PT Cruiser: never meet your heroes

The “Madeleine Moment” (Madeleine as in cake) is what flashbacks, or “involuntary memory”, have become known as, thanks to French writer Marcel Proust.

It’s a prominent theme in his novel series “In Search of Lost Time” (also translated as “Remembrance of Things Past”) that he started publishing, out of his own pocket, in 1913.

Proust wrote about experiencing a flashback as he dunked a madeleine in his tea, prompting him to remember a moment from childhood, that occurred while eating madeleines dunked in tea.

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Flickr: Karen Booth

He’s also credited with creating the saying “never meet your heroes” in his novel: “Never meet the people you admire (or look up to), you’ll be disappointed.”

Proust died in 1922. At the end of the 20th century, the motor industry was having a Madeleine Moment: the New Beetle was launched for 1998, the Mini concept was about to bring the Mini hatch to market, and Chrysler unveiled its PT Cruiser.

Of course – and this is a common theme for me – I could never afford any of these cars, new. However I admired them all, and made a note to own a PT Cruiser, one day. They looked like a giant-sized Matchbox car from my childhood. A co-worker who owned 2 of them, both tricked up, just made my obsession worse. For around 20 years I would keep an eye out for cheap PT Cruisers – but they were either not running, or not cared for.

The PT in the PT Cruiser apparently stands for “Plymouth Truck”, as there were plans to release it under the Plymouth badge, until the brand was shut down in 1999. With push-button door handles, bulging wheel arches and a nod to side running boards, it looked like something from a 40s gangster’s garage. The 4-cylinder engine wasn’t overly powerful, but did the job. Inside, it had clever folding rear seats and a rear parcel shelf that could turn into a picnic table. However, most PT Cruisers were made in Mexico (although some for the right-hand-drive market were built in Austria) so fit and finish isn’t always perfect.

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Just before Easter 2020, as everyone was being told to stay close to home due to coronavirus and I was on holidays, I found a manual 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser listed at an auction place. It wasn’t up for a “live” auction – it was listed for online bidding. It had been through the system once without a sale, and was now listed with a low starting bid of a few hundred dollars.

I was happy to risk that – but when the auction finished without any other bid, I was told it hadn’t reached reserve. They could sell it to me for a few hundred more, which I initially rejected, due to the added fees.

However, a second look at the auction photos showed a car with a service history, almost perfect paint, and a clean leather-accented interior.

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I rang the auction place back and agreed to buy it, without ever having sat in or driven a PT Cruiser.

The auction place was just inside the 50-kilometre virus distance limit from home, so I got driven down to pick it up, right away. After dealing with social distancing between tow truck drivers at the delivery gate, and quite a delay, the PT Cruiser arrived. “We had to jump start it”, the driver said, “so keep it running”.

The air conditioning was working, so the first thing after leaving the gatehouse was to shut the driver’s window. It took me a moment to find the switches.. at the very top centre of the dashboard. Then, there was the radio – it played for around 30 seconds, before re-starting. It would do this all the way home. After arriving on our front lawn, I put the PT into reverse to move it back, and it didn’t go into gear easily.

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So I probably needed a new battery, and a check on the gearbox. I was worried the latter would cost me, big time. I took out the battery after removing the air cleaner from the very crowded engine bay, had it checked and it was indeed no good. A new battery made the radio happy, but I was still having trouble with reverse.

Thankfully, Google revealed that a damaged reverse gear shift cable bushing under the centre console would be the problem, and I just needed to order a tiny rubber-lined part to screw in. For $50 via eBay, the part would (eventually) arrive from the US. The only remaining problem was fog lights that would come on if you flicked up the indicator – the end of the stalk (the light switch) had worn a little. Pushing it in fixed the problem.

A month or so later, I “helped” my mechanic as he installed the bushing (meaning I held back the plastic centre console for him) and the PT Cruiser was ready for a roadworthy and rego.

It easily passed, with both my mechanic and the roadworthy guy commenting on how clean the engine bay was. This was a car that had been loved. The books showed that for the first 15 years, it had been owned by a trucking company, and regularly serviced.

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But here’s the “never meet your heroes” bit: when I sat on the front seats, they felt like they were too short for my long legs. It was like I was hanging over a cliff while driving. I was used to more supportive seats. Plus, one night as I drove home, I discovered another problem: without my glasses on (which I don’t need for driving) the lit-up speedo’s small numbers were hard to read. I had to keep putting my glasses on, to make sure I was doing the right speed. Daytime speedo reading was not a problem.

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So, while it had fulfilled my dream, it wasn’t a dream for me to drive. I listed it for sale, at top dollar because it was a very good example, complete with aftermarket touchscreen radio and reversing camera. It didn’t really get noticed on Gumtree, but when I listed it on Facebook, within 2 minutes I had an enquiry.

The older lady looked at it the next day, along with 2 other people. They’d done their homework: they knew I’d priced it higher than the going rate on Redbook. I explained that it was above the standard of most 19-year-old cars, and we came to a middle ground that suited us both.

So I’d met one of my car heroes, and was disappointed – but the profit was the icing on the Madeleine cake.

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