Sunday, September 23, 2012

To All The Cars I've Loved Before

I think it fair to say that, in general, men are much more emotionally attached to their cars than women are.  This brings to mind a verse from the lyrics of Shania Twain's song, "That don't Impress Me Much"...

You're one of those guys who likes to shine his machine
You make me take off my shoes before you let me get in
I can't believe you kiss your car good night
C'mon baby tell me-you must be jokin', right!

Clearly, women just don't understand the male attachment to motorized transportation.  I suppose this might serve as evidence that women are much more practical than men ... if you dismiss the stereotypical female who can't seem to stop shopping for shoes, even though she already owns a hundred pair for every conceivable occasion, including (but not limited to) solar eclipses that occur precisely at the vernal equinox.

But I digress (as usual).  There's no denying that cars tend to be more important to men than they are to women.  The cars we drive become part of who we are.  To some extent, people judge us by our cars, and this includes women.  Momma always said there's an awful lot you could tell about a person by their car. Where they're going. Where they've been. I haven't actually owned all that many cars for a guy of my age.  I'll be fifty next month (but don't let it get around) and I've owned exactly five cars since I learned to drive at sixteen, and only two of those were purchased new.   I bet if I think about it real hard I could remember my first car (this is where the picture gets all wavy and blurry and we fade to the flashback scene).

Of course I can remember my first car.  A guy's first car is like a woman's first love.  We never forget them.  No matter how many cars come afterward, that first one always holds a special place in our hearts.  Mine was a 1974 Dodge Dart, although I didn't become its owner until 1980.  Before that, it was the family car and belonged to my dad, who handed it down to me when he finally bought a new car; a 1980 Chevy Malibu (dad always had a flair for picking cool, "babe magnet" cars like that). 

Since the Dart was a hand-me-down from dad, it was the four-door family sedan variant; somewhat boxy and nondescript in appearance.  Naturally, I would have preferred something a little sportier, like a Porsche Carrera or, failing that, at least the two-door Dart Swinger variant, but I was not one of these spoiled teens who gets to be choosy about his first ride.  I had to take what I could get. 

Ironically, Chrysler re-introduced a new Dodge Dart this year after having put the model on ice for several decades.  The new Dart is much sportier than its predecessor, being based on Europe's Alfa Romeo Giulietta design.  Why couldn't my Dart look like that?

Still, I grew to love that car.  It wasn't flashy, but it was a tank!  It had to be in order to suffer the neglect with which I treated it, yet still keep rolling.  I had to run it without oil twice before I finally managed to kill it!  After the first time, it just made loud, rattling noises whenever it ran but, like a faithful dog that licks the hand of the master who just beat it, it forgave me and continued to serve me faithfully.  Besides, the rattle was useful in its way.  I still had the car during my first year of college, where I befriended a blind classmate who declared that mine was the only car that he could recognize whenever I rolled into the school parking lot in the morning.

That car and I went everywhere together.  It would take me on scenic suburban cruises on Sunday mornings when I was supposed to be in church.  It got me out of several speeding tickets.

Policeman:  I clocked you at sixty-five.
Me: That's impossible officer.  This car can't do over fifty.
Policeman (looking that Dart over):  My mistake, son.  Move along.

I could tell a million stories, but I'll limit myself to the time that I decided to drive the car down a narrow, gravel lane that ran through an area that was otherwise overgrown with brambles and high grass.  The lane was just barely wide enough to fit the car, which was precisely the reason why I chose to drive down it; just to see whether it would fit.  Unfortunately, the lane turned out to be more of a bike path and, as such, I encountered a couple of cyclists coming at me in the other direction before reaching the far end.  What with the narrowness of the lane and the fact that it was overgrown on both sides, I could hardly turn around and, my Dart being the bigger, heavier vehicle, it was the cyclists that finally had to leave the path and relinquish the right of way to me. 

The skull grinning out at them from the top of my dashboard may have helped to intimidate them as well.  You see, I had made a ceramic skull in my high school art class (I called it Yorick) and, not having any better uses for it, I decided that it would make a nice dashboard ornament for my car.

After I finally managed to drive the Dodge Dart into the proverbial ground, there came a car-free period as I was still a college student with a part-time job who apparently couldn't even afford oil for his old car, much less a new one.  As such, I didn't get my next car until after I had finished school, landed my first "real" job and had, in fact, been working at it for over a year.  On the other hand, my next car was my first new car, and it was another Dodge; a 1984 Dodge Omni.

