1997 Ford Aspire > A Long History

A Long History

Original title: Past Annoyances

I wrote this essay in 2002 after I paid off the loan for my Ford Aspire.

That Ford Aspire of mine is an unimpressive car. It's a rebuilt to begin with: the original front and the back of another, done by the same guy who fixed the dent on it last year. I bought it in 1998 after its original owner refused to reclaim it.

The original owner was some woman from Carmèl-By-The-Road, a well-to-do suburb north of Indianapolis. Her car's backend was smashed in an accident. Her insurance company gave the car to a local body repair guy to fix, because he is very good with rebuilding cars. It's so good you'd hardly know it was smashed. But the woman decided not to reclaim the car, so I bought it from the guy.

That dent was a deep punch in the left fender. I put it there by driving into an cast iron signpost while trying to maneuver out of a small parking lot. I had to pay the body repair guy three hundred bucks to fix it.

The iron signpost wasn't even scratched!

The lot and signpost was in front of a small candle shop. There I bought a Yankee Candle™ with a scent that was to be discontinued (Irish Cream, I think). The candle was a Xmas gift for a co-worker as part of a secret gift-swap program at the bank I used to work for. I never told the co-worker — a very skinny Ball State student in the bank's item-processing department — she was getting the most expensive Yankee Candle™ on Earth.

The Aspire is classed as a 'subcompact car'. In my case, that means I must keep the driver's seat as far back as it will go for me to fit inside. When I drive it, it felt at first like I was flying just over the road.

I don't notice the road so close to my rear anymore. But the ride is still low to the ground, so that I have to grab the roof or doorjamb to get enough leverage to get out of the car.

I had to replace the transmission almost at once when it failed at lower speeds. The speedometer sometimes wobbles. The dome light is burnt out. Part of the seal on the windshield is loose. The back tires shimmy at speeds over 70 mph (and, every so often, less).

The transmission replacement cost a little over one thousand dollars, but it would have cost a lot more if I hadn't settled for a rebuilt. At least it works as well as a new one. I had to take out a short-term loan at the transmission shop to pay for this, but I settled that loan quickly.

The dome lamp hasn't worked for almost all the time I owned the car. It didn't bother me, so for a long time I didn't bother replacing the light bulb. However, during the repair rush of December 2004 I decided to visit an Autozone store in Marion, buy a replacement bulb, and install it in the dome lamp. Now I can see what I am doing early in the morning or late at night when I open the car door.

The windshield seal was fixed during my time at Tina's house in 2002. It doesn't leak anymore. The seal on the back window is barely on, and it does leak vapor into the back. I will have to find some chalking to fill that in.

The shimmy was caused by worn bearings in the wheels. I have had bearings in various wheels replaced in the years since 2002. The wheels are okay now. Mind you, I don't drive the car over 70 mph for more than a minute at a time.

The speedometer has always been a problem, especially in the winter. It was really bad on the morning of 15 November 2004. That is why I compiled the speedometer inop page, which is the true basis for this Aspire site.

Since then, during one very bad vibration on 14 December 2004, the speedometer needle came off. Thereafter there was only a white plastic dot to tell me how fast I am going.

Other than these minor annoyances, the Aspire has served me very well. It still runs fine, even if it's now five years old with over eighty thousand miles on it. I have taken as good care of it as I can. I change the oil on it every three months or so. I have the tires rotated every year. I wash it every so often, esp. after heavy snows to remove the salt and dirt.

And it still runs well — indeed, better than ever now that the starter is fixed — with more than 125,000 miles, several tire replacements and a new exhaust system.

Let's list the minor annoyances I haven't already mentioned. The left headlight's mount is busted, so the lamp shines at a crooked angle. The ignition didn't turn sometimes, esp. on cold days; when it finally did turn, it would set off the alarm light. I was aware that the coil needed replaced, but it would cost several hundred dollars.

On 13 December 2004 I did get that coil (solenoid) replaced with a rebuilt after two failed attempts by Sparks of Muncie to find one that worked. It cost a little over three hundred dollars on top of a new tuneup (new spark plugs and all), but at least I will have no trouble starting the car.

