The Ride of a Lifetime.
The Ride of a Lifetime.

1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

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Half the distance, twice the safety...

Here’s another long awaited story of my trip to Denver to pick up my new (to me) smart (jokingly then seriously named Chelsea), and the drive back home to Chicago. This time around almost everything went to plan, but there were some fun challenges along the way.

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If you didn’t catch the last installment of my smart-obtaining road trips, here is my last one.

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This time involved half the distance (though the same route) but also involved much better time management on my part, thus was safer.

Backstory

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On the Wednesday of Aug 13-19, I read a post on my favourite smart forum about a member giving away his smart for free.

His 2005 smart with about 23,000 miles was no longer able to be emissions tested in the state of Colorado so once the license plate expired (itself only a thing because the original owner got a temporary exemption from emissions testing), that was it...The car couldn’t be driven in Colorado again unless the state changed its laws again. It would be a car dead center in a state it couldn’t be driven in.

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This is because the 2005 smart fortwo is a gray market import from G&K. It was never meant to be on US roads. The conversion company had to go through all of the hoops to get it federalized and avoiding the 25 year import ban. So while it’s federally legal to be here, not all 50 states will register it. Some states keep a close eye on the gray market, some not.

Amusingly enough, because each state is different, this is how you’ll sometimes see a smart roadster or a Canadian diesel smart in America that is completely legal. The owner did the bare minimum to satisfy the feds and titled the car in a state that doesn’t care about the car’s origins.

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He already bought a Leaf to replace the car and just wanted to wash his hands of the vehicle. The catch was that the car had a cracked windscreen and the window lifter plastic shattered (smart made the regulators with brittle plastic)...

Well, I know that this car could be registered in Illinois, so no later than 10 minutes after he posted the ad I responded to it. I didn’t know what obligations I had that weekend nor did I care, I wanted this car!

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Less than a few hours later, I had purchased my plane ticket ($40 on Spirit). A few days later, I sold a flipped iPhone 6 to cover all of my expenses. I was crazy serious about getting this car!

In the days leading up to Sunday, I couldn’t sleep. I was so excited to not only drive a 450 for the first time, but have it be mine too!

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Sunday

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Having multiple bank accounts and many email addresses are always a good thing. I basically have unlimited half-price Uber rides!

I woke up at 7am (very excited, but having slept well unlike my first trip) like I would for work and started getting dressed. Since I didn’t have anyone to answer to this time around and my flight was later in the day, it felt less ‘sneaky’ and more like any other morning.

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I finished getting dressed at about 8:10 and decided to hail my Uber for my second ride ever. 10 minutes later a new Toyota Camry arrived and whisked me away while I sipped on an icy Arnold Palmer.

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(Photo Credit: Motor Trend)

My driver was a mum who was doing this as a post-retirement fun job. We talked all the way to O’Hare about parenting, kids, and family. It was absolutely the best taxi/Uber ride I’ve ever had and sent her a nice tip her way. I’d rate her 6/5 stars if I could.

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Interestingly, I got to the airport only three hours early this time, and found out that O’Hare isn’t busy on a random Sunday morning in August. My speedy Uber beat Google’s time by 18 minutes. I flew through security and once again found myself gazing at a plane for a flight I came too early to see. D’oh!

No airport antics this time, instead I got myself a window seat to the airport’s operations. An airport is in itself like a sort of engine. Everyone plays their own major part of an operation that if even one person screws up, the entire delicately designed machine could fail. It’s absolutely amazing to watch everyone work together here.

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Takeoff

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Spirit Airlines somehow maintains a cleaner and better looking fleet than Delta. I’m not sure if I should be surprised or not. The plane for this ride was an Airbus A320. It’s shorter than Frontier’s gorgeous A321 while sporting a more modern interior than the comparatively ancient-looking A320 I rode in with Delta.

The biggest downside to Spirit is their hilariously tight seating arrangement. Having lost a lot of weight since my California trip this wasn’t a big deal, but it was amusing to see how Spirit handles seating versus a carrier like Frontier.

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After what seemed like forever waiting in a long queue, our Airbus finally left the ground with that familiar temporary weightlessness feeling I first experienced a year before. :)

This time around, my fellow passengers were two random women. We had some small chats about seat space and the airline, it was...random?