Although it was purchased new, I didn't exactly pick the Omni myself.  My dad sort of picked it for me.  See, I had never purchased a car before, having only ever owned the hand-me-down Dart and I didn't really understand standard financing practices, what things to look for in a vehicle and possible pitfalls to avoid, so my dad took it upon himself to help me find something practical and in my price range.  As it turned out, "help me find" turned into more of a "choose for me" situation, but I never resented it.  He had my best interests at heart and, I must admit, the Omni was a pretty good fit for me at the time.

Like the Dart, the Omni was a fairly nondescript car (another example of dad's keen eye for style), but it had the advantage of being bright red and therefore just a touch sportier in appearance.  Still, I couldn't help feeling just a bit emasculated when I opened up the newspaper one day to see a car dealership advertising the Omni and pushing it as "The ideal second car for the lady of the house". 

I bought the Omni about a week before my first date with my wife who, unlike the Omni, is still with me to this day. I correctly surmised that any girl willing to be seen in that car might not be overly choosy about potential romantic partners.

As I was somewhat older and my wild oats had been well sewn (and had, fortunately, not borne too much evil fruit) the Omni and I didn't have near as many misadventures as did the Dart and I.  Being a four-door hatchback it was, once again, very much a family vehicle and proved a faithful, if somewhat sickly, work horse over the eight years that I owned it. 

It must have been one of those notorious "Friday" vehicles (you know, a vehicle that came off the assembly line on a Friday, when the factory workers' minds were already more on their weekend than on the task of assembling an automobile) because it seemed that things were constantly breaking and/or falling off that car.  Usually, it was little things like a dash light going out or a side-view mirror seizing up.  It went through more headlamps than Bugs Bunny went through carrots, which turned out to be a symptom of a larger problem with the voltage regulator. 

I'll never forget the day when, driving home from work, I noticed all the cars behind me leaving a large, respectful distance between themselves and me.  I discovered the reason for this when I parked in my driveway and got out of the car, to find my rear bumper literally hanging by a thread!  Of course I had heard the noise it made dragging along the road behind me, but the Omni always sounded like that, so I thought nothing of it.

The Omni was the car in which I had my one and only collision that was serious enough to leave the car in an undrivable state.  In fact, my insurance adjustor reported that it was a coin toss as to whether or not to simply write the car off, but it must have came up "heads" because the insurance company ended up paying for repairs.  Needless to say, the car only became even wheezier and more finicky after that.

In a way, it was the car's tendency to have weird things go wrong with it that caused the accident in the first place.  You see, it had rained the night before and water had somehow gotten into the car even though all the windows were up.  In retrospect, I can only speculate that it somehow leaked in through the open dashboard air vents.  Unfortunately, I hadn't noticed the water when I first got into the car, as it had pooled mostly on the floor of the front passenger side, and there was no-one in the car with me to complain about wet feet.  As I approached an intersection, I suddenly heard a strange sloshing sound, which finally alerted me to the puddle on the passenger side floor.  That distracted me enough that I didn't notice that the light at the intersection had changed to red and... well, it got ugly after that.

Unlike the Dart, which was towed away by a scrap dealer, I actually managed to trade the Omni in to a dealer for a surprising $1,500 discount on my next vehicle; which was a 1992 Chevrolet Lumina minivan (also purchased new).  By then, I was a family man with one child confined to a wheelchair, so I needed a minivan, but I was getting tired of driving these mild-mannered, unassuming family vehicles all the time, so I at least chose a minivan with a little style to it.  I loved the aerodynamic, wedge-shaped appearance of the Lumina.

Ironically, it was this same aerodynamic, wedge-shaped appearance that apparently put a lot of other potential buyers off.  People used to worry that it would be difficult to park because the slope of the front end made it impossible to see where the nose ended from the driver's seat.  While this was true, it was never a problem for me.  I recall reading a review of the vehicle which declared that "...the large, sloping windshield was meant to whisper 'panorama' but, instead, screams 'parking nightmare'!"

