I had breakfast with my father this morning and he openly talked about the end of his driving life. Granted, at 91, he is doing way better than most including what’s left of his friends who aren’t parked permanently underground. However, even I didn’t expect he would bring it up. If my father has any unique talent, it is behind the wheel. It has been a consistent quality of his for as long as I have known him even with his most recent rash of chafed and bruised bumpers and fenders. My fear is that when that day comes is not that I will have to do some chauffeuring but that a good chunk of my father’s remaining vitality will be sitting in a grease spot on the vacant spot in his condo.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the end of my driving career but I do see my last car on the horizon. Not this one, not the next but after for sure. And this is not because I’m cheap or broke. At one point I will need to find one last lover between the sheet metal as a metaphor for both my own longevity and one last fling in my checkered carburated love history. Such it is with cars and women. If the relationship with the woman lying next to you in bed goes to ground (I have given my current girlfriend way too much out of warranty trouble), you at least have the old girl in the garage. After a while you just hang on to what you’ve got. You’ve witnessed it first hand – old duffers tooling around good in ancient Buick Elektras and Mercedes Diesels with 600K on them. Most of these cars have been given feminine names as in – “We’re taking old Bessie down to the legion hall.”
Its an extension of the gender specific nature of marine vessels going to back to the “Good Ship Venus” and well beyond. “She’s taking on water!” bellowed the bo’sun. Or someone like that.
And for our generation, and maybe the older Gen Xers who remember leaded fuel, we are the last to feel that relationship, the primal need for high-power transportation we can own, drive hard, nurture and with which we can kill the planet. Women will let you down. An Eleanor in your life, (Nick Cage’s object of desire in Gone In 60 Seconds) well, that’s a girl that will never get old. And you can be inside her without paying for dinner. Not to get too graphic but its the truth. See Judge Reinhold in the car wash scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Not sure the millenials will feel the same about the gender-neutral cars of today. Especially when their women are paying half. Or more.
Imagine your first love coming back in your life and looking better than she did way back when. This is why guys my age go to Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale every year and drop six figures on American muscle cars that sold for a small fraction of the price forty five years ago.
My first wasn’t really mine. It was my mother’s – a 1970 Buick GS Stage 1, bought on my urging, a legend which is remembered with reverence to this day. Blue metallic, white vinyl roof, bench seats, power everything and nothing short of 455 cubic inches under the hood. Three hundred and sixty horses. With my learner’s permit in hand I could take the speedometer completely around the horn. One hundred and forty miles per hour was not a problem. For my idiot friends and I it was our chariot to the storied Watkins Glen Festival of 1973 and when my mother died later that year, the car became mine for a short while. There was a pledge class trip to DC from Penn State, a complete destruction of the front end by my sister for which I took the heat lest there were two kids in the family with horrible driving reputations. Mostly I remember my mother at the helm with my little brother sitting on seat beside her. He is autistic and to this day if I ask him what his mother said in the car forty five years ago he parrots a good Brooklyn accent – “C’mon lady lets go!” Was it my first love? It was surely a schoolboy crush. Tantalizing but never really mine.
A few months later my father sold it off, like most everybody with little foresight and not enough garage to keep muscle around that would rise exponentially in value. It was time for me to get my own car and I went in a completely different direction – a 1974 Fiat X/19 sled. This was the coolest looking little wedge ever, complete with pop-up headlights and a trunk that could easily fit a couple of canoles. I remember a drive to New York, some sketchy nights in the snow and a nifty car to take down to the campus where I had a parking spot thanks to my part time job as sports editor of the school paper. As a lover it was thin skinned and the looks oxidized a little too quickly. I remember taking the prettiest girl in the city to a wedding. She was there purely for show, no different than the Fiat. I was as shallow as the Italian engineering – dating for looks and looks alone. My girl moved on and so did those old rusty Fiats which couldn’t survive a collision with a Corgi, the dog or the toy.
Next up was a Limited Edition VW Rabbit. I think the limited element was the crushed velour interior. This car coincided with my first serious girlfriend who, like the VW, was demanding but loyal. Meatloaf was on the cassette deck going like a Bat Out Of Hell. Sexy when it had to be. I remember some front seat activity. Dependable too as it stood me for my first full-time newspaper job in Ottawa and a frigid winter up there covering the junior hockey scene. I brought it back to Toronto a year later. Eventually I took a break from my dependable girlfriend for a racier model with more than merely an infectious personality and both the affair and the car died, the latter courtesy of skid over an old railway tie that trashed the engine. The mechanic stole my Porsche sunglasses out of the glove compartment. Wish I had them now. This what happens when you conduct a reckless youth. Its never wreckless.
After that, wait for the harp, my first BMW! Je suis arrivee! It was a three year old 320i, green, no A/C, no sunroof and manual windows. Folks, this was back in the day when people with BMWs would pop their head-lights at each other when oncoming in traffic. This was a club, a smug self-satisfied club to be sure, but a very cool place to be right down to my now defunct dealer who would let you hang out in the garage. I was still in my mid-20s so combine that with a gig as a rock critic and an expense account….it was an equation for good times and some status for which I was foolishly lobbying.
