Our Biggest Mistake

I’m lookin’ at you, Toad!

While it’s almost certainly a luxury to be able to point to our choice of towed vehicle as the singular thing we messed up most on this trip, it’s hard when saying that not to imagine a future scenario wherein we look back at this post and laugh/cry at our naïveté.  “Remember when we thought the CAR was our biggest blunder??”

Lacking that scenario, however, I’ll push forward with this, as it’s has instructive value for me and anyone who may be looking to do this sort of trip in the future.

To be clear, the issue, to my knowledge, is not with the make and model of car.  I have nothing against Subaru Outbacks.  It’s ours in particular.

Backing up slightly — if you’re going to tow a car behind a motorhome, there are several ways to do it.  You can put it on a trailer, thereby towing any car you’d like and needing no special equipment to be installed on the car itself.  But then you have a large and heavy trailer that you need to store somewhere every time you park.  And they’re not cheap.  You can tow a car “four down,” i.e. with all four wheels touching the road and spinning.  No additional major gear required, but only very few cars are able to be towed four down without ruining their differential due to lack of lubrication.  And you need to install lights that illuminate along with the motorhome’s turn signals and brake lights, as well as a supplemental braking system and hardware that allows the tow bars to attach to the car.  Plus you need the tow bars.  That’s about $3000 worth of equipment.  You can also sort of split the difference and buy a dolly, which is more or less a half trailer – one set of wheels are put up on the dolly and the other set spins on the road.  You still have a dolly to store though.

The vast majority of the motorhome-towing-vehicle setups that I’ve seen since we started have been of the “four down” variety, so I’m confident that the decision we ultimately made was a good one. 

Here’s what we didn’t think about though, and this is extremely important: once you commit to a Toad, you’re all in.  And by that I mean that when you make $3000 and many many hours of modifications to a car, you are committed to keeping that car running for as long as you’re towing a car.  So it’s important to get a good one.

We got an old one.  Of all the cars that could be towed four down, we decided that an Outback suited us best, but rather than spending the money on a somewhat used / few years old model, we “saved money” by getting one at a good price.  I reasoned that the 150,000 miles on it didn’t really matter since we’d be towing it most of the time anyway, and Subarus seem to be pretty easy to keep up and running. 

We also got it from a disreputable dealer, as I would find out later.  I’ll spare you that story, as it’s more than a little unpleasant and doesn’t provide any constructive information.  Suffice it to say that I was shocked to learn how blatantly unprofessional, and actually flat out mean, a salesman could be, even in the age of online reviews.

The first thing we discovered after driving our new car the hour and a half back to Maryland from its Virginia dealership (and leaving my trusty Audi A4 behind as a trade-in) was that the front differential had a slight leak, or at least it was “slight” when the differential had almost no oil in it.  Once I serviced it with oil, it dumped all of it back out onto my driveway overnight.  We needed two new axles.  And a new driveway surface… differential oil is thick, stinky, and not what you want on your driveway when you’re trying to sell your house.

A few months after we replaced the two front axles, we were told later that we needed another front axle replacement, which we did, and then a few months later, two more, which we didn’t. 

The clutch, as we would discover a week into our trip, was about to go, too.  We had that replaced in Michigan, and ever since we did, the new one (which I have to assume was a bottom-of-the-barrel clutch) stinks any time it’s put under a load.  Backing up a hill positively reeks. 

Upon taking it for (mostly) routine service in California (it needed a new rack and pinion, no small repair, but we asked them to give the whole thing a once-over too), a year into the trip, they came back with a truly alarming laundry list of “required” repair items, to the tune of several thousand dollars.

Now, of course, with just about any older car that isn’t a collector’s item, you reach a point where it makes zero sense to put more money into it.  Not so with Toad.  We really have no choice but to keep this car going. 

So we’ve limped it along.  I’m pretty certain we’ve spent a good deal more money on it than we would’ve spent initially on a newer car with 1/3 the miles.  And at the end of the day we have a car that creaks and makes odd ratcheting noises, leaks various fluids, has a hard time getting up hills, and often stinks of burning oil and/or burning clutch.  It seems like at any point she could roll out her tongue and die for good. All that said, she’s still getting us from point A to point B, and we don’t need her to do so for much longer.  So I shouldn’t be too harsh.  But… lesson learned: pay the money for a decent car up front.

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