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Cars and Love
I tend to easily fall in love. Some women, I know for a fact, have this problem with men. I have this problem with cars. My first, a rusty, gas-fume-filled ‘68 Volkswagen bug with holes in the floor (not for ventilation) was my ride for five years. For no apparent reason, she abandoned me in rural Vermont, then later on Interstate 93 halfway between Boston and NH. I still went back for her.
She would sometimes run out of gas with gauges showing over half a tank. Fools broke into her and tried to steal the radio, leaving a folding knife and a pool of blood for their effort. Finally, the last straw, the transmission linkage broke, making shifting something of a proposition. I traded her for a new ’78 Malibu, as bland a car as was ever made. I was driving my new love and there, on Route 128, was the old bug, dead and abandoned, her Dartmouth decal still festooned across the rear window. The 50 bucks the Chevy dealer gave me for her had been too much. No doubt the linkage problem went from stubborn to faggetaboudit.
Yes, the Malibu was a dog. She had a V6 engine that had the temerity to be both inefficient and slow. The stock AM-FM radio did attract the junkies who steal such things and surrendered, leaving a black hole in the dash I never refilled. Within weeks, when the plastic M on the rear nameplate disappeared, she was henceforth referred to as the ‘alibu. Girls were not impressed, though the car did evoke a certain humility and utilitarianism, an early hint of conservatism as yet undiscovered, and it had a bench seat. So she had her charm. I loved old ‘alibu, a car born middle-aged.
I was never good about getting ‘alibu serviced, so in a fit of concern, I took her to a gas station over by MIT for an oil and lube. These were not MIT-level mechanics and they failed to refill the oil reservoir before I picked her up. I paid them, drove away and soon noticed loud mechanical noises coming from the engine compartment. I pulled over and checked the dipstick. It was red hot and dry. I limped her back to the gas station and they added five quarts of oil. From that point on, the ‘alibu’s valves issued loud ticks as the pistons cycled. As the RPMs revved, it turned into an obnoxious whine.
When my new girlfriend told me she was amused that I, an up-and-coming CPA from a top Boston firm, drove such a humble (humiliating?) vehicle, I knew she was the one. Since there were no tunes, on our first date I offered to sing to her myself. She was an actress and singer, a professional who made something of a living at it. She has since told me that this was when she knew I was different; some 20 months later, we married. It’s now been 42 years.
‘alibu whined past 100K miles and started to overheat. It was winter and I found that if I blasted the heater, the “TEMP” idiot light would turn off. I continued to use the car, the heat perpetually on full sauna mode. Even on the coldest, single-digit mornings, I had to open the windows, which must have seemed strange to other drivers.
The car had other problems. She would start on those cold mornings, but until the engine came up to temperature, it would cough and spit. If you put the car in gear before she warmed up, it would stall. I’d sit in the driveway and wait as the car choked and fogged the neighborhood with its noxious spew. Our landlord, who lived on the first floor of our triple-decker, told me that this situation was untenable. As a cheap do-it-yourselfer, I lengthened the automatic choke coil by screwing to it the hook from a painting hanger. This forced the carburetor to open so the car could breathe. The fogging stopped.
Spring came and the overheating turned chronic. I’d have to pull over to the side of the highway, turn off the car and wait for the engine to cool so that I could limp another five or ten miles. Mornings were easier as the air outside was still cool, but returning home was another issue. It took me hours to make a 25-mile return commute.
‘alibu needed to be put down. I had a client, a car dealer, in Gloucester. There I’d seen a new four-door Pontiac Sunbird Turbo, two-tone, beige over brown, four-speed stick. It seemed just the right combination of speed, practicality, and dare for a newlywed CPA. The ‘alibu limped the 30 miles to Gloucester, worth $500 in the trade, stopping several times. I drove off with my new love, the Sunbird Turbo.
There was reason to love this new little car. It had a stout little iron-block engine, borrowed from GM’s Brazil commercial truck line-up and coupled with a turbocharger. She was quick and powerful. In first gear and under acceleration, as the turbocharger spun up, actual direction was unpredictable. She would dart left or right, torque steer, depending on how hard you pressed the accelerator. I learned never to accelerate out of a ticket booth when entering the Mass Pike. That was a good way to spoil the paint on a fender or worse. But where this little car really impressed was on the highway. Pontiac had beefed up the suspension and added wide, sticky Goodyear high-performance tires. It hunkered down and pushed past 100 MPH with aplomb. There was much beyond that, I could tell, but I was still a young, up-and-coming Boston CPA and soon-to-be father. So I never pushed past 110. Did I tell you I loved that car?