I put in a kick-ass Bose sound system and in the short time I had the car – maybe six months – I remember a really nice drive to Cape Cod with the girlfriend. Yuppie porn. The lack of A/C was not a problem. It was a BMW. I still remember the sound the door made as it closed. Solid. The romance was like a starter marriage – over before it started.
Late that summer, on Labor Day, some drunk kid in his mother’s Mercury Montego hit me from behind at a stoplight. I didn’t feel it. The damage from my car hitting the guy in front of me totaled that car. The Bimmer was swept up onto a dolly because it couldn’t be towed. I had a spinal concussion and had to be pulled unconscious through the window. Thankfully I had previously dropped off the girl I had taken to the concert. The cop said that had I been driving anything less than the BMW I would have been looking at eternity. The kid got a three-month suspended license, I got about $10K. That’s the way it was back then. Wham bam thank you insurance ma’am. But the car saved my life. I always wondered if my girl with whom I shared five fun years could have made my future better had I hung in there.
The writer on the auto beat at the paper knew somebody at BMW and got me a deal on another 320, this one a reliable 1981 model in silver with black interior. Strangely, of all the cars I had I remember that one the least other than it was the vehicle with which I transported a lot of eager women (I was at my peak of hipness in those years) and ultimately, my future wife. Both were keepers. Maybe I was getting older, turning the corner, getting more practical.
In 1983 I sold it and moved to New York and went carless for at least a year and change until my uncle gave me his 1975 GMC Jimmy. Now this was a cool truck because the entire roof could be unbolted and taken off to reveal a nifty roll bar and a removable backseat. I gave it new paint, emblazoned the door with the logo for my concert promotion company – Gross National Product – and drove this bad boy everywhere including the Buffalo airport to pick up rap acts like Run DMC who were flying up on People’s Express (hands up if your remember the airline where you bought your tickets ON THE PLANE!) In the summer I had to put a tarp over the seats and the center console could double as an aquarium when it rained but it was very Walker, Texas Ranger in the open air. Lisa, my wife, and I were a pretty cool young couple and the truck was unique, a metaphor for what we felt was our own singularity. Hey, cops did “Catch and release” all day because they tried to nail me on the lack of shoulder belts. Didn’t have none and the police just had to let me go! You don’t realize the good times until they are gone. I sold it to a firefighter for $1500.
From there it was back to Bimmerland and a used black-on-black 1982 320s. This lady was trouble. But so was I, in the last throes of my journalism career, struggling in business. Parts of my life didn’t fit. Similarly, the previous owner had put headers on the 320 and it needed leaded gas (remember those days) but the car had a reduced radius unleaded nozzle receptor so I had keep a funnel in the trunk and pour the gas through that. There were tune-ups in the four figure area which was a lot thirty years ago. I kept it for a couple of years until I had enough money to buy something newer more dependable. She was too high maintenance when you’re trying to quell your inner Peter Pan. Remember Will Farrell in Old School working on the Firebird ? Both of us were a little old for that crap.
Next was the best girl I ever drove – 1987 BMW 325iS in Salmon Silver (see the photo above) and a blue leather interior. Although my wife, now ex, laughs at me about that color to this day, she would agree that the car was terrific. If I needed some excitement “on the side” this was it. Not an ounce of trouble, kept quiet and was responsive to my less-than-sensitive touch. Life was good for four solid years. (That’s it in the photo!)
Living in LA for the next few years, and now a family, we made do with a Lexus ES 300 when the lease ran out on the 325iS. Made do, yeah. I think that car was in the family for over twelve years and it was a lot more dependable than I was. It was like an aunt that favored you but kept you in line.
When we moved back to Toronto, I was broke. Whatever I had was put into the house. My father-in-law took pity on my and gave me his Saab 2000 or 3000 or whatever the hell it was. It came with a cell phone that was hard wired to the car. Twenty one years later I still have that number. The car however was one of those Saab lemons that never let up. There were $5000 tune-ups I couldn’t afford and I don’t remember one decent moment in the car. Life was a struggle back then and I didn’t merit anything better in a four-wheeled significant other.
Eventually I made enough money to lease a new Saab for reasons that I can’t explain. This was a nifty 2-door turbo that was great for a couple of years until everything went wrong, including an episode where my wife and I forgot our 2-year old daughter in the backseat. In the driveway. It was one of those exhausting nights where it was , “You take her”. “No you.” Not one of our proudest moments. I’m not sure if the statute of limitations has run out on that crime. My daughter digs it up enough for a complete season of CSI: Useless Parents.
After that it was the first of several mid-life crises. I bounced into a Volvo convertible for a couple of years which had the best seats my tush ever touched and the worst trunk for hockey equipment ever.