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We did encounter some turbulence, which lulled me into a nice nap while music filled my ears...

The Mile High City

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I was jolted awake by some turbulence during landing. Mmmm, I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a plane before, but to date the best naps I’ve ever had were on a plane. To me, it’s almost therapeutic.

Upon landing I was immediately greeted by the most infuriating airport ever. DEN is absolutely gorgeous. There are big windows everywhere with views of the mountains and the architecture is truly something you have to see in person. However, navigation didn’t make any sense.

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To get where I needed to go, I had to go down two floors to a train terminal. I then had to board a train that traveled approximately a quarter mile to another terminal, where’d I’d walk a quarter mile or so to yet another train...At least it was the train that’d take me most of the way to the car.

During my train ride, I noticed each grade crossing had a construction flagger on both sides. Well, the crossing gates were working, so what gives?

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When I disembarked the train I asked a nice police officer. He explained that the city was trying out some experimental GPS-based crossing gates. The theory behind them is that you don’t have to run lines under the ground, instead you just shove a GPS into the gate and have that GPS communicate with a GPS on the train. Seems simple enough, right?

Well, apparently those flaggers are there because the system is much less reliable than traditional crossing gates. Oops.

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My first train dumped me off in the heart of Denver.

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Denver reminds me of Salt Lake City, but with a few dashes of Augusta, Georgia added.

Everyone was super nice downtown. Whereas lots of people would frown at you in downtown Chicago, I had people actually come up and ask me if I needed directions and that my dress was cute. Must be the weed or something. :P

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My second train wasn’t so much a train as it was a really cool tram. After complimenting two elderly anti-Trump protesters on their nice clothes and posters I boarded the front of the train and sat behind the driver. It appeared the train worked a lot like a car with an accelerator pedal and a brake, which was pretty awesome. At any rate, another 20 minutes later and at 3:45-ish pm, I finally reached my destination station.

When I got off the train, I got myself together, fixed my makeup, then made my way to the parking lot where the car would be waiting..

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Expectations Vs. Reality

I never thought about the consequences of storing a car outside that has windows that permanently open a sliver. The car was dirty, very dirty. I don’t think I’ve even seen work trucks this dirty before. I became worried that I took on quite a project.

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Along the way to the previous owner’s house I found out some interesting things about the car. There isn’t an aux jack (darn), the cigarette light isn’t working (double darn), and the air conditioner didn’t work either (triple darn).

Ooooh, I like a challenge.

30 minutes later I had everything squared away and was ready to start heading home. Along with the car came a bootleg MB Star machine (so I could diagnose issues with any 450 in the US, something most mechanics in this country can’t even do), manila folder nearly two inches thick of tech documents and service history, and a spare tyre with a jack.

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I named the car Chelsea, yes after Chelsea Manning. The reason for this is because I made a joke to a friend that “the car’s free like Chelsea Manning”, and it kinda just stuck. It worked well because I wanted my third smart to have a girl’s name anyway. The car’s shimmery red paint also did it favours too.

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Activities in Denver

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(Photo Credit: Westword.com)

My coworker recommended some pizza restaurant that had beer (“Hops & Pie”). I had originally planned on visiting that place and then a dispensary to see what they were all about.

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Then I realized that I had roughly 70% left on my phone’s (at the time, the Honor 5X) battery and a car that had no way of recharging that phone. I had a power pack on me, but the phone has catastrophic battery discharge and it probably wouldn’t survive the whole 15 hour drive home.

Well, I knew the route home so I didn’t need the GPS, but if something happened to me or the car I’d have to be able to contact someone. I decided against using my phone to find my activities and instead just decided to go home.

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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

Leaving Denver...

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Was much simpler than leaving Los Angeles. I hooked onto that familiar I-57 and headed for home. While the Denver skyline became smaller and smaller, I became further acquainted with my new car.

The first thing to go was the air conditioner. It was 95 degrees outside and it was blowing hot air. Obviously there’s a leak somewhere, but I didn’t have the tools to fix that. So I turned it off and kept the blower on max, hoping that the further away I got from Denver, the cooler it would get outside.

