Crazy Car Lady

They say more than three cats makes you a Crazy Cat Lady. Well, today I bought three first-generation Mitsubishi Monteros, bringing my total count to four and a half. Does that make me a Crazy Car Lady? I have a 1987 Silver 2-door, a 1989 maroon, 1990 maroon, 1991 blue and about 50% of another 1989 blue one in my shed. These magnificent vehicles were one of the first generation of SUV’s, when manufacturers had the brilliant idea to merge the otherwise uncomfortable 4WD category and the luxury station wagon into one epic baby of space, comfort and rugged capability. The Sport Utility Vehicles hit markets in the early 80s (1984 Jeep Cherokee is considered the first) and direct competitors are still collectibles of a bygone era when SUVs were built to last. After that, there was no going back. The Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60 ran from 1980 to 1990 and will still sell for $8,000-$12,000. The Mitsubishi Montero is lighter with a smaller engine, taller body, more complex suspension and fuel injection instead of a carburetor. Its biggest shortcoming is the lack of aftermarket parts. Dodge’s 1986-1989 Raider came from the same factory and has the same problem. For this reason, and the more advanced mechanics of Mitsubishi’s in general, make them expensive to work on and therefore it’s easy to buy one for less than $2,000. Well-kept, fully rebuilt Montero’s with low mileage can go for $6,000-$8,000.

This is the 1986 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60 David and I drove through Latin America from 2009 to 2014, which is how I came to love the first generation SUVs.

Lately, the Mitsubishi Montero has been gaining popularity, and owners will seek each other out to talk about their love for this collectible car and share stories of creative fixes. You could say it’s come to have a solid cult-following. I even had someone wait for me by my car in the parking lot at Super Drug to ask if he could buy mine. In the end, today, he sold me the three Monteros he had. He’d previously sold his fourth car to an acquaintance of mine with a beautifully rebuilt silver Montero. I’d taken parts of that one last year. I have made a friend of another man in Nevada who works in Sandpoint in the summers and has a 1991 blue manual transmission Montero with 400,000 miles on the original engine. He bought some of my parts last year; the engine hood, heater core, window switches and door handles. I’ve sold and shipped parts to Korea, Indonesia, Mexico and Australia.

I bought mine in 2015 before I got my driving license and patched it up as best I could after letting the professional mechanics do a fairly complete rebuild of the suspension and drivetrain. In 2017 the engine blew up and I bought a near identical 1989 (only the trim was different; in 1988 they changed from a 2.6l V4 to 3.0l V6) and paid someone to swap the engine and transmission. Then, I spent a few months manually taking the 1989 apart using nothing but a set of screwdrivers and a socket wrench set. It’s Japanese made, so all the nuts and bolts are metric, which is much easier for me. I merged the two blue Monteros into one great-looking car with 160,000 miles on it, kept the spare parts on hand, including all doors, fenders and a transfer case, and sold enough parts online to make up for the cost of the second car. Last year I replaced all the bushings, sway bar brackets, end links and transmission & transfer case mound and installed adjustable Air Lifts in the coil springs. It goes anywhere I want it to go and easily drives 10-hour days on the interstate without issue.

The man who sold me three Monteros today is 81-year-old Herb who lives in a three-story off-grid home he built around a chainsawed 10×10 water tower frame. Also in the house are three golden retrievers, a Siamese cat who lives on the kitchen table and his wife Merla. Here is a living piece of local history and Herb is more than excited to tell me all his stories, which I take in as much as I can and appreciate as a bonus with the cars. The house sits on a bluff in the forest surrounded by hay bales, machinery, several sheds and ladders are propped up on the sides. Inside, an antique Windsor stove is burning local wood they get from Skywalker Tree Service (“My house is one stop closer than the dump”) and cast-iron pots and skillets are strung from the ceiling everywhere. The countertops are made of a beautiful larch and white granite. Every piece of furniture has a story I want to hear, but after two hours I feel the urge to get going. I say I need the restroom and an outhouse would be fine, but I’m told four years ago a tree fell square on it so, needless to say, it’s out of use. I receive a full tour of the house on my way to the second-floor bathroom through the new addition that serves as a boat shop, work area and bedroom. Floorboards are all solid, albeit at times oddly angled and sloping. I swat my way through about a hundred wool shirts and coats, as in the Chronicles of Narnia an sit on the loo, wondering if these big windows offer enough privacy. I look over to see the prized blue bidet they reportedly were given from a Maine whorehouse by someone who didn’t like the color. He is talking to his wife who is reading in the bed.
“She took my picture for her journal.” (pause) “She really likes the counter tops.”
It hit me that his uninterruptible storytelling is really badly veiled enthusiasm of an isolated homesteader bursting with eight decades of adventured to share.

Herb in his kitchen

One of the Monteros still drives so we brought it to town while the other two will have to be taken apart in his driveway. We coasted down the muddy dirt road. At the bottom he stopped, takes it out of 4WD and backs up to disengage the hubs. Before we turn onto highway 200, he pulled over. “Steering fluid, I need to put in.” The clutch needs an overhaul and power steering fluid slowly seeps out every 15 miles or so. The cost of fixing it all is close to $1,800 and considering one of the dogs ate most of the interior in an act of canine defiance, it just isn’t worth the investment. At first he asked if I had anything to trade, like “Maybe a double-barrel shotgun?” I told him I don’t keep things around I don’t use because I’m a minimalist. He asked for $300 — precisely the money he needs to spay his dog. I ended up giving him $400 for all three cars and got a happy crooked smile. “That’s $133.3333… each!” my friend Sandy Compton helpfully pointed out in case I’d suddenly lost my ability to do basic math. Now I have a red 1990 and blue 1991 Montero (1989 engine, 2019 transmission) in my driveway and am reminding myself to use power tools to dissect them this time. Now that I know which parts are worth keeping, it should only take me about 20 hours per car. But I’m notoriously optimistic and tend to underestimate most things I take on. Frankly, I have no idea how I manage. All I know is that I’m crazy about these cars.

—October 2020 Update—
On a long drive in July the engine overheated and after some in-house work I had to bring it to the shop for a head gasket job and partial overhaul. There it sat for four weeks as the mechanics slowly went crazy and began tearing their hair out and calling me to ask for parts, which I had. Sometimes. I did have to borrow a car and drive up to Herb’s place and spend a few hours removing the EGR pipe and exhaust manifold, crammed under a car resting on its rims, cursing under my breath, bruised and sweating while the old man handed me tools, sitting among snow berry bushes. The front water pump housing was also cracked and there was one present on this continent. It was pricey and came from California but it was necessary and gave me an extra water pump. So call me if you know someone in need of one. Meanwhile, life went on and I got to reconnect with my bicycle, which is also blue.

I’d begun getting nightmares as weeks went by and challenges kept coming up of walking into the shop to a disheveled team of greasy mechanics saying “We did all we could, but she didn’t make it. And you owe us four large.”

Today I picked it up and felt such joy that I just drove it home, opened the hood and stared at all the shiny new parts for a while. I told myself the $2,500 they charged for the job could never buy me a new car but it does bug me that some parts had to be replaced that I’d recently put in. I think it went through four thermostats, two sets of timing belts, spark plugs and distributor wiring kit in two years. So I catch myself saying aloud “What could go wrong now? There’s literally nothing else that could break that hasn’t been replaced or I have access to.” Then I quickly run to touch the nearest tree.

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