For the last ten years I’ve been in my own Personal Automotive Heaven. I have a car that gives me joy to drive every time I slip into the driver’s seat. Every time I find myself inspecting someone else’s car on the freeway and thinking “Dang! That’s a good looking set of wheels!” it turns out to be someone driving the same model I already own. For ten years, I’ve had to sink money into routine maintenance, a new set of tires, a set of new brakes, and various and sundry inspections, fees, taxes, licenses, and tolls. That’s it. And for a ten year old car, that’s pretty darn good.
Contrast this with every other car I ever owned. My first car, a used Pontiac T-1000. Otherwise known as TFPOS (this term includes not one but two profanities – sort it out yourself). It had…Issues. 1983 wasn’t a good year for Pontiac, that much was clear. And my car was obviously manufactured on a Monday morning. Quite probably the first one off the line. Or worse, it was the one that was halfway done on Friday afternoon when the whistle blew, and it was used by a hangover-addled guy who was spending his last week before retirement training the new recruits.
This car is the Poster Child for Why Detroit Is Where It Is.
It had problems with the vacuum exhaust under the hood. It had electrical issues. It had a problem no one was ever able to figure out, where if the temperature was below 50, and I ran the car up to freeway speeds, it would stay there for a very short period and then begin inexorably slowing down until it was going 30 mph, a pace it could maintain. The alternative was to pull it off to the side of the road (did I mention “freeway speeds”? yes, that means “pull it off to the side of the freeway“) and sit there with it until it felt like running again, and hope that I got to whereever it is I was going before it needed to slow down again and take a break. I owned this car for 3 years, maybe 4. Or maybe it was closer to 2. It felt like fifty years. Because during my period of ownership, we (I mean, me and my Haynes manual, plus any of my guy friends I could convince to help me out) replaced eight (8) started solenoids, three (3) alternators, one (1) oil pump, assorted brakes, several air filters, rebuilt the carb, dismantled the engine to have the heads resurfaced (learning, in the process that you really need to carefully label each of the valve rockers BEFORE you take them off, and PUT THEM BACK IN EXACTLY THE SAME SPOT. The car actually needed a new fuel filter, but I didn’t replace it because some previous owner dealt with the existence of a leak in the fuel line by epoxying the filter onto the line. Thus ensuring that no one would be able to replace it when it died.
The starter solenoids, by the way, were not easily accessible from the top of the engine. Or from the bottom, for that matter. There was the tiniest possible gap in all the crap that was bolted onto the engine that provided the tiniest possible access hole through which the old solenoid could be brought up and the new one sent down. Unfortunately, the hole did not provide easy access for the screwdriver that was needed to get the bloody thing off or the new (bloody) thing on. Men in three states (and one woman in New England) have scars on their knuckles from replacing the solenoids in TFPOS (you can see where the name, and the cursing, comes from). I should point out that because of the unbelievable hassle and blood-letting and first-aid that were inevitably involved in changing the solenoids, it’s not like I changed them as soon as they started to die. No. I learned, pretty quickly, that I could often get the solenoid to kick in enough to fire the ignition if I pounded on it. And, because it was buried in the bowels of the engine, this required custom tools. For me, it was a heavy super-long-handled screwdriver (courtesy of Walmart), and it lived in my glove compartment. And we had a little ritual for most of those years, me and TFPOS. I’d get behind the wheel with a hopeful heart full of the Power of Positive Thinking. And I’d turn the key. If live was Good that day, the engine would start, and I’d close the door and drive off (or mostly drive off). On a Normal Day, the key would turn and I’d hear a “click”. I’d curse the car, open the glove compartment, extract my screwdriver (which was usually on top of everything else), pop the hood, go to the front of the car, open the hood, curse the car again, prop it open, stick the screwdriver down in the hole (you’ve got to add the flashlight if this happened at night – as it often did as I was working my way through school at the time and usually didn’t leave the college until 9:30pm), whang the screwdriver around firmly, curse the car, leave the hood open (because this often had to be done a few times), slide behind the wheel, curse the car once more for luck, and turn the key. Rinse, lather, repeat. I think I even still have that screwdriver.
That car taught me everything I need to know about working on a car, because absolutely every one of its systems failed while it was mine, and I certainly didn’t have money to pay someone else to fix it. If I had, I wouldn’t have been driving the thing in the first place. I learned how to diagnose 30 common problems and another 15 or 20 not-common problems, and what to do about them. I learned all about the Internal Combustion Engine and how it works (and, often, how it does not work).
Let’s put it this way. No mechanic mistakes me for Susie Bimbo twice. No mechanic sells me stuff I don’t need, not even once.
The Final Straw was the water pump. “Enough” I said. And I wondered, not for the first time, if I could have the car hauled off to one of those junkyards where they drop a huge cartoon weight from the top of a crane and turn the car into a little biscuit of metal.
And I wondered if they’d let me tag along and press the button myself. I wondered about paying for that privilege. I’ve never hated anything like I hated that car. When the second alternator died, I grew so wroth I kicked the crap out of it and turned it from a T-1000 into a T-100. TFPOS.
