Wednesday, August 26, 2015

My Cars

Like most people I’ve owned many cars over the years. In reflecting on those choices the other day I realized that each car has its own story or two. But let me start in the few years leading up to my own purchases with two other cars, my Mother’s and my brother’s.

Mom’s car was a mid-sixties Chevy station wagon and the primary car I drove as I learned to drive.  If you can learn to drive, and parallel park, a beast of this size, you certainly deserve a gold star on your first driver’s license. But the first car you drive always has a special place in your heart as you experience teenage freedom like never before.

My brother’s car was a Chevy Vega, with a manual transmission that I’m surprised I didn’t burn out with the abuse I submitted it to. A halfway steep hill would drive fear into my heart.  I just new I would stall it yet again. I just couldn’t get the hang of working the clutch until one day when I had my older brother explain what a clutch actually did, bringing two plates together by sliding them against each other until they matched speeds. That’s all it took. Now that I knew what I needed them to do, the rest was easy.

Now, on to my cars.  

My very first car was a baby blue Opel Kadett with a manual transmission. I bought it used from some guy in Kettering with the negotiating help of my Dad, whom I could have slugged for bickering about the last few dollars. I didn’t realize that he simply liked the back and forth bantering. I just thought the deal was about to fall through any second on the car I had my sights set on. Aside from that life lesson, my Opel will be fondly remembered as the car my first serious girlfriend and I made out in, parked under a tree at the end of a dead end street after a night of college study.

Next up was a red Volvo 164E, an automatic, that is to this day the smoothest car I’ve ever driven.  I bought it from a dealer in North Dayton and was cruising down I-75 back home when I noticed that I was doing 80 mph in a 55 mph zone. Thing was the Opel had a broken speedometer, so I learned to drive on feel, and ignore the always-zero speed reading, and the Volvo was so smooth and solid it almost got me a huge ticket. Unfortunately the Volvo had a habit of blowing through zener diodes, which after a couple years I diagnosed as a poorly grounded battery cable, albeit a thousand dollars in repairs later.  But I had grown frustrated with it and it was time to move on.

The first new car I owned was a silver Nissan 200SX, the best combination of acceleration, fuel economy and style I’ve ever owned, and of course had to be a five-speed manual.  The car payment, as I best remember, was around $300/month, which at the time was a huge monthly payment, specially coming on top of my first house purchase which also huge at the time.  But I just simply had to buy this beauty.  

At around the same time as the house and the Nissan, the Volvo gave up the ghost and I needed a cheap, real cheap, car to drive to work. That purchase was a dark blue Chevy Chevette for under $5,000 dollars, drove for a little over 100,000 miles until the floorboards rusted and then sold to my neighbor for a few bucks. The craziest experience in this car was one night when the stick shift broke. I managed to figure out that I could use a finger to get the transmission into a gear.  But which gear to select to drive the 10 miles home?  I decided 5th gear would work best overall, but have you ever tried to start moving a car from a dead stop using a clutch and gas pedal in 5th gear?  I guess I learned my Vega lesson well, because I managed to pull it off.

Next up was a new, late 1980’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais.  By now I was sold on a manual transmission and this was one of the few mid-sized American cars that offered it as a choice. This was a solid, albeit unexciting car.  It was the car my son first learned to drive and I guess it was good he learned to drive a clutch, but there were a few terrifying moments, in particular when he mistook a two-way stop for a four-way stop and made a left-hand without looking left or right.  In one of those thank-God moments in life, no traffic was coming and other than scaring me to death and him getting yelled at, no harm was done.  

In 1996 my daughter would sixteen and I wanted no part of a repeat performance in teaching a newbie on a stick, so I opted instead for a used, white Pontiac Grand Prix with an automatic. I did my Daddy driving lesson duty, drove it for a couple years and my daughter took it off to college, which lasted most of the way through.  

Freshly divorced and past driving lessons, I finally had the chance to get purely what I wanted, and that was a 1997 Pontiac Firebird, T-tops and back to a manual transmission. When I took one for a test drive with a salesman, I drove through some streets, up on Interstate-75 to check its comfort for longer rides and back to the dealership. The salesman commented that it was the most unique test drive of a Firebird he had ever witnessed. Most people take it out and immediately proceed to check out its acceleration and handling. I just drove it like a normal car, normal acceleration, normal turning. I just figured it would do all that exciting stuff and I wanted to make sure it would be comfortable. This car remains my favorite ride to date. I’d leave work on a summer Friday afternoon, cut and light a cigar, put the T-tops in the hatch and enjoy the ride home.  

Freshly married again, my wife needed a car and she narrowed it down to either a 1998 Toyota RAV-4 or a Honda CR-V without a test drive and then just told me to pick one.  I decided I liked the Honda better, searched the Internet and found one in Indiana with the right color and options.  When I came home that night my wife says that she went out looking at the Honda and the Toyota that day and that she knew which one she wanted.  My heart sank. OMG. Well, thank God she wanted the Honda, because it was a done deal. And stressed to her that she would never, ever, ever do that again.  The car was delivered by two older guys to my door, I signed the loan papers on my dining room table and they went back to Indiana in their other car.  I always thought that would be an awesome retirement job.

I wasn’t ready to part with my Firebird, but I found myself with a 1997 and a 1998 car and really didn’t want two car payments at the same time again.  When the Honda was paid off, I decided to trade in the Firebird and start a fresh loan so five years hence I could replace the CR-V, ending up with one loan at a time. Great plan, except the part of getting divorced again.  I opted for a 2004 Nissan Maxima, a 285 horse powerhouse, stylish and an automatic.  But this would have been a Nissan 350Z if I would have known my wife would never have driven it, even though she saif she would.  Damn. It.

Next up is my wife’s (third time’s a real charm!) 2012 Volkswagon Eos.  We wanted to convertible that would be a year-round car and without any hassle in putting the top up and down.  The Eos has a powered hardtop which takes a mere 25 seconds to change personas, looking like one of those Transformers my son loved as a kid.  Good performance and very good gas mileage with the only drawback being a bit of a lag when starting from a stop.  But there’re nothing like driving around on a hot summer’s day with the top down and the wind blowing on my face.

That brings me to my current ride, a silver 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, my first truck/SUV.  Not a great highway ride, but my daily work commute only includes 4 such miles, so not much of a problem.  The idea behind the Jeep was to have a larger, 4-person car since the Eos is really only comfortable for 2.  We also needed to make lots of trips to the dump as we remodel the house and work on garden projects.  And bless those folks at Soft Touch Car Wash for making my messy Jeep all clean again, inside and outside, on many occasions.  They certainly earn their tip money.

What’s next?  That looms in 2016.  I’ll be sixty years old.  Not many cars left to own in my life.

Decisions, decisions...