I Thought I Was Buying A Safe Used Car. I Found A Secret Modification That Could Have Killed Me

Like every other automotive journalist, I have bigger eyes than my car-shaped stomach. To us, cars are tasty little morsels that we can’t help but overindulge on until we metaphorically throw up. Well, folks – I’m throwing up. I’ve tried to chew and chew, and keep things down, but I’ve overeaten, and the Honda-shaped bile has risen. Or, was I poisoned?

Ignoring my probably overwrought and too-gross-for-publication metaphor, I’ve learned some really terrible things about my 2011 Honda CR-Z, and thus, the world at large. I recently learned that my car didn’t have working airbags. And I’m not sure the previous owner knew, either.

I fully admit that I had no business buying the CR-Z, but its low price and rarity caught my eye. The owner, a college kid studying far from home, had enlisted the help of his mom to sell the broken car. The seller’s mom was charming – she was a woman about the same age as my mom, just looking to help her college-aged kid get through school. In her words, the CR-Z was a flawless car that her kid got a good deal on, only for it to never start again after a long drive from Atlanta to Cleveland. It’s all checked out; she (nor her son) seemed like they had nothing to hide, and I had already convinced myself that I needed that car. So I gave her cash and transferred the title in my name before looking too closely at the car. It was a clean title Honda with less than 150,000 miles – how bad could it be?

Honda CrZ

It was very bad. Both door handles had broken off — very common for the CR-Z. Neither handle is cheap R about $200 for OEM replacements. The previous owner had sort of tied the seatbelt around the driver’s door to keep it from flying open but also jammed a Swisher Sweets cigar-pack wrapper to keep the door from latching closed so he could get in and out of it if he needed to. The car had been smoked in, thus the interior’s gray fabric was now a horrible shade of brown. It was littered with half-drunk bottles of grocery store 42-proof tequila and Peak Iced tea, now both frozen and molding from the six months the car sat in his grandmother’s driveway. The deleted rear seat turned storage cubbies had Tupperware with half-eaten months old food, the dust of loose leaf tobacco, brand new brake pads, and a bottle of Valu Time brand Italian seasoning. The plastic dashboard was just as gross, sticky, and smelly as the seats and headliner.

Aside from the horrible physical shape, it had been subject to the previous owner’s really tacky modifications. There was a color-changing fiber optic cable that went across the dashboard at some point. The cable was gone, but I still had the remote for it. The windows had been tinted, but they didn’t use the same brand of tint, because the rear windshield was brown and peeling, but the side windows were black. The stock wheels had been spray painted black, but they didn’t do a good job or use the right paint. And there was a weird Mugen jelly phone holder stuck to the middle of the dashboard. Any sane person would have passed.

Honda Crz Exploded

But, I’m not there. I towed the car 150 miles to my house and proceeded to dump it in a field next to my trusted mechanic friend’s shop. A year of employment changes and a lack of motivation saw my mechanic and I abandoned the CR-Z while we both tried in vain to figure out why neither of us could program a new OEM key, and start the vehicle.

Until, one day I finally got it started. The car was still gross inside, the tires were bald, the brake rotors were toast – but the important parts were working well. The car’s engine, hybrid battery, and CVT transmission were strong. The rest was all cosmetic. I fixed the brakes, got a set of new tires, changed the oil and transmission fluid, and the CR-Z was running like new.

I had been driving the CR-Z for about two weeks, holding my breath and ignoring the musty smells as much as I could, and figuring out a plan of action as to what exactly was worth fixing on the car. I wasn’t going to get any profit at this point, but I didn’t want to give up on the thing – it was running nicely, even if it wasn’t very pretty. I figured I could detail the interior and sell it cheaply just to get my money back.

Life had other plans, though. The CR-Z had been baked in the sun for the better part of a year. Our star’s rays had done a number on the tacked-on aftermarket stuff. The crappy tint had started to bubble, and the Mugen jelly cellphone pad had raised up from the dashboard.

