Yesterday, I wrote about the pros and cons of financing vs. buying a used car with cash. At the end of the post, I briefly mentioned that one of the reasons I don’t mind financing is because I’ve driven six unreliable cars since high school. While I hated most of those cars by the time they died, they certainly left me with a lot of stories, and I’m sharing them in this post.
This is a long one, and it’s a little off topic, but if you’re interested in reading a different kind of writing than what I usually post here, please click through.
My very first car was a 1988 Chevy Cavalier when I was 16 years old. That car served me well for a year and a half until I flipped it upside down into a ditch. I hit ice, slammed on my brakes, and the next thing I knew, I was hanging upside down by my seat belt staring at my seat above me and wondering where my roof went.
Two people stopped to help me before the police arrived. One was a truck driver. He was kind to me, realized pretty quickly that I was just a kid, and kept me calm as we waited. The other must have been a neonatal nurse, because she was obsessively convinced that a baby was involved in the accident. “IS THERE A BABY IN THE CAR?!” she asked repeatedly. The trucker and I assured her that no, the only person in the car was a relatively uninjured 17-year-old, but she continued to ask. When she was finally convinced that there wasn’t a baby, she started asking if I was pregnant.
I didn’t cry that night. Didn’t even really freak out. In fact, after they pried me out with the Jaws of Life, I called my dad and said, “Please don’t be mad. I wrecked my car.”
He said later that it sounded like I’d been in a fender bender. He was hoping he’d be able to get the car home without a tow truck. So imagine his surprise when he asked whether the car was drivable, and I told him, “Um … it’s upside down. In a ditch.”
I was extremely lucky to walk away unscathed. I like to think that big hunk of metal from the 80s, the Chevy Cavalier with a sticker on the bumper that said, “Karma Happens,” protected me in some way.
The Cavalier was a good car, but it wasn’t without mechanical problems. Every time it rained, the engine would hack like an aged man who smoked Cowboy Killers for 50 years. Sometimes it stalled, the equivalent of passing out after a violent coughing attack. I like to think that the wreck saved it from a slow, painful death by tuberculosis.
My next car was a 1997 Thunderbird. In its day, it had been a beautiful car. It was only a few years old, and my dad originally bought it for himself — one of those impractical purchases that 40-something men make when they suddenly realize they’re middle-aged. Then my older sister wrecked her car, and since the Thunderbird had been sitting unused in the garage for months, she inherited it.
It wasn’t a practical car for a teenager like my sister. She was rough — the kind of girl who carried a beeper and hung out behind the school smoking cigarettes. I can remember her revving her engine and slamming the gas when she found herself next to teenage boys driving fast cars at stoplights.
The Thunderbird suffered some undercarriage damage from the night she spun it recklessly through an icy parking lot and hit a parking block doing donuts. Needless to say, she’s lucky that car didn’t kill her. By the time she returned it to my dad, the transmission was shot from a year of poorly executed drag races.
By the time I started driving it, the Thunderbird was on its last leg, but it still looked like a muscle car in perfect condition on the outside. Because of the V8 symbol on the back, meatheads in Mustangs would pull up next to me at lights and start revving their engines, goading me to race them.
I did not carry a beeper or smoke cigarettes at the time, and I was always home in time for my self-imposed curfew, so at first I didn’t even know what they wanted from me. I still chuckle when I picture how it must have looked to outsiders. The light turned green, and the Mustang burned rubber pulling away as my injured Thunderbird gingerly putted through the intersection, the transmission on its last leg.
When that car died, I inherited my grandmother’s beat-up Oldsmobile. It was built shortly after car manufacturers began using electronic gauges on dashboards, and all the lights and digital gauges made me feel like I was in a space ship every time I drove it. Annoyed drivers flashed their brights at me as they passed, probably assuming the light emitting from the Oldsmobile was coming from my high beams. It was just my giant digital speedometer, lit completely in neon.
By the time my grandmother gave it to me, I’d already spent countless Saturdays in the garage with my dad as he tried to fix its various problems. In addition to its unnecessarily bright dash panel, the car’s construction made little sense. I once watched my dad take apart the entire undercarriage apart to change a fuel filter. I would hand him tools as he muttered a string of expletives and vowed to show the car’s designer the business end of a 2-by-4.
I broke down one summer evening on the side of the road. By this time, I’d gotten really good at explaining car sounds to my dad. I recreated the noise the engine was making, and my dad said, “It’s out of gas.”
