Clattering to a stop in the blackness, the two climb out the driver’s door (the passenger’s door having frozen shut) into the only-slightly-colder night air and start digging under the hood. Pulling the dipstick they find the oil is coal black (normal for a Diesel) and the consistency of pudding (not normal at all). Mix water with oil and agitate well and the result is always pudding. The radiator is nearly empty, but the few puddles of antifreeze hiding in the crevices of the coolant bottle have that balsamic-vinaigrette splattering of pitch-black oil. The commingling of fluids is an unmistakable sign. The head gasket is blown.
From the moment of diagnosis, the engine’s demise is preordained. Coolant will continue to leak from the head gasket, draining the radiator and polluting the oil. If they keep filling the radiator, the engine might keep running–though it will make even less power than before. If they stop the engine for too long, the water could fill a cylinder and prevent it from ever starting again. If they keep it running, the water will continue to dilute the oil until it eventually stops being slippery enough. At that point, a bearing will seize, probably encouraging a connecting rod to violently exit the block through a doorway it will make itself. Either path is a time bomb.
With 750 miles to go, the best plan is to keep driving, keep adding water, and hope they make it before the time bomb stops ticking. At this very moment, though, that option is off the table. To keep driving, they will need water–liquid water–and at 2 AM on the side of the freeway several miles on the wrong side of Clearwater, Minnesota, the only water they can find could be poured with a hammer.
Waiting for help is their only hope, though cars pass at agonizing hour-long intervals this far from civilization. Even bundling up for warmth is out of the question. The gentle wafting of temperate air from the Rabbit’s heater had been no match for the cold drafts form the car’s rotted-out door and window seals, so hours ago the two unpacked their luggage and put on every piece of clothing they owned.
By the time help arrives, Jared and Chris are scheming to club a snow leopard with the frozen-solid sweatshirt that has been serving as an impromptu door seal, and cuddle inside its corpse for warmth. They have been stranded, at this point, for eight minutes.
Fortunately, those hearty enough to live in these conditions are also human enough to stop when they see someone in a state of impaired mobility. The first passing car stops and offers up enough liquid water (four 16-oz bottles) to limp to the next gas station where they can stock up on antifreeze that will stay liquid inside the freezing car. With one eye on the temperature gauge and another watching the mirror for the telltale smoke, the two press on with a new, deeply-held understanding of their own mortality.
It takes the perspective of their desperate mid-trip straits to see the optimism with which the trip started. Only two days earlier the pair answered a craigslist ad for a remarkably clean-looking 1981 Rabbit Diesel–$2,500. Any Diesel Rabbit still running is inevitably in that state through the heroic actions of a string of truly odd people. Three owners ago, someone in Ohio decided to run the poor car on old french fry oil. This is theoretically possible and frequently successful, but still not as simple as pulling up to McDonald’s and answering emphatically when they ask, “Do you want fries with that?”
The french-fry experiment ended in failure, and the dead Rabbit traded hands for $0 to the owner of a New Jersey body shop. He rebuilt the engine before selling it to an employee for $400, letting him use the shop tools to rebuild it. Even with a fresh engine and fresh paint, the proud new owner claimed the car had simply turned out not to be his style. A quick test drive suggested this might be because his style involved driving more than 29 mph.
The Diesel engine’s stubbornly inaccurate reputation as smelly, rattly and tragically underpowered was cemented in America’s collective memory in large part by the Diesel Rabbit. However great they may seem with the tint of nostalgia and the amnesia of time, they were, in reality, pretty awful. But even judged by the exceedingly low standards of its original performance, this particular example was utterly pathetic. Pedestrians could beat it across an intersection at full throttle, and nothing short of driving off a cliff would convince it to break 30. Love is a funny thing, though. Its chiseled Bondo physique and shiny Lago Blue paint blinded Jared to the car’s mechanical reality, and after a brief negotiation the car was his for $1,700.