Jelly Disguise2

I ripped off the ugly dash pad only to learn a terrible, terrible truth. The passenger-side airbag had deployed at some point earlier in the CR-Z’s life, and the ugly jelly pad was covering a big hole in the dashboard.

No Airbag2

I looked at the car closer. The seatbelt on the passenger side was locked, but the driver’s one couldn’t retract. I initially chalked it up to gunk being stuck in the retractor mechanism, that happened to me once with a Hyundai Tiburon; a busted rear windshield had flung glass shards over the interior. The previous owner vacuumed up most of them, but some shards had jammed the retractor module (and trunk latch). Those were easy fixes. The Tiburon also had corrosion in the seatbelt latch sensor, nothing a bit of scrubbing and reinstalling couldn’t fix.

img 2210

The CR-Z was far more serious. Scanning the CR-Z revealed a hard crash code in the SRS module, in which the driver’s airbag and seatbelt pre-tensioners explosive charges had been deployed. When an accident happens, these codes are unclear. Only an SRS computer replacement will make the codes go away.

I knew the car had been in a minor accident, the CarFax had said so. The gap on the front fascia is clearly not stock, but the clean title told me it was likely just a low-quality body guy. Someone who was not skilled, but not malicious.

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But, the more investigation I did, the more disturbed I got. Whoever tried to repair the CR-Z didn’t just cut corners by not correctly rehanging a front bumper. They had taken spare airbag connectors and wired in resistors. They had done this for both front seatbelt retractors, the passenger airbag, and the driver’s airbag in what I assume was an attempt to get the airbag light to stay off. The driver’s airbag had been replaced, (but not hooked up), and the missing passenger airbag was disguised with that ugly Mugen jelly pad.Dashboards

The CR-Z transaction was done via Facebook. We were strangers, but I still had a somewhat of a relationship with the previous owner, he was really a nice guy. He had confessed that he didn’t really want to sell the CR-Z, but he needed money for school, and he couldn’t afford to fix the car. Over the year or so that I’ve had the car, he’s occasionally messaged me, asking if I had got it running yet, and talking about how much he missed the car. I had enough rapport to ask him if he knew about the lack of airbags or working seatbelts.

Dashboard Wires

He said he knew the airbag light was on, but I could tell from the candor of our conversation he didn’t understand why these things were important. My heart sank. This kid had been scammed.

Luckily, whoever did the wiring job on the CR-Z, was a complete dumbass. The SRS computer has a hard crash code that can’t be reset with a scanner, so the airbag light will always be on, no matter what cheap tricks you try to get it to stay off. The resistors were wired pretty badly, likely hastily cold-soldered since there were cracked soldering joints. It would have never worked.

But, what if it did? If the shady repair guy had been successful, the CR-Z’s airbag light would have stayed off. Meaning, if the naive and young previous owner had ever gotten into even a minor accident, he could have been seriously hurt. The seatbelts won’t do anything, and neither will the airbags. At the very least, the appearance of a driver’s airbag (that isn’t hooked up) and the awkward cover of the blown passenger airbag would have been enough to fool a buyer who doesn’t know any better. I mean, it fooled me.img 1407

Repairs like those done on the CR-Z were clearly the work of someone who wasn’t a good person. They wanted to hide the car’s problems, and cheat someone out of a dollar, at the expense of someone’s life. The kid who thought he was getting a deal was putting his life in danger every time he got behind the wheels of that car and didn’t even know it. That stuff burns me up.

I am hard-headed and crazy, and I’m not giving up on the CR-Z even though I am incredibly over budget. I can’t be the guy to let an unsafe car go back on the road, under my name. I know better, I know what the car needs. So, I’m fixing it.

Today Crz

I’ve replaced the passenger airbag and dashboard, installed new seatbelts that work, and I’ve pulled out all the junky resistors from the seatbelts and airbags to make sure the interface with the SRS computer. The SRS computer has been replaced, and it appears that the CRZ’s safety systems are now fully functional.

My CR-Z will live to see another day, but I’m angry at what it took to get here.

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