“No, it’s not,” I insisted. “I am looking at the gas gauge right now. It’s half full.”
My dad arrived five minutes later, sat in the driver’s seat, and tried to start it. It hacked at us, a noise that I could admit sounded like a car out of gas, but the gas gauge wouldn’t lie.
“Where did you drive it today?” my dad asked. I listed off the places we’d visited that day on various sides of town. “And has the gas gauge moved?” he asked. In that moment, the light bulb above my head was out shined by my bright, embarrassed blush.
“I thought I was having a good gas day,” I told my dad meekly.
When I went away to college, I didn’t have a car for the first year. The bus system in my college town was good, but it was still a hassle. If my roommate and I wanted to go to the mall, it was an ordeal that took an entire day. Wait for the bus, change lines, wait again, change lines.
My roommate and I were both ecstatic when my parents gifted me with a 1991 Ford Tempo for Christmas my sophomore year. I didn’t immediately love that she was gold, but the car grew on me.
I named her Tina Turner. She’d been through a lot of abuse, but she was strong, and she’d come out fighting on the other side. She wasn’t without battle wounds, though. The abuse had left her unable to withstand a lot of weight in the backseat. When giant college boys loaded into the backseat, we’d hear a loud “thump, thump, thump,” as we drove along. Eventually my dad advised me to keep weight out of the backseat to avoid further damage, so Tina Turner became a two-seater.
Her death was slow. At first, she would intermittently refuse to reverse. I had to be pushed out of parking spaces. One night on my way home from work, it felt like she’d accidentally been popped into neutral as I approached a slight incline. I looked down to confirm that she was in Drive, but she wouldn’t budge.
Whenever I had car problems, my dad was the first person I called. He would sigh in frustration, and I always had to endure a disgruntled two-minute speech about how he can’t help me, he’s 200 miles away, call a tow-truck and let him know if I need help paying for repairs.
I know why he hated those calls. He wanted nothing more than to drive to where I was to give me a jump start or call the tow truck for me. But when I was in college, that just wasn’t possible.
After a few minutes of disgruntled ranting, he’d ask what the car was doing, which would lead to a few minutes of strange noises from both of us as he tried to isolate the options of what could be wrong.
The night Tina died, we were in the middle of the diagnostic process when my friend showed up to give me a ride. The noises coming from the other end of the phone as my dad asked me to choose which sound was closest to the one Tina was making seemed completely normal to me. I think my friend was convinced that my car problems had finally taken a toll on my dad’s sanity.
Tina was laid to rest a week later after being diagnosed with fatal transmission problems.
My next car was a 1997 Mercury Sable. It was the fanciest car I’d ever owned — roomy and comfortable with power locks, power windows, leather seats. But he was unreliable, and often broke down at the worst possible moments. I would stop at a red light, and when it turned green I’d hit the gas and stall. There I was sitting in the middle of an intersection, angry motorists honking behind me, and my car refusing to budge. I usually ended up being pushed out of the way by some good Samaritan who took pity on me.
Once I was safely off the road, I’d turn the engine again, and what do you know? It would start right back up. The Sable’s performance anxiety earned him the name Donny Osmond. He was a good car, but poor Donny just couldn’t handle the pressure at showtime. There was always something wrong with Donny, and I racked up more credit card debt in the four months I drove him than on anything else.
Shortly after I started driving Tina Turner, I’d met a mechanic named Andy who reminded me a lot of my dad. He was no-nonsense, honest, and he always gave me a good deal on repairs. He’d given me a fair deal on a few minor maintenance issues on Tina Turner — broken belts and things like that. Initially, I didn’t know if I could trust him, though, and I asked my dad to talk to the mechanic, find out what was wrong, and let me know if he thought it was worth fixing on an old car.
By the time I brought Donny in for the third time in as many months, Andy had my dad on speed dial. He told me the problem, and as I scrambled to find my dad’s work number in my cell phone, Andy was already on the phone with him. I think when I moved Andy was sadder to lose my dad’s friendship than my frequent business.
I bought Donny in the late spring, but by early fall I knew he was on borrowed time. After one particularly rough night at my job as a bowling alley bartender (which is another story entirely), I stumbled out of the noise and the smoke wanting nothing more than to get home and curl up in bed. I started Donny up, but by the time I made it to the parking lot exit, he died completely. I sat in the driver’s seat, sobbing in a sadly characteristic display of overreaction. It’s a good thing I didn’t have a baseball bat in that moment. If I had, Donny would have suffered a pretty undignified death.
