JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: It's inspection time for my car, and it's come to the point where I'm having to weigh my choices. The cost of getting it officially road-worthy is half the actual value of the vehicle, and I feel like a woman with an elderly pet faced with a health crisis - do I opt for the expensive surgery? Or let nature take its course?
We don't talk cars much here, maybe because most of us aren't interested in, I don't know, cams and overheads and litres and all the stuff The Boy can explain knowledgeably. Some women who are total gearheads, but most of the gals I know are interested in boring stuff: is it practical? How's the mileage? We tend to make our first stop car-shopping at Consumer Reports, not Car and Driver Magazine.
I didn't have a driver's license until right before Ross and I got married. I took driver's ed, and did well enough, but when my parents told me I would be responsible for paying the increase when their auto insurance was bumped up to include a 17-year-old, I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Naaaah." My best friend had a car, my boyfriend had a car (a Chevy Nova that required the flexibility of an athlete to neck in) and when I went to college, there were buses and more friends with cars. Then I lived in London, then Washington, and I really didn't need an auto in those environments. Portland, Maine is a little shy of public transportation, however, so I got a license and happily began driving my brand-new husband's brand-new Mazda RX-7 around.
The fact my first vehicle was a high-powered sports car shaped my driving habits for the rest of my life. Be forewarned if I'm giving you a ride.
The Mazda RX 7 was great, right until the babies began to arrive. I switched to a Volvo 240 station wagon, a car that I loved as much as the zippy little Mazda. It held EVERYTHING: two car seats, dog, luggage, groceries, and it powered through Maine winters like the train grande vitesse through the south of France. I cannot tell you how many diapers I changed on that wagon's tailgate, and when we started potty training, I kept a little potty seat in the back for those times I'd hear, "Mommy, I feel the feeling!" while driving to the Hanneford.
Alas, the Volvo finally went to the Big Auto Yard in the sky, just shy of getting its 300,000 miles plaque (Volvo used to send you these magnets to affix to high-mileage cars, I don't know if that still happens.) Our last really nice car - before Ross left the law for special ed teaching and we began 19-year-and-counting of parochial school, Catholic high school, college and boarding school tuition payments - was a sweet top-of-the line Ford Explorer: leather seats, sun roof, all the bells and whistles available in 1999. We drove SO many miles in Aretha (named after the inimitable Ms. Franklin); back and forth to upstate New York, DC, Canada and of course the daily 48-mile-commute, mostly over country roads rough with frost-heaves and potholes. It was the terrible roads that finally did her in. One day she just sort of collapsed, and after the tow to the garage, we discovered both axles had cracked. Good-bye Aretha. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Since then, we've had a string of older used cars, some lasting longer, others not so much (the terrible state of our country roads continue to be an issue.) My latest is an '02 Lincoln Continental, which we got when The Boy was in high school with the express purpose of having him learn to drive in it. I swore I was getting rid of it as soon as he passed his license exam, because there was NO WAY I was driving around in a little old grandma car whose paint job matched my hair (silver.) But the car seduced me. The leather seats were sooo comfy, and it had power everything and a sun roof, and it accelerated like a dream. It also had built-in lumbar support and the instrument display is large enough to see without putting my reading glasses on. Clearly, the Lincoln people know their demographic.
It's the Lincoln on the chopping block right now. Do we go all in with $$$ repairs and keep her, knowing she's 13 years old and has 170,000 miles? Or do we donate her to NPR and start shopping for another ride? What do you think, Reds? And what have been your favorite cars as you ride down the freeway of life?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: My first car was--a Chevette. It probably saved my life, because I was trying to decide between that one and a Pinto.
Two things. One, it was black. Which was a real surprise because in the showroom it looked navy blue. Oh, well.
Two. My step-father made me go buy the car myself. ALL by myself. I was, I think, 19. He said: Under no circumstances should you pay for taxes and title. You make the car dealer pay for that. They will try to convince you to pay it, he warned, but don't you do it.
Time came, they try to make me pay for taxes and title.
I refuse. They say--you have to.
This goes on for a while. Armed with the knowledge that my father will yell at me if I cave and pay, I say- listen, forget it then. i'm not paying that. There are plenty of cars out there, and I will go somewhere else.
They finally agree.