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As the sun went down, I also learned that one of the headlights were out. That said, the remaining headlight was so powerful that the car just appeared to be motorcycle with a sidecar, so I plowed forward.

Looking around the car, I assessed any damage. I couldn’t tell how many of the stains were going to come out, but for the most part everything was there.

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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

The car functioned as designed, and no problems were happening aside from the windows and A/C. The clock pod was also missing from the dash, though that’s because the original owner never bought it or the trim rings.

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Since I couldn’t use my phone for anything, I resorted to listening to NPR. Colorado’s NPR was absolutely hilarious and I loved their satirical delivery of depressing news. An unintended byproduct of listening to NPR was having to listen to repeating news about Monday’s eclipse over and over.. That said, the radio in this car is awesome, way better than the 451 and better than the 453 at some tunes too.

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I also noticed that the temperature gauge likes to hang at around 100C when you’re driving 85mph. I initially thought this to be an issue (found out when I got home that such is normal) and backed down to 75-80 mph for the rest of the trip, which seemingly kept the temperature gauge lower.

I stopped for dinner roughly 100 miles outside of Denver. I was sweating profusely because of the heat. I downed the largest meal Carl’s Jr had to offer without any shame.

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Nebraska

Since I am single nowadays and didn’t use my phone, I have no idea when I crossed into Nebraska, but it totally happened, I promise!

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It’s here I’ll talk about the 450's glorious transmission. It doesn’t work like any other car in the US. Instead it has a “L” shaped shift pattern. Right-back is Reverse, right-center is Neutral, and left is gearing. There isn’t a parking pawl so no Park. This particular car does have the auto option, which exists as a little button on the left side of the lever. I feel the car is best driven in Manual Mode (which is the standard mode on my car), so I don’t use the Auto button.

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To park the car, you have to shift into Neutral and then into Reverse, then set the hand brake. Shut down the car and take the key.
To start, get in the car, put the key in the ignition, turn on the ignition, shift into Neutral, then start.

Iowa

Entering Iowa I encountered a new challenge, a thunderstorm. I crossed my fingers for light rain. I had no way to fully close the windows and I didn’t like the idea of getting soaked.

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It poured for hours.

Thankfully the windows were just closed enough not to flood me out, but they were also open enough that I constantly had to wipe down the inside of the windows and the door panels in a fight against water and condensation.

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Here is where I also wondered if the belts were in good condition. A smart with bad belts will rip them apart in the rain, though it seems they survived through the rain too.

Somewhere in Iowa after I beat the heavy rain I started hitting the rumble strips on the highway. I retired for a nap and returned to driving, rejuvenated, 3 hours later.

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I was still in Iowa as the sun rose. Unfortunately the storm was still ongoing and at this point, covering the whole state. This means no eclipse for me or anyone in Iowa that day. Considering that storm and myself were heading for Illinois, no eclipse for them either. Mother Nature is no fun.

I also should have stopped at the Iowa I-80 truckstop, but for the 4th or 5th time I drove right by it and didn’t stop.

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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

Unlike my trip with Phil, every petrol station I hit while driving Chelsea had some form of high octane fuel. This meant that I didn’t spend so much time not only finding a station but also finding one that had high octane fuel.

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Illinois

By the time I crossed the Illinois border, I knew getting to work would not be possible and called in.

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Western Illinois had a wonderful break in the storm clouds that I dealt with for most of the prior night. I took the opportunity to take a nice sunrise picture.

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It doesn’t beat a mountain sunrise, but I still loved it.

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Home

I made it home 20 hours after leaving Denver, or about 9am or so. For those counting, it was 1100 miles, 16 of them driving, and would have been 25 hours awake had I not taken that 3 hour nap.

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Surprisingly, my phone didn’t die. I put it on the power bank and I arrived home with 70% remaining.

I didn’t go to sleep, I got right to cleaning the car. I was so worried about the stains I that I couldn’t even think about sleep.

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She came out really clean. Sorry, no “before” photos, I didn’t think of them to be necessary.

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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo
Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo
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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo
Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo
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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

First Mod!

I turned those yoga mats into custom made floor mats.

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Illustration for article titled 1,100 Miles, 20 Hours, 1 smart fortwo

Final Thoughts

I seriously need to make this a yearly thing. These road trips are some of the best events in my life!

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