And I have no worries about someone stealing my car. Thieves don't hit cheap boxes like mine; they generally prefer thunder wagons, pricey foreign cars, or SUVs.

And that still holds true: No thief wants a subcompact Korean-built off-model Ford, even one that still gets thirty miles per gallon, when there's juicier stuff to be had.

And in these days of two-dollars-a-gallon gasoline, I have no sympathy whatsoever with SUV owners. Hey, even the auto industry looks on them with contempt, although you aren't supposed to know that. (Thing #46, 50 Things You're Not Supposed To Know by Russ Kick, 2003, ISBN 0971394288.) On average I pay $50/month in gasoline, and $30/trimonthly for oil and lube: That comes to $720/year excluding repairs. That's not bad at all, ĉu ne?.

Of course, the big disadvantage with my car is that I can't take long trips with it for fear it will fall to pieces. That was why I didn't make a long-desired trip to metro Pittsburgh to attend the memorial service for my favorite actress.

But I'll be keeping my Ford Aspire for a long time to come, until it does fall to pieces. Why? Because it's mine! This is the first car I ever bought, paid for, and hold title to. It runs a lot better than the junkers my folks have given me. I am not giving it up until I have undeniable proof that it will never move again under its own power.

Update (4 June 2005)

The speedometer has misbehaved with squealing noise in temperatures as cold as 50°F (10°C). It has gotten so bad that the check engine light was constantly on for months. I had no choice but to get a new speedometer.

Ford had stopped making new speedometers for the Aspire in January 2005, so I had to go to the junk yards to find one.

My first attempt was a botch-up because I confused "tachyometer" with "trip meter". (A tachyometer in fact measures the engine's revolutions per minute.) I ended up with an expensive cracked instrument panel, one of whose mounts I had to glue back on with epoxy. I never had the time to install it.

This week I traded the lemon in for a panel that matches my car. With a warranty on electricals that was only seven day long, I decided to install the panel immediately. So that afternoon I took some tools and my Chilton manual, and step by step I swaped the instrument panels. Despite the heat, the humidity, the annoying crowds (spillover from the second day of James Dean Fest in Marion), and the wires to the alarm light that the manual did not account for — the installation was easier than I thought.

When I drove the car with the new panel, it worked! This was a proud day for me.

The speedometer was relatively new, with only 43,600 miles on it. I have had to put a label on the jambs of the door reporting the old and new settings.

Old Setting
New Setting
Add to Correct

The real test of the new panel comes this fall, when we will see if the speedometer holds up to the cold.

That doesn't mean there is no longer anything wrong with my car. My radio is dying: at home in Fairmount I can only get the el crappo radio station from Muncie. I can't get IPR unless I am in Muncie itself, and even there reception is iffy.

Update (20 August 2005)

The radio has been replaced with a new one that can play music CDs and has a detachable front for security. That is so nifty. A pity is it was so expensive from my perspective, but cheap compared to other models. What a bloody ripoff! But at least I have my radio stations back.

Update (26 January 2006)

I had forgotten that the front of my radio detached for security, but then I never thought I had anything in my car to steal. Lord, was I wrong! Two nights ago some dumbass broke into my car and stole the radio.

Two mornings ago I opened my car door and found the drive's seat at an odd angle. But I didn't suspect a thing until I bent to turn the radio on my button-pushing finger encountered only air. I reported the incident to the local cops and gave them a copy of the warranty with the radio's serial number.

As I noted the radio was expensive for a piece of electronics, so it is unlikely that I will ever buy a replacement … at least until they catch the ape who stole my radio!

No matter! The speedometer has gotten through the winter with hardly a squeak! I got new brakes, new rotors and a new set of tires. Next month will come work on my leaky heater.

Update (17 June 2007)

The alarm system was installed on the Aspire at the behest of the original owner. Why she did this I do not know; the Aspire is a cheap car even when it was new, so nobody would have wanted to steal it. I inherited the alarm when I bought the car ten years ago. It had always been a nuisance; but recently it has grown to be a hindrance. It is starting to interfere with the electrical system on my car, so it was time to go.

