NORFOLK, Va. (AP) – Two men, one beat-up old car and the open road back to Norfolk.
Elijah Knapp, 24, and Tony Gower, 25, were on a snowboarding trip two weeks ago in Colorado, when they drove to see the Rocky Mountains in Aspen. After two days in the mountains, the two Norfolk natives and their three friends came across a 1992 Subaru Legacy that they would later decide to drive, instead of catching their flights home.
Knapp slammed on the brakes when Gower shouted the car had a cardboard sign in the windshield with the word “free” on it.
“I thought it was a sign,” Knapp said. “This is for us. We were driving past it, nobody took it yet. We got to do it.”
The car had been on the property when a man bought the 20 acres it sat on. About three days before they found the car on March 31, the property owner pushed the Subaru to the spot where Knapp and Gower drove past it. The land owner told the group of men he put the sign in the windshield a couple of hours before they stopped to inquire about it.
Knapp, Gower and their friends tried to start the car, but there was no key. The men had to hot-wire it, break the ignition and jumpstart the car before it was ready to hit the road back to their hotel in Granby, Colorado.
Knapp, who co-owns Knapp Auto Sales with Gower on Tidewater Drive, is used to driving and fixing up cars. The Granby High School alum said his first car was a “junker,” which he taught himself how to repair so he could hang out with his friends at Northside Skatepark in Norfolk. He worked as a car repairman for a couple years and had a mechanic business in Hawaii when his family was stationed there for the Navy.
When they arrived at their hotel, Gower suggested the five men drive the ’92 Subaru back home. The car had about 280,000 miles on it, but Knapp was confident the beater could manage the trip back after test-driving it for an hour and a half from where they picked it up.
Knapp said they posted about driving the car back to Virginia on April 1 and asked people to help fund their journey by sending donations. Many sent messages thinking it was a joke since it was April Fools Day, but they raised between $500 to $600 for repairs and gas.
In the meantime, Knapp and Gower’s three friends backed out and caught their flights back to Norfolk, leaving the two to fend for themselves on their excursion. Both of the men spoke with their parents, who told them to be safe and that they were “crazy.” They printed off a 5-day transport tag from their dealership and left on April 2, a day earlier than planned.
Only one major issue popped up throughout their road trip when the crank bolt came loose and the alternator stopped charging three hours into the drive. They stopped at a gas station around 11 p.m. in Sterling, Colorado, when a man offered to go home and get his tools to help with the repair. He told Knapp and Gower he lived about five minutes away.
“An hour and a half, almost two hours go by and we’re just like, ‘alright, this guy’s not coming back,’” Knapp said laughing.
The duo cautiously drove the car, which was running only on the battery at that point, to a nearby motel before taking it to a Harbor Freight Tools in the morning. They bought a couple of tools to fix the crank’s pulley and they were back on the road by 10 a.m.
Knapp said the trip was hot during the day and freezing at night, since there was no back window or air conditioning. They tried listening to music using a small bluetooth speaker, but the exhaust was so loud they couldn’t hear over it.
While driving, Gower said they were met with looks of either concern, contempt or encouragement – mainly from younger people laughing and giving them a thumbs up.
For half of the trip, Gower had to physically push-start – also known as a clutch start – the car and hop in before the two stopped in Cleveland, Ohio, to visit a friend for a little over a day. When they tried to push the car for the last time, Knapp decided to look at the starter. He tightened the battery’s cable and it started fine the rest of the way.
Not once did either of them think to call it quits and drive to the nearest airport, Knapp and Gower said. About 2,150 miles and 47 hours later, the two pulled into their Tidewater Drive dealership on April 5 around 9 p.m. with about $5 left from the donations they received.
The dealership owners were gone for over a week, so they both went home to sleep before returning to work the next day.
Knapp is undecided on whether he will wait and enter the Subaru into a demolition derby in October, put it in front of the dealership with the “free” sign back in the windshield or scrap the car for parts. For the foreseeable future, the car is parked in the corner of the lot at the dealership. A customer asked to bust two windows out for fun and Gower body-slammed the roof, which left a dent in it but he said it can be pushed back into place.
Whatever they decide to do with it, Knapp and Gower said their journey was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Though they will eventually visit Colorado again, the two men said they won’t come back in a free car.
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