Sweat Stained Review: Confessions of a Blue Collar Misfit

Meet Sinead. She’s a Vibe.

By Dan Denton

When I made the crazy brave, or just crazy, depending on your vantage point and level of comfort with capitalism, decision to walk away from the best job I’ve ever had, my job at the Toledo Jeep plant, my goal was to take the small lump sum check they gave me to “buy out” my seniority and contractual union rights, and use that money to set myself up in a lifestyle that requires as little money as possible to maintain. I’ve done pretty good at that I think. 

I knew I’d have to live cheap to have a chance to make it as a writer. Making a living from my work as an American artist seems an impossible pipe dream still, and to give myself the most time to write, I wanted to live as simple as possible so that when I did need to find work, I could work as little as possible. I know the capitalist in most of us says that’s wrong, and even for a solid longtime socialist comrade like me, it feels weird to write it out loud. To choose a poor, simple life after owning a home and new cars. To build a life like that after being a former homeless man, then give it up for a life not far above those homeless standards, hell, it sounds crazy even to me. I’ve spent so much of my life working overtime factory hours and often two or three jobs at a time, that every day it still crosses my mind that I need to go find another job. I have to override this instinct weekly still. 

Right or wrong, I did what I did, and I don’t believe in looking back. Set the damn bridges on fire my friends. If it’s important enough to go back, you’ll learn to swim. But I do things all the way in life. I’ve always kind of felt like if it’s half assed it ain’t for me. So, I bought an older camper with cash, and have spent small amounts of money remodeling it into my full time home. I bought an old truck to pull it around. I’ve eliminated all meaningful debt, and can live ok on a small budget every month, although I like having more funds for weed, and a little adventure now and again, and getting those things require some hustle and outside the norm creativity. 

After all my figuring and prefiguring and re-figuring in this new life choice, I had two big remaining payments kicking my ass: my monthly car note for my 2016 Jeep, and the monthly campground rent for my travel trailer that I named “The Scrapes of Wrath.” Everything gets a name and becomes my friend for some reason. After months of looking for all best solutions to the car note kneeing me in the junk, I finally made the tough decision to get rid of the Jeep and scraped together my last remaining money to buy the best possible cheap car I could get. I have the truck, but at 13 miles a gallon, and as often as I need to drive, to see my kids, to poetry readings, to the laundromat or grocery store, driving the truck costs a lot of money, and yeah it sucks bearing the expense of two vehicles to maintain and insure, but outside of selling the truck and renting one when I need to move the camper, two cheap paid off vehicles seems the best way right now. 

Here’s the thing. Any time you buy a vehicle for a few grand, it’s a gamble. Cheap cars come with high mileage and lots of use, and require a little knowledge and a whole lot of luck to find one that gets you around a few years. And I need luck, fuck I hope I can get a few years out of my car and truck. 

I wanted a mini van or some type of car that I can “car camp” in on my feral hardscrabble road trips, something with good gas mileage and some space, and oh yeah, you know me, it had to be UAW built. I’m a former union autoworker, former UAW chief steward and longtime union man. I’m well aware of the value of old Hondas and Toyotas, and how their engines and quality of vehicle drastically outshines American made cars, especially until the last 10 years. I didn’t have enough money for a car as new as 10 years old anyway, and because of the rising popularity of the working poor opting to “car camp” and “van life,” older minivans now come with higher prices and are more difficult to find in the value lane I’m driving in these days. 

But what to do? I needed to gamble on something, and cross my fingers I’d get lucky. So after a ton of research and weeks of searching, I found what I think is a home run solution. I found a 2009 Pontiac Vibe. It has 170,000 miles and comes from a police auction, to a back alley car lot in Columbus, OH. Yeah, I drove three hours to find what I wanted. 

You’re not going to believe this, but the Pontiac Vibe is one of the rare UAW built vehicles that have Toyota technology and engines. How it happened is fascinating to me, but basically Toyota needed an inroad to building cars in America, and GM had shuttered their very worst factory in Fremont, CA. 

