I’m a car guy. I don’t recall quite when happened but at some point in my youth I became interested in all things cars.
As a very little kid, I had a deep and abiding love of Matchbox cars. In fact, I can tell you the very first purchase I ever made was somewhere around 1975 when I acquired two “Pocket Cars” from our neighbor Mo for a handful of coins. As a pretty independent child, I spent many hours with all my little cars laid out on the carpet driving them around or, I’m told, sometimes just sitting there staring at them.
I continued to collect cars (though, they got a little fancier than just Hot Wheels) well into my teens and still contemplate picking one up now and again.
When I entered junior high school, there were a number of kids who, owners of lockers for the first ever time, took to cutting out pictures of various sports cars from magazines and taping them up. I was one of those kids.
The cars that were in vogue then aren’t tremendously different than those now. Well all liked the Porsche 911, Lamborghini Countach, and Ferrari 308 (think Magnum P.I.) My favorite was the Porsche 928, but the list also included all sort of other exotic names like DeTomaso, Lotus, Aston Martin, and Vector. There were a lot of cool cars out there for us to cut out of Road & Track (to which I had a subscription) or Car & Driver. For reasons unknown, none of us seemed to lean toward American muscle like Corvettes or Mustangs. I suspect they simply weren’t exotic enough.
There are a couple lasting legacies to my childhood love of automobiles. First, spending all that time looking at my books and magazines, I built up a base knowledge of cars that doesn’t go away. Once I knew everything that was out there, I would invariably take note of changes. I have an enormous amount of brain space taken up with – or wasted on – car knowledge. I know the similarities and differences between a Toyota Matrix and a Pontiac Vibe. I can tell you that Lexus’s are just fancy Toyotas and Saturns weird looking Chevys. I know that a Mazda CX-9 seats seven while a CX-7 seats five.
I can identify most cars by their taillights. From a distance. At night. I highly doubt this will ever, ever come in handy.
The other effect is that, after years of looking a hyper-expensive sports car, it has been difficult for me to buy something run-of-the-mill for myself. It’s not that I wanted to go out and get a Ferrari. Point of fact, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I don’t see myself buying a Lamborghini Diablo. On the rare occasion that I see some guy in a car like that, I can’t but think to myself that’s he’s a douche.
It’s just that I also have a hard time going out to buy Toyota Yaris for myself. Realistically, there is no reason we shouldn’t all be driving a Yaris, Fit, Fiesta, or any of a number of other little cars. Most of us drive alone or with just a couple people along. The backs of SUV’s get filled with things you’d otherwise just leave in the garage. I’ve seen countless pick-ups whose beds are spotless for lack of ever carrying anything. Is the ride in an $80,000 BMW really markedly better than a $35,000 Honda Accord?
But as we all know, cars have developed well beyond just the utilitarian purpose. They’re more than just people movers. In many cases, they are extensions of our personalities. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a shy woman step from behind the wheel of a bright orange Hummer.
For much of those same teen years that I was cutting out pictures of Porsches, I also had a thing for the VW Rabbit convertible, later redubbed the VW Cabriolet. When it actually came time to buy my first car, I thought I would go with one of them.
It took me one visit to a used car dealer to realize that I would be overpaying for what was really just a used Rabbit with less body stability. I poked around in the classifieds (pre-internet you know) and drove around to some different dealerships.
I finally settled on, in the Spring of 1992, a 1987 Toyota Corolla GT-S Coupe. It was maroon in and out and had too many miles on it. But for $4000 (I had talked them down from $4050) it was mine.
It wasn’t a typically attractive car, but it was kind of sporty, had flip-up headlights, and cruise control! I loved that car and couldn’t have been prouder of it. When, once, I drove it down to Ft. Lauderdale and back, I stopped in Daytona Beach and took it out on the sand. I posed for some wonderfully ridiculous photos with that car. Oy.
In time, though, it started to show it’s age. That time was, in actuality, only a couple of years and was highlighted by the moment it blew it’s engine directly across from the long departed Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire.
Turns out you need to check and change your oil. That may sound like an elementary thing to know but no one had ever told me. I had a father who worked his entire career for Exxon; you’d think we would have discussed oil at some point or another.
I nonetheless paid to have the engine replaced. Of course, when I say “I” I mean my parents and when I say “replaced” I mean the crooked mechanic who claimed to have replaced it, merely did a band-aid repair on it. The car died again a short time later. I sold it for $100.
It’s replacement came from my brother Jim who had been given a business car and no longer needed his Mazda MX-3. It was, I think, a 1992 model and, as small and vaguely unattractive as my Toyota was, this thing was more so. I would describe its color as “electric aqua.”
That car came with some issues also and is notably the car for which I owned the shortest time. After two small cars, I decided I need an SUV.
The first time I drove my Honda Passport, I said to my brother riding next to me that it felt as though I was driving around in my living room. The thing was, to me, huge. But again, to me, it had personality.
It was no Ferrari, but I fancied myself an outdoorsman with visions of driving around in the mountains and through huge New England snowdrifts. Fact of the matter was, other than a couple trips into the woods and one very memorable trip through a creek that wasn’t as shallow as it would seem by poking it with a stick, the car mainly drove me around the city. Also, it sucked in the snow.
All three of these cars made it past 100,000 miles before I moved on from them and I would probably have kept the Passport longer if it hadn’t been rear-ended in an accident. When I had to replace it though, it was the first time I really took the time to think about what kind of car I needed and wanted. I no longer felt I needed the SUV and I no longer wanted a little car. I wanted a sedan and I wanted it with some creature comforts.
