Cars – ’01 Dodge Neon

Don’t let hormones decide your next vehicle purchase.

Back in 2001, I was deeply in love. The kind of blinding, hopeful, unrealistic, hormone driven love that drives a man to make mistakes. My girlfriend at the time had a 1st gen Dodge Neon.


Now up until this point in my life, I’d never driven a small car before. For what it was, the Neon was a great handling car. As long as you ignored the peeling paint and blown head gaskets – there’s a reason it was so popular in ACR and R/T trim. It was nimble, peppy, and good on gas. 3 things I didn’t get out of my Intrepid.

So I traded in a good car in need of a few hundred dollars worth of repair for this:

Actually my 2001 Neon.

Now don’t get me wrong, I might make some negative comments but on the whole it was a good and reliable car. It was the first car I really started to put effort into when it came to performance upgrades. It got the usual “Sam” package which was tinted windows and a bass box in the trunk. In addition to that, custom wheels, cold air intake, dual exhaust, and an underdrive pulley. It was also my very first manual transmission car.

My dad taught me to drive stick on his…. 1994 Ford Ranger. I picked it up quickly, and he was right – once you know how to drive manual, it becomes automatic. With this car I stalled it once in the parking spot on delivery, but after that it became automatic. The saleswoman was surprised when I told her I’d never really driven stick before.

Up to about 75mph, the Neon was reasonably quick. Bone stock, it got about 30mpg. After installing all my modifications (and driving it like a normal person) the best I got was 40mpg. Not bad for the time. I tell you though, this car was a 4 wheeled metaphor for my early 20’s. I’m 21, in love, have a good job, my own apartment, within a short time though I’d be alone and horribly depressed.

With 1000 miles on the odometer, driving my ex girlfriend home from an event, a deer ran out in front of my shiny new car from a field of very tall grass and caused $3000 in damage to it. Completely took the wind out of my sails. Remember that body shop I mentioned that did work on my Intrepid? Went back to them. Everything was good until I felt the hood. Was like low grit sandpaper. Apparently they put it out in a dusty parking lot to dry after painting it. I took it right back, they sanded it, polished it, and ensured I’d never go back.

A year later in the same spot, I’d hit another deer. This time they were running from a car leaving the driveway of a wildlife sanctuary. I didn’t report it to insurance, as I didn’t want it to spike, and only the hood was damaged. I ordered a new hood for the car and left it primer black for the rest of the time I owned it. At around 30k miles, I ran over a stepladder in the middle of route 17. At 50k miles, the head gasket blew.\

Me Ta Phor. My 20’s were a roller coaster. Every time I thought I was getting up to speed, another deer ran in my path to throw me off course.

The second time I was ever pulled over for tint was maybe a half mile from my apartment. As I was a young driver in the American equivalent of a beat up Honda, I got my “fix it ticket” and was sent on my way. Essentially the ticket would be dropped if I removed the tint, which I angrily did later that day. Side note – crank the heat in the car so the glass and tint is warm, it should peel off in large sheets. Windex and a rag will remove the adhesive.

Now one time I should have been pulled over, and was not… I was racing another car. I’d seen this beat up old Honda Accord on my way to work one day, 3 kids in the car, and when I approached they flashed their hazard lights at me. I didn’t know at the time, but apparently that was the universal sign for “want to race?” I really didn’t, so I kept going.

A few days later I’m heading back from Middletown on back roads, and in my rearview what do I see approaching rapidly? That crappy Honda again. I floor it. Now my Neon was pretty quick up until about 75mph, once I crossed that, acceleration was still possible but it was much less…satisfying to my 20 year old idiot self.

So we’re on this two lane back road, and in the distance I see a car stopping to pull left. They’re maybe a half a mile a head as I dip out of view, fully expecting them to be gone when I crested it. Well… They weren’t. I don’t know why they were at a dead stop, but there was no oncoming traffic and there they sat.

I’m not certain if they saw me coming, saw me slam on the brakes, or heard the calamity that was headed their way, but they finally moved off the road with a few dozen feet to spare. In my rearview, while this was going on and while I was rapidly slowing, I saw that POS Accord behind me, sideways with at least one wheel locked up.

With the roadblock removed, I sped back up and maybe a half mile down the road, pulled over into a dirt lot. They followed. All 4 of us (remember they had 3 other people in that car) just looked at each other like “did that just happen?” We shared a couple cigarettes, thanked God for our luck in avoiding what could have been an ugly accident, and then the pies de resistance…

The other driver, who had apparently been trying to race anyone with wheels for at least the past week and finally did with me… HAD ABSOLUTELY NO BRAKES LEFT. In a day of stupid, that was the stupidest stupidity I’d stupidly encountered on that stupid freaking day.

Recall back when I said ‘tires wins the race’ then I pointed out how often I went through tires on my Intrepid? Didn’t learn my lesson here, whatsoever. After upgrading the intake, exhaust, and installing the underdrive pulley, I bought the wheels you see above with REALLY WIDE TIRES on them. Even Discount Tire Direct said “LOL ARE YOU SURE.”

I had no clue what I was doing. Sure, they looked great, but they completely threw off the balance of the car and were utterly useless in the snow. That’s why in 2001, I had a perfectly snow worthy FWD sedan with snow chains on it. I wound up ditching those tire in short order for the least expensive set of Good Year tires that I could find. That’s when I learned that skinny tires + manual transmission = beast in the snow.

One storm in the early 2000’s (will add a photo here later) I drove the 10 mile trip from Pine Island to Warwick in a solid 6″ of snow to get pizza from Franks. I passed both trucks and SUV’s that were stuck. I didn’t go over 20mph the entire way, and safely returned home. The main trick was keeping the wheels spinning at the same speed the car was moving.

Now at the time I had the Neon, I was working for a Library system so I would regularly drive between libraries in 4 counties. Bonus points if the work van was unavailable, as I could drive my own car, get reimbursed for the mileage, and instead of driving back to the office when my day was through, I could just go home. That is how in 3 years I put 90k miles on that little Neon and the biggest problem I had with it was a blown head gasket.

Now nearing the end of my ownership of this car, my Neon driving girlfriend and I had parted ways, I was bitter, depressed, and eager to show how well I was doing by buying new shit. Emphasis on the shit. Oh boy. On the upside, trading the Neon in for my next car, a 2000 Dodge Intrepid R/T, taught me how to properly negotiate a car purchase (to my benefit. Before we get there though, we need to discuss my 1986 Buick Regal T-Type…

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