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, just like American automakers failed to be forward minded in their engineering and investments, and thus made a lot of junk cars and bad decisions, the UAW, once the foremost labor power in the country, had devolved in some places to near anarchy in the fact that workers would regularly walk out on daily wildcat strikes, show up to work inebriated and under the influence, and generally do what they wanted, while earning an upper middle class living. The stories I’ve heard over the years from high seniority Jeep workers in Toledo from the 70’s and 80’s are now legend and lore amongst local UAW members. In one repeated tale, a boss got mad at a worker on the assembly line, and unplugged their radio and took it. In solidarity with the grieved worker and union reps, the workers went on strike the rest of the day, and returned the next with the worker’s radio plugged in and ready to go. Rumor has it that boss fell down the stairs later, and after recovering from that he was never a better friend to the union the rest of his days. 

Regardless, bad engineering nearly caused the entire industry to tank, and the UAW became corrupt with stagnation years after, but in Fremont, CA Toyota and GM made an agreement to open the plant back up, re-employing most of the laid off workers, and the new workers were still UAW, but the plant operated under Toyota style manufacturing philosophies. They built cars there starting in the 80’s, and in the early 2000’s they built the Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe on the same assembly line. They’re nearly identical cars, and both of them are UAW made. Yes, you could drive a Toyota from the right years, and still be driving a UAW built car. Or in my case, a Pontiac Vibe with a Toyota engine. 

Vibes have a cult following because of this. They’re becoming less common, and their prices hold true to used Japanese cars of the same years. Mine, the 2009 model, was the first year of a new model design, and thus the least favorable of Vibes, but even the 2009’s are well documented to sometimes go 300,000 miles before major engine repairs or rebuilds needed, and some have gone upwards of 500,000 or more miles with lots of love and care. My car, that I named Sinead, all of my vehicles are named in honor of women songwriters, my car has not been well loved. The radio is broke. It looks like someone smashed it with their fist. I’ll get a replacement someday, but for now I motor around with a cheap Bluetooth speaker connected to my phone. Works just fine.

The middle console cubby hole looks like someone ripped it off with great force. But it sits fine, you just have to use both hands to open it. Theres dents and scratches. Someone stole the catalytic converter at some point, what a Midwestern cliche, and it’s been Frankensteined back together. She’s got good rubber for now, though, although at least one of the tires no longer has the tire pressure monitor in the valve stem, so the tire light is permanently on, and I have to check the tires manually with my pocket pressure gauge. When’s the last time you used one of those? I need it for my truck, too. Old, budget vehicles don’t often have fancy whistles, but as long as you don’t mind driving with warning lights on all the time, you learn to get by. My truck, Janice, a Red 2006 Dodge Ram with a Hemi, my most beloved car engine, it has a bad oxygen sensor and permanent light on the dash, but as long as it doesn’t run rough, it’s not necessary to replace the sensor just yet. 

My new old car, Sinead, she gets 30+ mpg on the highway, and she’s a four door low riding hatchback. You could almost put her in the back of my pick up truck. But when you lay her back seats down flat, and push her front seats all the way up, I can fit my 5’8” body in my sleeping bag set up in the back, and have two inches to spare in headroom. What more could a wayfaring artist ask for? 

And so far, knock on wood, she’s been a real beaut. I’m about to take her for her second oil change this week, and I’m slowly giving her the love and hands on tune ups and care she needs if we’re gonna make it 100k more miles together out there chasing unlikely daydreams and the kind of fun that only comes spontaneously. Both of us proudly UAW built, with dings and dents, scuffed up and rusting a little. Both us with a lot of miles on engines that are built to last, and with enough luck and love, engines that could go a lot further. 

By the way. That joint Toyota-GM factory in Fremont, CA? It closed during the Great Recession and the GM bail out and bankruptcy. And in an odd twist of fate, is now a Tesla factory, and the number one bullseye for organizing from the UAW after their huge win at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee recently. 

Soon, you just might be able to drive UAW built VW’s and UAW built Teslas. An old union autoworker can dream, right? Imagine American highways full of cars made by upper middle class paid union autoworkers? Let’s make the American union great again. The time is right for a much needed labor revolution. Me and Sinead are here for it. Both of us proof that if the American dream is real, it’s built by labor. If the American dream exists, both me and my car’s were built by the UAW, and its assembly lines. 

Dan Denton is a former union autoworker turned full-time writer. He lives in a small travel trailer with a 23 pound cat named Hunter S. Tomcat. His latest novel The Dead and the Desperate (Roadside Press, 2023) is available from most booksellers.