Nobody would ever tell you that my green Honda Accord was a sporty car. No one ever mistook it for a Mercedes, but that was one great car. It was a V6 with leather and a nice sound system. It had power seats and a moonroof. It was an extremely nice car to drive around in. I bought it off lease. It was two years old and had about 25,000 miles on it.
That car never caused me a lick of trouble. In fact, its only deficiency was that people really liked to drive into it. During the five or so years that I owned it, it had its fender bended no fewer than ten times. All of them were minor enough that I would take the insurance check and then not fix the car. It was a beauty as you can imagine, by the time it was hit that eleventh time.
That time it was hit hard. Very hard.
I spent the day in the hospital and didn’t get to see my car until the next. It was remarkably crushed. Scarily so.
On the plus side, in the fall of 2003, Amy was pregnant with our first child so there had been some discussion about getting a new, larger car. Despite the fact that we were having just the one little baby, we both felt (as many parents tend to) that we needed a big car. I didn’t want to drive a minivan, but Amy wanted three rows of seating. Most of the SUV’s that offered that at the time were really too expensive for us.
What resulted was, The Great Compromise, and it didn’t work out very well.
Partially off the endorsement of my friend Scott who owned one, we ended up with a Buick Rendezvous. There was so much wrong about it. It wasn’t really an SUV but wasn’t really a minivan either. It wasn’t remotely attractive by any standard and, when delivered, came in the wrong color. It was loud and underpowered. I didn’t like it and I don’t know that Amy did much either. But, this is how we both got what we wanted – by getting something neither of us did. It also cost way too much.
Oh, also, it was a lemon. Not just mechanically, though that too. The paint bubbled with rust while one of the doors was bent out of whack. When I took it in to be serviced once, I complained that the transmission seemed to be having issues. The service guy told me he couldn’t find anything wrong with it. I give him credit when, three weeks later, I called him from the side of the road after the transmission completely failed, and he drily responded “Well, sir, I’m almost sure we’ll find something wrong with it this time.”
Here was a car that really needed to get hit, but no one would do it. What did happen was it blew a head gasket. I took it to my mechanic who told me that, while this car had been wonderful for his bottom line, it might be time for me to get something else. He also advised that the way to get the check engine light to tick off was to have my foot all the way down on the gas when I started it. It would blow all the fluid out of the engine. It was a loud couple of weeks for my neighbors.
This time I got a car I wanted. While I no way blame Amy for our Great Rendezvous compromise (it takes two to compromise, right? We probably could have purchased a lovely minivan that would have been fine), I didn’t listen to her much on this, my last purchase.
I was yo-yo’ing between SUV and sedan and it was sedan’s turn again. I knew what I wanted and I set out to get it. Amy was pushing for something like a Corolla or Civic. But this is where my middle school fascination with fancy cars was killing me. I still needed that something more.
What I ended up with is the closest I’ve come to a fancy car. My Volvo S60 is, as I like to say, “metallic dirt” in color. Its beige-on-beige motif is not one that particularly elicits excitement. But the car is solid like no other car I have ever owned. When inside, I feel very insulated from the world around me. I’ve never driven it into a brick wall, but I feel as though I could and the wall would lose. Of course, Jeff Bridges drove his Volvo into a brick wall in that movie where he survived a plane crash and both he and Rosie Perez ended up in the hospital. Plus Bubble died. Have I digressed?
This car can charitably be called a European sports sedan. Of course, Ford owned Volvo in 2002 when my car was made but I’m ignoring that. It was never a particularly peppy car, but it cruises wonderfully at highway speed and is zippy enough around town.
I have owned this car, which is now eleven years old, for the last six-and-a-half. We bought it before Henry was born and, when I brought it home, toddler Maggie even liked it enough that she asked to go out for rides in it. It only ever had some very minor mechanical issues and has been reliably solid.
I would keep the car longer if I could. It is the first time I have had a car that I am not eager to replace. But it has gotten to that tipping point where the cost of maintenance outweighs the cost of trading it in for something new. As I said to its mechanic when last we visited him, it is the equivalent of one of those 14-year-old dogs that is blind in one eye and has trouble walking up the stairs. You love that mutt and wish that he could live longer, but you know that the time for him to be put of his misery is now.
So it may be odd that I am writing an ode to a car that, if you walked by it on the street, would go completely unnoticed. My connections with these cars is just part of who I am. I actually owned that first Toyota for a year after I had gotten its replacement because I didn’t want to let it go. I’m better now, but even on the day that I turned in that horrid Rendezvous, there was a little part of me that felt bad for it.
We’ve picked out my new car (a story I’ll tell next time) and I’ll likely be driving it by the weekend. It wasn’t a decision that we reached quickly. I’ve, in fact, been shopping in earnest for almost a year. If a car had feelings, how tough must it have been to visit dealership after dealership looking for its replacement? This past Saturday, I pulled up to the place where I’d get my new car and some stranger came out and took the Volvo for an appraisal drive. I’m getting $1500 for it in trade, one tenth what we paid for it.
It will be sad for me when I give it away later this week and I don’t apologize for that. It has been dutiful and reliable. It has kept my family and me safe as we’ve driven well over 100,000 of our own miles in it. It has done everything I’ve asked of it and not complained too much when I have failed to return the favor.
You’ve been a good car, my boring tan friend, and I thank you for it. I don’t know where you’ll go from here but I know where you and I have been together. It’s been a great ride.