast of a car) in the city, a fun-to-drive convertible. I used to think convertibles were only for rich people, but the miata was an interesting breed of completely affordable (you can get an old first-gen miata for a couple grand) and mechanically sound.
Then it happened. I stumbled on a listing on the enthusiast’s forum. It was perfect. Copper Red Mica. Tan interior. Some tasteful mods. The asking price for a 2009 Miata with the engine upgrade was the same as what I had seen for a 2007 with 15k more miles! Just one catch– it was in Texas.
So that’s how I found myself knocking at a door in Houston, Texas, two hours late from my original arrival time because I flew on a “Buddy pass.” I had arranged for another enthusiast to take a look at the car, he said he would do it for free as a favor to a fellow miata-fan. He called me up as I boarded the plane, gushing about how he would buy the car if he could.
Now I was standing in the rain in front of the Airbnb, alone in a suburb. Nobody was answering the door. I was intensely aware of the thousands of dollars in a cashier’s check in my backpack.
Finally the woman of the house let me in, and exhausted, I slept. The next day I walked to the house of the guy who was selling the car, and he opened it, a look of surprise as he takes in my extremely young, disheveled appearance.
Did I mention that at this time I didn’t really know how to drive stick? It’s close to a sin to drive an automatic miata, I found out on the forums. So I flew to Texas to buy a car, to ship it home, because the cost of driving it home and paying for hotels (seats don’t recline, so I couldn’t sleep in the car) was about equal. Plus I’d be learning stick as I went, and there were potential snow storms brewing on my route.
So the owner graciously took me for a ride, talking about the history of the car and the maintenance he did on it. The Carfax was clean, he had a jaguar as his third car and didn’t really need the miata anymore. He was a lawyer in a suburb of Texas.
We had previously negotiated over email, and there weren’t any surprises. I took the car by myself, cautiously driving around the cul de sac roads. In the end I paid up and he delivered it to the shipping company the next day– the shipping company couldn’t make it before my flight home, which was another point of panic.
There were so many places for it to go wrong, but I did it. A week later, the car shows up, ready to be driven off the lot. I start the car, reverse it, and promptly kill it in the parking lot.
So, to summarize:
- I paid completely in cash, to a private seller I found on an internet forum
- I found my dream car after 6 months of searching
- I negotiated, found flights the next weekend using discounted tickets from a family friend
- I missed three flights in a row on the way there, and almost didn’t make it home on the way back because you are last priority on a buddy pass.
- I got somebody to inspect it for free
- I had to get the car shipped and the shipping company ended up only being able to arrive the day after I had to leave
- I didn’t know how to drive a manual car
If I had to do it again– would I do something that crazy? I had something I wanted, and I doggedly pursued it when the right opportunity came up. However, there were lots of room for this to go wrong and for me to be left stranded. I’m not sure I would do it again, although I love the little car. Lately on my frugal-kick, I’ve been unsure about keeping her, even after all that work, because truthfully we don’t need a second car. I started biking to work. Maybe I’ll dig into that deeper in a later piece.
But it will forever be the story of when I bought my first car.