When that was done, and not flush with cash thanks to private school bills, I bought a brand new 2004 Chrysler Sebring convertible. Zero down, zero interest. Limited edition my friend, which meant this one was limited to how many they could sell. But you know what, this is the car that I will remember on my deathbed. It was never a problem for the eight plus years I had it. With the low and wide Italian design it looked like a Maserati. My marriage broke up around then and the top down effect was a self-fulfilling prophecy on more than a few nights. My best memories was the annual drive to Montreal for the Just For Laughs comedy festival followed by a long peaceful Sunday cruise up to my kids summer camp for Visitor’s Day. The car was indestructible. I had to sell it for cash to some Afghani kid when the top died and it would cost more to replace it than what the old girl was worth. She was the love of my automotive life. Funny how a simple American car can provide so much assurance and pleasure. If only I had been as dependable and modest as the car. Regrets.
What immediately followed the Chrysler was the biggest mistake of my automotive life. I had gotten back into BMWs during the Sebring period when I bought a second car – I was making a lot of money at the time – an X3 in California when the strong dollar had made it easier to import cars from the U.S. Technically it is mine but after a nasty accident in my ex’s relatively new third generation ES 350 – car was totaled but the airbags worked – it was pretty much hers to use and she still does to this day and a with a 100K plus on it, it gave great value. Unfortunately, the next BMW offset every nickel of value in the X3.
I don’t know how it happened or what drove me, literally, to madness but with the X3 at the ex’s and the aforementioned Chrysler on the way out I passed a dream car, or so I thought, on a used lot downtown. It was a black on black 2008 535XiT wagon. A rarity to be sure. Loaded to the heated steering wheel to the sport seats to the gangster tint job. Took it out for a spin and I was hooked. I left it alone for a couple of months and saved a few grand but man did I love this bad boy when I took it home. It was a big brazen hussy and the first order of business was to take my son back to school in Boston during a horrible blizzard and then stop off at Killington for a couple of days of skiing. On the highway, it was a rock at 140 clicks.
Alas the honeymoon lasted about six months. First, the sunroof drains got clogged and water got into the electrical system shorting out everything including the suspension. Then the warranty ran out just in time for a $2500 tuneup, then I replaced some dinged rims with after market cheapies and the car started to vibrate which I didn’t pin on the crappy rims till I replaced about $3K in Tie rods and front end crap. On it went through transmissions and leaking gaskets and crank cases and thermostats – about $2k a quarter for the last year plus. I actually took my problems to the tech guru at Bimmer Magazine and his response – “I hope you have a lot of money”.
Included was a full house of speeding tickets that put my insurance up to $6K a year for two years. Soon after the electrics/sunroof fault popped up again and I limped into the dealer with a plea for charity. That wasn’t going to happen. The best he could do was bring in the used guy and throw me some trade-in dough It was about $10K for a car that cost me close to $70K with all the repairs in. Thats a $60K cost in about four years. I could have leased a serious Porsche for the same dough.
It was irresponsible to buy this car. With a significant other in my life I might have made a more prudent choice. I am still bitter about this. Once I chastised my father for missing the funeral of a close friend. His answer, “This is what happens when you don’t have a wife.” Truer words have never been spoken.
Now I had some credit but zero interest in another Bimmer. Those “Nazi bastards” had won to quote Jackie Mason. The service manager, having a little sympathy, said “You’re done here but we’ll honor the credit across the street at our Mini dealer.” Yeah, right. A Mini. Talk about automotive “shrinkage”. I had no choice. I dragged my ass over there and mumbled something to a “Sales Hipster” or so it said on his card. Even the service guys had that Williamsburg look. He gave me a set of keys to a car outside and I thought of just thrashing through the gearbox to the point of shredding the tranny as revenge. But I didn’t and the car provided more fun than anything you can do clothed. And so I sat down right then and there and ordered a brand new Mini in the 4-door configuration and dressed option by option like a four-cylinder sundae.
Here I am, eight month later, driving this little go kart with some remorse. It’s just too small. The racy number from my Rabbit days saw me in the gym parking lot and said, “Really?” Yeesh. My current girlfriend has bitten her lip to the point of bloodshed. Its cute, its frugal, its fast and the ergonomics are funky but I am so far out of Mini’s target demo its funny. The manual stick is impractical because nobody knows how to drive that way anymore. Long drives are painful and the run flats are annoying. I have had and will have no adventures in this car past some quick lane changes. My aforeblogged scooter is way more exciting.
I will be back into something new in the spring. Something that is set higher so I don’t bang my head the way in and out. Something with a seat that is suitable for more than the tush of a super model. Something I can grow older (already there?) with and christen with some goofy name like “The Great Gasby”. Something with more character than cute. That might be the ultimate problem – every vehicle today is a ‘chick car’. But that’s another story. Maybe Julio can write a song, “To All The Cars I’ve Loved Before.” Maybe I will.