When I brought him to the garage for the last time, Andy sat me down and told me gently that it was time. Donny had been a good car, he’d tried his hardest not to let me down, but there was nothing more we could do for him.
“But it’s only the alternator,” I said desperately. “We can fix him.” I’d already put a couple thousand dollars into him. It felt like failure to give up now. But his engine was knocking now, and itt was only a matter of time, Andy said. It was time to put him down and let him maintain his dignity.
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was a little glad to see Donny go.
The 1996 Mercury Cirrus I drove next was my favorite of all my used cars. My dad’s friend who sold it to us was the car’s only previous owner. The mileage was close to 160,000 by the time I took possession of the car, but it was in near perfect condition. The previous owner was so meticulous in its care that he left a stack of service receipts in the glove compartment that documented a decade of oil changes and tune-ups.
I named the car Lisa Marie Presley, because she wasn’t that old, but she had a lot of miles on her.
I trusted Lisa Marie more than any other car I’d ever driven. Never once did I turn the key without that engine revving immediately, and at that point, that’s honestly all I wanted in a car.
Soon after I bought Lisa Marie, though, a wiring problem caused the radio, interior lights, and power locks to stop working. I was gun shy when it came to fixing car problems. After all, Donny had left me a few thousand dollars in debt. When I told my dad about the problem, he warned me it could take hours for a mechanic to find the wiring problem, which could rack up hundreds of dollars in labor costs for a minor problem. I decided to live without a car radio and power locks. Driving in silence with Lisa Marie only allowed me to get to know her better.
About six months before I moved to North Carolina with Tony, Lisa Marie was started to show her age. When her gas gauge stopped working, I started keeping a little pad of paper on the dash so I could mark down how many miles I had before the next fill-up. Her power-steering sprung a leak, so I was refilling the fluid every other week or so. I nursed her along for months knowing that I’d likely be giving her up soon.
Just before I moved, I took her to Andy one last time to get an estimate on repairs. We were considering towing her to North Carolina, but we didn’t want to do it if her repairs were too expensive. Andy told me it would be at least $600 to fix the power-steering. We decided it wasn’t worth it to put that kind of money into a car with almost 200,000 miles on it, especially since we were about to move 800 miles from everyone we knew. We needed something more reliable.
When I opened the car door to drive away, I was greeted by the dome light. I hadn’t seen that dome light work for over a year. Suddenly, the power locks and radio were working again. Andy had fixed the wiring problem at no charge as a thank you for my years of business and countless referrals. As I drove home with the radio loud, I had my doubts about whether I could give her up.
But Lisa Marie needed constant care that I just couldn’t provide. I passed her down to my younger sister, who lived in the same town as my dad and desperately needed a reliable car.
It was strange to see her parked in my parents’ driveway when I came home to visit, filled with my sister’s stuff. Her ashtray was stuffed with butts, and I could barely see the backseat. I could almost hear her calling out to me, demanding to know why I’d deserted her.
I wanted to tell my sister just how much she was taking Lisa Marie for granted. After all I’d been through with Tina Turner and Donny Osmond, I was so thankful every time I turned the key and Lisa Marie started right up. It seemed ironic now to see her so disheveled when I knew the first owner’s service receipts remained in the glove compartment, placed there so meticulously by a man who loved this car.
It wasn’t my place to tell my sister how to treat Lisa Marie. I’d moved on to a younger, newer car. I’d left Lisa Marie behind. If she was being neglected now, it was my own fault.
Today my husband and I share Walter Cronkite, a 2007 Hyundai Accent. He was shiny and brand new when we bought him. Reliable, sensible, but overall pretty boring. He’s a good car, though — a car that we can count on.
I don’t miss breaking down in the middle of intersections or spending hundreds of dollars on repairs. I don’t miss having a close personal relationship with a mechanic. But I do miss the character of my old, beat-up cars. It took me two years to find a name that fit Walter Cronkite. I think it’s because he was a blank slate when we bought him. He was too new to have any personality.
I wonder what kind of personality he’ll develop during the years that we drive him. Every time I fold a service receipt and place it in the glove compartment, I think briefly about what kind of person will inherit Walter when I’m ready to give him up, and I hope whoever it is appreciates him.