My next car, the Maximonster, was an awesome set of wheels. It was an even-older (1981) Datsun Maxima. Yes. From the era before Nissan existed. It was a luxoboat. It had power everything. Power windows, power steering, power breaks, power seats, and a sunroof. And it talked. In words. I leave the lights on? No dinga-ding-ding for me. No, my car said “Rights Ah On. Rights Ah On.” because while it spoke and spoke in English, it did so with a Japanese accent. “Reft Dooah Is Open. Reft Dooah Is Open.” “Trunk Is Ajah. Trunk Is Ajah.”
That car had 215,000 miles on it, and it rolled off the production lines right about the time Japan was getting a reputation for turning out very reliable vehicles. The engine had been rebuilt by the kind of person who knows what they are doing (as opposed to the kind of person who solves leaks with epoxy). Iloved that car.
I halfway believe that I’d still be driving it today, if some flaming moron hadn’t run a stopsign and t-boned the car in the lane next to me, pushing that one into mine, all at 45mph. I felt the thud, realized I was now in a different lane, and the car is telling me “Right Dooah Is Open.” I pulled over, realized the was glass all over the inside of the car, got out, saw that the entire right side was caved in, and knew that my car was Dead. And I sat down on the curb and cried as hard as I cried when my first dog died.
My next car was a Mazda 626 with a persistent oil leak and something else wrong – I don’t remember what, because I only had that car for about 6 months before I went off to grad school and changed it for an all-terrain bike. That car taught me that black cars show dirt faster than white carpet. I sold it to someone with full disclosure of whatever the weird problem was. I didn’t have it long enough to hate it.
For my next car, I inherited my ex-husband’s pickup truck. It was an Isuzu light truck that had been rear-ended by a drunk whose insurance had expired 20 minutes before the wreck, so for most of the time we had it, the tailgate was inoperable. Its previous owners had attempted to convert it to some type of low-rider but cutting the suspension down. Way down. The AC didn’t work (a serious liability, in Texas) but it had an after-market radio, and it started reliably. Or, started reliably right until it died when I got rid of it. It was hideous and uncomfortable – everything a graduate student’s car should be. I left it in Texas when I moved north after graduation and started making enough money to think of having a decent car. Possibly even a new car. For the first time in my life…
And from there, I wound up in the wheels I drive today. Best looking car on the road. Handles like a dream. Starts reliably. Fast. Agile. Big trunk. Comfortable seats. Comfortable everything. Did I mention best looking car on the road?
But it’s 10 years old. And little stuff is starting to go wrong. The passenger window motor (or transmission, not sure yet) died this winter. Too much ice, probably. Got to get that replaced. The light that illuminates the dashboard clock is out. Like I said, little stuff.
But I know. The writing is on the wall. Once that little stuff starts to go wrong, more follows behind it, and then you get big stuff.
On top of this, Roy has been
riding my butt encouraging me to look into getting a car that is “more suited to [my] current lifestyle” than my super-fun sportscar is. OK. It is a sportscar, and it’s got 19″ alloy wheels, and this means it doesn’t really have the clearance to put studded snow tires on. And while that was OK when I lived a mile from my office and parked the car in an underground garage in Wisconsin, now I live in Snowy New England (don’t get me started) and my office is 25 miles from my house. And the driveway to the barn is long-ish, and can be slick. And I can’t get to the Emergency Backup Barn where Winter Horse lives at all. I’ve been having to catch rides with my trainer. Too hilly, too slick. And while I can rack up my ski gear in the trunk and the pass-through, I can’t take Roy’s as well, so we always have to take his car. And I can’t fit my saddle in the trunk, I have to put it in the back seat like a baby carrier.
So he’s been trying to get me to replace my Hot Rod with a Mom Mobile.
Now I’m in the shoes of every middle-aged man who’s had the Sell That Sportscar And Get A Family Car ultimatum from the wife (or other daddy of the kids). I am exploring my boundaries.
And what I find is that I am not, I repeat NOT going to be driving ANY vehicle that resembles, imitates, or is clearly derived from, the Station Wagon.
Just say NO. Not doing it. A sedan is bad enough. I don’t see why I should have to have 4 doors when I only need 2. I am not, repeat NOT, doing more than 4 doors. And no doors that slide. Or hatches that lift up. No, No, No, No, NO.
I agree, we ought to have one in the family. Because we do from time to time want to load up like a camel train and take everything we might possibly ever want or need off to Maine for a week. And because we do have an amazing amount of winter sports equipment, and that’s without the super-rockered and cambered all-mountain skis I have every intention of buying next year when they start getting made. A weekend ski trip, for us, means my ice skis, my fat skis, my poles, Roy’s carvers, his poles, my boot bag, his boot bag, his 210cm cross-country skis, his long poles, his XC boot bag, the snowshoe bag, and a pair of snow-hikers. And that’s before we get to the actual luggage.
So I agree, we need one. But I think it ought to be his. He doesn’t mind station wagons and sedans, and gas mileage is more important than performance to him. I vote that Roy gets the Mom Mobile, and I get another sportscar that we can both tool around in in the summer with the sunroof open and the engine roaring like a purring lion. What I want, honestly, is another one of what I have, only newer. Unfortunately, only 3,000 of my cars were made, and none are newer than mine.
So, for now, it’s going to be dropping dollars to replace window motors and light bulbs, and stuff like that. Until we can settle the marital controversy over the Mom Mobile, and until I can identify a suitable successor to Automotive Heaven. It’s going to be a while on both, I think…