I'm happy, I go home. I trumpet my triumph.
My father looks at me as if I have lost my mind.
I said TAGS and title, he says. TAGS. Of COURSE you have to pay the TAXES!
(Who know what really happened with what I actually paid, right?)
I loved that Chevette. And gas was 39 cents a gallon. I used to buy a dollars worth at a time, all I could afford.
RHYS BOWEN: I remember my first car too.. all too vividly. It was an adorable little Fiat. Bright red. And the car from hell. It was used, of course. It refused to start at awkward moments. It cut out on me in the midst of the mountains and only the fact that I was going downhill and coasted for several miles to a repair shop saved me from being stranded in the middle of nowhere. AND I was living in London. When I found a parking space I was loathe to give it up so I left the car parked for weeks at a time, taking public transport and thus making it clear that the car was not necessary.
In the early days of our marriage I had used cars that died on me in the middle of freeways. But these days my car has to be totally reliable. I drive between SF and Arizona several times a year so I always have a new car in warranty and change it every five years. I now have the super-deluxe model with every safety feature on it, rear cameras, side cameras, crash avoidance etc etc. Love love love it.
So my advice would be to Julia bite the bullet and get something new and reliable.
LUCY BURDETTE: I think Rhys is right on this, Julia. I do not miss the days of driving cars that could quit on you at any moment, on any highway. More than once, I had mufflers and pipes drop out of the bottom of a car and drag along the road. I drove a few of my dad's hand-me-downs, but after I wrecked his Chevy Vega (too tired to see the stop sign, sigh), it was time to buy my own. The winner was a Ford Falcon faux-woody station wagon that I landed for $200. I did not realize that the entire bottom was rusting out, including the gas tank, which began to leak from multiple holes. Once that was all replaced, I drove it back and forth to grad school in Tennessee. You could see the road rushing by under the passenger's feet and it was very cold in winter--brrrr. My next car was my favorite--a step up at $500--a Dodge Dart slant six. The only downside was the black interior--broiling hot in Florida. It was a man magnet:), and I wish now that I'd kept it. Funnily enough, John had the same car in his youth!
HALLIE EPHRON: I agree. JUNK IT! Right this minute. You do too much driving to be driving anything that could leave you stranded.
We buy brand new cars, pay cash (boy does that throw them), maintain them, and drive them into the ground. Our 2001 Honda Civic is going on 200K miles and, knock wood. just keeps going. My first car was gorgeous. I still salivate remembering it. A dark chocolate Chevy Impala convertible with caramel leather seats. Used. And I only drove it for 2 years before moving to NY. Loved that car.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Julia, buy a new car. I'm afraid the Lincoln (I learned to drive in one!) has reached the point of no return. And you do NOT want to be stranded somewhere in a Maine winter.
I love cars. My very first car was a used '65 silver T-bird. (Anybody hearing Marc Cohn here?) Leather seats, power everything. Fabulous. My third car was a Datsun 240Z. It was the love of my life until, many years and many boring sedans later, I had a wild firs- foreign-advancecheck moment and bought a 1997 Honda Prelude. Red. Heaven. I traded it in four years later because by that time we had an 80 lb German shepherd who couldn't fit in the back seat.
I would buy a high performance car again in a minute if I didn't now have the two young BIG shepherds. They can sit in the back sit of my eight-year-old Honda Accord, but not for longer than a run around town. So I've been looking at compact SUVs. I'm astounded at how much the technology has changed since 2008! So far my pick is the Ford Escape. Julia, you should drive one. But I haven't bought it because my Accord only has 56,000 miles on it, and other than some body damage where some creep swiped me in a parking lot, is in perfect condition. So I'm still thinking, and in the meantime will file a claim on the damage to my car!
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I have a drivers license, but I/we don't have a car. I've never had a car. Always lived in either New York or Boston and took the subway or T. Now, once in a while, we'll rent a Zip Car (you can rent a car by the hour in cities and there's a garage that has them right across from our building) or get car service. I like the idea of treading lightly on planet earth. And saving money. (But, just for the record, I can drive both automatic and stick shift.)
JULIA: Looks like the consensus is in on my Lincoln! How about you, dear readers? Do you have a car you loved? Loathed? Come over to the comments and pimp your ride!