I had tried to schedule the removal of the alarm system with Sparks of Muncie; but it would take two hours of a workday, and I could not find a way to get off work. Then came the first day of my vacation, when I needed the car to move my stuff to my new house: It would not start.

I could rev the engine, but it was getting no gas. It became evident that the fuel pump was dead, and no gas was getting to the engine. There were signs that the pump was dying, but I thought it was the fault of the alarm system.

Well, the folks ordered a replacement pump, and the Bill came and installed it. The car runs now, although it runs a little roughly, and the check engine light now blinks instead of stays on constantly.

Of course, by that time the vacation was almost over. I transfered my computer cart in the Aspire; the cart now holds the new microwave. But I will have to get a tune-up as well as to get the alarm system removed.

I am glad I got my Aspire back, because my folks tried to get me to buy another car.

Update (17 February 2008)

After more than ten years of use, maintenance and the road salts of Indiana winters (nefarious for turning new cars into mounds of rust), my Ford Aspire no longer looks like the one in the picture on the front page. It has signs of rust along the door mouldings and a couple of rust tumors. Otherwise it is holding up just fine.

When I wrote that last year, I spoke too soon.

Update (28 February 2009)

My Ford Aspire is twelve years old now. And the past year for it has not been very good. If the following sounds like an obit, it is because it may well be time to give up on the car.

Evidently all that shifting between drive and second gears has worn out something in the transmission. The transmission began to slip a couple of days ago: After a stop or a park, the transmission would delay for a second or two before engaging. That makes it dangerous to be on a hill when you have to stop. I took the car to the local transmission shop, where I got the rebuilt transmission just after I bought my car. I was took it would cost nine hundred dollars to fix; but more than that, I would be without the car for two days. I cannot afford the loss of my car for that long. And I do not want to rely on my folks for backup, like I had for the past decade or two.

I think the time is come to buy a new car. However, I have to fix the transmission on the Aspire before I can think of trading it in. I will do that during the second week in March, as the first one will be busy enough.

Update (20 May 2009)

It has gotten to the point where the Aspire — not just my car, the model in general — has been so long out of circulation that parts for it are rare as political honesty.

I had discovered this the hard, hard way when the lower gears of my transmission failed so completely that I had no choice at all but to bring the car into the transmission shop. I was told that it would take two days to repair; in fact, it took four weeks as the shop brought in one part after another, none of which would work in the transmission. In the end, the shop found another rebuilt transmission and installed that.

In the meantime, I was sent to a rental place, which gave me a Geo Metro at seventeen dollars a day. That did not sound like much when I thought that it would only be two days; in fact it cost me over four hundred dollars for the whole time I rented it. Add to that a hundred dollars in all for parking in the parking garage near my workplace because I did not have a parking sticker and was too optimistic at first to get a temporary one. At least the transmission shop was kind to take three hundred dollars off the eventual total bill for the repair.

I will not say how much I had to pay in the end. It was a lot more than the original nine hundred dollar quote. But this time I paid it with plastic; no American General Finance like last time. (Just as well, too: That company was laying off people at the time my car was in the shop.)

Anyway, the point is that my car is now so old and out of date — even though she runs great — that I will have to trade it in for a new car sometime this summer.

Update (7 July 2009)

I did what I said I would in my previous entry.

I traded in the Aspire for a 2009 Honda Fit. The Fit is the same size and the same type of engine (4-cylinder) as the Aspire; but has more interior features and more space in the back. For all its quirks — no radio, no way to gauge speed, no horn, iffy suspension, decreasing fuel efficiency and the need for more expensive gas, and the occasional failure of a major part — the Aspire was a good car, which did what I wanted it to do, from carrying mulch and ladders and suitcases to ferrying the occasional relative. I will miss this car, even as I get used to the new Fit.

Written by Andy West on 20 August 2005, updated 7 July 2009.