Equally ironically, while I chose a minivan partially because of my disabled son, a sales rep for a company that converted vehicles for handicapped access later told me that he would not have recommended the Lumina because the shape and size of the sliding side door made it impossible to install an electric wheelchair lift.  While this was, again, true I didn't want one anyway.  I had purchased a couple of simple telescopic metal ramps which I placed up against the side entrance and along which I simply pushed the wheelchair.  Actually, truth be told, I often dispensed with even the ramps and simply lifted the wheelchair into and out of the minivan manually.  My son's small, light build made this possible but, should any ladies reading this feel impressed at my apparent herculean strength, please feel free to swoon.

I might mention, in passing, that the Lumina is the other car which was involved in a collision, but that was more of a "fender bender" and I was able to drive away from that situation.

While I owned the minivan, I also came into possession of a Ford Tempo.  I say "came into possession of" as opposed to "bought" because I inherited it from one of my wife's uncles after he passed away.  As such, I wasn't even sure of its exact model year (circa 1993).  This was the only time at which our family owned more than one vehicle (my wife doesn't drive).  I drove the Tempo when I didn't need the minivan (mainly to and from work) because it used less gas.

Much as I hate to denigrate the Ford Motor Company or, at least, its products, the Tempo was the least impressive of all the vehicles that I owned.  To this day, I'm not certain whether my wife's deceased uncle had bequeathed it to me because I had incurred his favor or his wrath.  It didn't exhibit the weird component failures that the Omni did, but the body and the underside literally corroded away around me.  I only had it for about 3 years.  I bought the Lumina before getting the Tempo and I still had the Lumina for another four years after I finally sold the Tempo for $200 which I used to buy a pair of bookcase speakers, which I considered to be a trade up. 

Of all the cars pictured here, the Tempo is the only one that isn't the actual car that I owned (although it is the exact same colour and style).  That's because I have no pictures of my Tempo; not a one.  It wasn't a car that we "did" things in as a family (we used the Lumina for that).  It was just something that took me to work and back and, truth be told, in my heart of hearts, I never really adopted it as my own.  You might say that the Tempo was the bastard child that I never loved.  In that regard, it stands in stark contrast to my PT Cruiser.

When Chrysler introduced the PT Cruiser in 2000, I was smitten!  I so wanted one of those.  It was just something about the retro styling that attracted me. 

I'm apparently not alone in this.  Just Google 'PT Cruiser' and you'll find all kinds of PT fan boy sites full of examples of customized and embellished PT's.  I haven't known many cars to have such an apparent cult following as the PT Cruiser has.  There are even two songs about the car that I'm aware of; one by the Beach Boys (or, at least, a good sound-alike group) and one by Sha Na Na).  They seem to sell well too, because you see them all over.  It baffles me why Chrysler decided to stop building them.

Sadly, I had to admire the PT from afar for several years as my budget wouldn't allow the purchase of a new vehicle and they were impractical for wheelchair transportation in any case.  But my son passed away in 2005 and the thirteen-year-old Lumina was showing its age.  It was time for a new vehicle and I no longer really needed a minivan, so I consoled myself by at least buying the car which had so attracted my wandering eye those past few years.

Unlike the Omni and the Lumina, the PT Cruiser was not a new car, but it was almost new.  I bought it used from a Chrysler dealership.  It was a year old (the 2004 model year) and had 28,000 kilometers on it.  I had considered getting a new one but this one was the right colour (red is my favorite), it was several thousand dollars cheaper than a new one and it was in "like new" condition so, again, practicality trumped idealism and I settled for the used one.

I still own it to this day, and it's still going strong.  I don't mistreat it like I did my Dart and, unlike the Omni, things on it don't break or fall off every other week.  It seems that Chrysler and I have matured together.  Like all my other vehicles, it's not overly showy.  It isn't the turbo GT model (although I often wish that it were) so its acceleration and speed are somewhat underwhelming.  In the words of a review that I once read about the car, "It does what its name says it does best".  It doesn't have heated seats or individual climate control or even ABS for that matter (which even my Lumina had).  It's just your basic four-door family sedan with a bit of retro styling.  It does have a surprising amount of cargo room for its size.  It actually compares well with smaller minivans.

Like many guys, I do have a certain emotional attachment to my cars (except for the Ford).  It has a lot to do with the memories they evoke, both good and bad.  I think it also fair to say that, like pets, cars have a way of reflecting their owners' personalities.  In their way, the two cars that I chose for myself certainly reflect mine.  So here's a tip of my proverbial hat to all the cars I've loved before.  Thanks for the memories.

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