The Truth, Mainly - 09/24/1990

How not to save money durring an oil crisis
by Leon Satterfield

I'm madder than anything," I told the wife last week. I'd just come from filling the car with $1.43-a-gallon gasoline. "And I don't know how much longer I'm going to take it."

"Whatever you do," she sighed, "I hope you do it with more dignity than the last time gasoline prices made you madder than anything."

It is 1979 and I'm about to strike back at the oil industry. I'd grown grumpy when gasoline went to 50 cents a gallon, surly at 75, and rabid at a dollar.

"Enough," I say to the wife, the children, the dog.

She turns away so I won't see her smile. One of the kids snickers, and the dog growls and snaps at a fly that isn't there.

"WHAT ARE YOU going to do about it?" the wife says with a fairly straight face, "Strike oil in the backyard?"

You'd think it was the funniest thing anybody ever said. The kids chortle. The dog chases his tail.

"This." I say, pointing to an ad in the Thrifty Nickel "I'm going to buy this 1964 Mercedes-Benz 190D. The D stands for diesel and diesels get about 40 miles a gallon and a gallon of diesel costs hardly anything."

The kids cheer and the dog looks interested, but the wife frowns.

"A 1964?" She says. "Can't you find something older?"

I explain that how old it is doesn't matter because Mercedes-Benz diesels run forever.

"But it costs a lot to get them worked on, so here's what else I'm going to do." I say. "I'm going to have our very own greasepit so we can save even more money by doing the work ourselves, I'll go buy the car. You guys dig the greasepit."

AND THAT'S WHAT happens. I give the guy $1300 for the 190D—it's got only 98,000 miles on the odometer—and I pay a body shop $1100 to replace the rusted sheet metal and put on three coats of classy silver-grey paint. The younger son digs the greasepit in the dirt floor of the garage in exchange for a 10-speed bike ($85).

The pit is the size of an extra-large grave—four feet wide, eight feet long, and just deep enough that when I stand up straight I can bang my head on the greasy underbelly of the 190D. We pour a concrete slab ($879 from Ready Mix) around the pit and when it dries I bring in the car to change its oil and filter.

The car just fits over the hole and with my new trouble light ($12.95) I can see to get the drain plug out of the crank­case. Only a pint or two of the old oil gets on my tennis shoes ($16.98), shirt ($3.49) and jeans ($11.99 Blue Light Special).

The real problem comes when I get up out of the pit to change the filter. I grate my knuckles on the radiator the way I'm supposed to, but the old filter still won't come off. I look in my new 190D shop manual ($8.95) and it tells me that I have to cramp the front wheels as far to the left as they'll go, then take the filter off from below. I get it off with my filter wrench ($3.50), replace it with a new one ($4.75), and feel smug.

"REMEMBER," I tell the younger son, "you can never be sure about a man who doesn't change his own oil. Now you guide me while I back out."

I heat up the glowplugs and start the engine. I look in the rearview mirror just in time to see my son disappear in a cloud of diesel smoke. His lips seem to be moving, but I can't hear anything above the clatter of the engine, so I put her in reverse and let out the clutch.

That's when the front end of the 190D falls into the greasepit. There's a noise like metal fingernails scraping a concrete blackboard as the car lurches downward. My son's lips are still moving and I turn off the engine. What he's saying is "Should you straighten the front wheels before you back out?"

I get out to look. The left front wheel, still cramped as far to the left as it will go, dangles into the open grease pit. New sheet metal is crumpled against new concrete and flakes of classy silver-grey paint litter the floor.

"YES," I SAY. "I should straighten the front wheels before I back out."

The wife and the other two kids and the dog are in the garage by now.

"Oh my," she says, trying to look serious. The three kids look at each other and press their lips together. The dog lilts his leg over the greasepit. I buy a 6x6 beam ($8.50) and rent a floor jack ($24.95), wrestle it into the pit, stand the beam upright on the business end of the jack, and finally extricate the crippled car. Then I go to the chiropractor to get my spine realigned ($22.00).

"Tell me again," the mother-in-law says to the wife the next day. "Why did he buy that old car and fix it up and drive it into the grease pit?"

"To terrorize the oil industry," the wife tries to say, "and to save money." But she loses control before she can finish. The mother-in-law is in hysterics. The kids guffaw. The dog hangs out his tongue and grins.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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