Well, here we are. I have yet another car. For the second time in my life, I have more than one car at a time. This slightly complicates an agreement that Holly and I made before buying our home: no spending money on project cars until after the wedding.
And I upheld my end of the bargain… kind of. Because I didn’t spend any money. I got this 1997 Lexus SC300 100% for free.
Excuse me… What?
It’s true, and I’ll tell you how it happened. Like all good things, it started on Craigslist. I was doing what I usually do while watching Netflix – scrolling aimlessly on the new Craigslist app (which is phenomenal, btw), with my standard preset search: Cars & Trucks, by owner, 1984-1999, sorted by newly posted – when a very simple listing caught my eye.
Lexus SC300 – $1
My nephew died a couple years ago. I never got the title for it. It runs, but needs a battery. Hoping it goes to a happy home.
It had only been posted six minutes ago. I sent a simple email to the seller, acknowledging his loss, and asking him what he’d like to get for the Lexus. Not 30 seconds later, my phone rang.
I think it’s important at this point to acknowledge my personal predilections. Not only do I fucking love 80s and 90s cars (now colloquially known as #Radwood), but I really love Toyota.
I grew up with Toyotas. my parents drove Toyotas. My grandmother started buying Lexuses as soon as they were available in America. My first car was a Celica.
So, if you’re following along, I have a deep, lasting affinity for Toyota, especially turn-of-the-Century (there’s a pun in there somewhere) models. Their interiors are simple and supple, and their design is generally timeliness. But that’s not all – I’ve also always specifically adored the Lexus SC / Toyota Soarer model. I can recall the first time I realized it would make a badass car to own. I was a 14 years old boy without a care in the world. It was dusty, elderly-owned, 1995 SC400 in Classic Green Pearl perennially parked outside a home near the corner of Greystone and Mesa.
But I was young, and I knew nothing. I didn’t know it shared a chassis with the Toyota Supra. I didn’t know how much money Toyota had spent in the 80s and 90s to build the greatest six-cylinder engine of the modern era (the 2JZ, of course). I didn’t know that early Lexus models were some of the most reliable cars ever made.
I just knew it looked incredible.
I don’t answer my phone a lot anymore. I, like everyone else in the world, get tons and tons of spam calls. But I answered on the first ring. It was Paul, the keeper of the Lexus. Paul launched straight into the story; he told me all about the car, how he’s driven it on and off since Aaron (his nephew)’s passing in 2017, all its surprising problems, what Aaron aimed to do with it, and where it’s been since.
He told me about it’s weird drivers window problem (my IS300 suffered similarly), its slow crankshaft oil leak, its spectacularly dead battery, and its ‘rough’ interior, and its “two hundred-someodd-thousand” miles. And that it hadn’t been driven in over a year.
I listened patiently, and then told him the truth – that I wasn’t in the position to buy a project car right now. I also wasn’t in need; I had my own car and I wasn’t desperate for transport. This would be a literal extra car for me.
So I made a proposition to Paul. I said: I love these cars dearly, and would jump at the opportunity for a project to restore one to a former glory. But I’m not in a position to buy one. If this isn’t the right time, so be it. All I can tell you is that I’d give it a good home and a loving, slow restoration. Leave it on Craigslist. Wait for some offers. If nothing feels right, let me know and I’ll come get the car.
Paul thought about it for a moment, before he said, simply: Come today and it’s yours.
So I Did.
My friend (and mode of transportation) Mike and I arrived at Paul’s East Austin home an hour before sunset on a temperate Sunday evening. Paul was outside, charging the battery with cables he mentioned would come gratis with the car as a show of goodwill. I thought this was odd – if you’re giving me a car… for free… that’s the show of goodwill. Right?
We chatted while the battery charged and waited for the opportunity to turn the engine over, giving time to give my questionable decision a once-over. Paul wasn’t lying – it was in rough shape. I’ll detail more in a future post, but the paint was rough, dust-covered, dull, and comprehensively chipped. The headlight casings were either yellow or entirely smashed. The tires had tread but looked partially rotted, and there was a fist-sized blotch of surface rust on the deck lid of the trunk. The interior looked like a night club for chain-smoking squirrels; there was ash everywhere, a smattering of leaves, and a thick layer of dust and decay. The seats and steering wheel looked particularly beyond repair.
However, much to my surprise, the engine turned right over, hummed, and settled at a low idle. It had (seemingly) ample oil, coolant, and other fluids. The belts sounded good, the fans sounded good. Things seemed okay.
Paul then put me on the phone with his sister, Aaron’s mom, to talk about the car, how much it meant to her, and fond memories of Aaron. I learned this was Aaron’s fourth SC car, and that he had spectacular project plans for this one before his passing.
Actually, I found this somewhat difficult; the way that she was describing her son, who passed at 26, in his teenage years, seemed eerily similar to how I could imagine my own mother describing my affinity for cars, in the past tense. I took a moment to be grateful not just for the opportunity in front of me, but for being alive. We chatted for about 10 minutes, she gave me her blessing, and I promised to stay in touch.
At this point, Paul was ready to head inside; he bid Mike and I farewell, handed me the key, and walked off. W climbed into the car with the intent to take it for a quick test drive before starting a slow and safe journey back to my house.
Spoiler Alert, We Didn’t.
We sat down on the really, really gross seats, I put my foot on the brake, hand on the gears, and shif- wait, no I didn’t. The Lexus wouldn’t come out of park. Shit. We pulled on the lever, slammed on the brake, but nothing would happen.
After some quick googling, it turns out there was a small, mechanical gate that unlocked the shifter from park, connected to pressure on the brake. We quickly found a diagram, removed the gear lever, tore up the center console, and peered down into the abyss. More cigarette ash. If you’ve ever wondered why cleaning a car doesn’t get the smell of smoke out, it’s because ash lives everywhere. It was in the transmission tunneling, it coated every surface. It was awful.
However, I pushed some of that ash around and was able to locate the mechanical gate. Paul had learned we were still there, and was kind enough to lend us a screwdriver so that I could manually depress the gate and try to shift into reverse and boom! We were in reverse, and the Lexus officially moved under its own power for the first time in a year. Quite uneventfully, I might add.
It Was Go Time
Disclaimer: Don’t try this at home. This was dangerous, irresponsible, and stupid.
Mike and I took the Lexus around the block, made sure it was confident running on old tires, and shifting through its own gears, before I began the seven mile drive home. To enunciate this point, not only did I get a car for free but it drove home under its own power, which is pretty incredible. I was even pleasantly surprised to find that Aaron had installed a bluetooth stereo (and some pretty good speakers), which my phone was happy to connect to.
Now alone in the Lexus, I was instantly transported back to my teenage years, and was made nostalgic for my 2000 Toyota Celica GT (bought with my Bar Mitzvah money in 2011). So I did what I would have done in that car. I put on Drake’s So Far Gone, turned the bass all the way up, rolled down the one working window, and began my long drive home.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, but not in some ‘higher power’ way. It’s more of a pragmatic optimism, and it invites less existentialism than the alternative.
That said, the more I walked through this process, the more I felt like everything happening was meant to be. It only felt right that I’d dedicate whatever comes of this project to Aaron’s memory with his initials, AK, in place of the Sport Coupe moniker.
Lots of ideas are circling around in my head, and I’ll admit I don’t have a clear direction for the car just yet. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to catalogue everything wrong, bad, or gross with my surprisingly beautiful new toy. Then, I’ll detail my plans for it, and how I intend to document the process. Thanks for being along for the ride.