Then, she was stolen. My young wife took it to a rehearsal in Boston and parked it in a BU parking lot. After more than three weeks, Liberty Mutual was about to settle our claim when the BPD called. They found the car in Dorchester, front seat broken and replaced with a milk crate, wheels and tires, missing. Liberty said that she could be repaired. A couple of weeks later, I picked her up. She looked perfect, but wasn’t. Within a week, as I sat in traffic on Memorial Drive, something went. The clutch. The sound was horrible, metal on metal, could wake the dead. The clutch was ruined. Liberty agreed to fix it and admitted that yes, the thieves had been racing the car and had likely ruined the clutch.
What else? It was soon winter again and on one particularly cold morning commute, I glanced down to see that the temperature gauge was pegged HOT! Remembering the ‘alibu, I pushed the fan on full and pressed heat, but I missed. In my haste, I actually pushed the lever all the way to defrost and in a loud whump, the windshield cracked into a million pieces, yet remained intact, clinging to its plastic inner lining. With less than 20K miles on the odometer, the Sunbird had a blown head gasket.
Months had passed since the theft, so this time, Liberty Mutual balked. They would make no more repairs. I replaced the windshield myself, bought some Bardahls gasket repair and added it to the radiator. This sludge would clog the leak and last a week or two, but the repair would eventually give way, especially if I pushed the engine at all. What fun is a turbocharged engine if you can’t use it? A new head gasket was costly, a thousand or more, so a decision had to be made. It was time to be a responsible, almost 30-year-old, married CPA, a new homeowner, and soon, a new father. I needed a new car. This time it would be a more practical choice.
Toyota was the first dealership we visited, for the new Camry. The used car appraiser looked over the Sunbird with the chrome “Turbo” emblems on the front fenders and the tail. The car was still very handsome and smart. He asked if she was fast and I shrugged. He took the keys and raced off with a smile only to return with a frown in a cloud of sweet, radiator fluid infused smoke. The Bardahl’s had let loose. We didn’t buy a Camry.
Bardahl’s was reintroduced back at home and we headed for the Honda dealer. A new used car guy was too impressed with the low-mileage, two-tone Sunbird to even take it on a test drive. We bought a 1989 Accord with flip-top headlights and an automatic transmission. It was the first of a long line of Honda products, all of which were unremarkable except for their remarkable longevity and reliability. I guess I loved them all, the way a man loves that 40-year-old GE beer fridge in the garage that refuses to give in to the Phoenix summer heat. Even when I could choose a company car, I stayed with Honda; I just moved up to the more prestigious Acura label.
Then I retired and had to give up the company car. I settled on an older, low-mileage, used Lexus. I didn’t buy a new car because, well, I’m a frugal Yankee at heart and couldn’t justify the cost. Now the wife’s Honda van is approaching 200K miles and I have to admit that it would be nice to have at least one new (or newer) car for these supposed “trips” she expects to take this summer. We did Yellowstone last year and the van performed admirably, with little struggle. I fully expected the trip might prove too much for the old girl, but it wasn’t. She shouldered the interstates, mountains, wind, and rain like a champion, a bit arthritic and cranky perhaps, not the athletic girl she once was, but 200K miles will do that.
My wife has driven a white Honda Odyssey, in various iterations, since 1999. Another would be easy, but she is not so inclined. I can’t blame her. We tried the much-acclaimed Kia Telluride, everyone’s favorite, but dealers have added so much expensive paint sealant, window tint, and tire nitrogen, sometimes more than $10K worth, to make them unbuyable. Will someone tell these people that the air we breathe is nearly all nitrogen anyway, so why bother? Hyundais, Buicks, Mazdas, Toyotas, Subarus, Hondas, and Nissans failed to inspire her. Acuras, Infinities, BMWs, and Volvos came up short. She doesn’t want to try Fords or Jeeps. So we languish, compare specs and features, refer to Car and Driver, Consumer Reports, and other reviews. Nothing jumps to the front.
In order to help her with this, I’ve become something of an expert on these vehicles. I can tell her which is the more expensive, has the best mileage, has the most issues or complaints. I can tell her which can be had in a white exterior and beige interior and which have her favorite 360=camera feature. But none of this seems to sway her. She remains uncommitted.
There are four months left until summer. Mazda is releasing an early 2024 XC90, a larger version of the XC9 that my wife thought too small and lacking features. The XC90 corrects that. Toyota is coming out with a new Grand Highlander, which addresses my wife’s complaint that the current Highlander is too small. Both present me with the “new model year” reliability dilemma, but I will ignore that if she chooses. And Honda is redoing the Odyssey, but it probably won’t be available until fall.
If I were a betting man, I’d bet we’ll be taking the old van on a few trips this summer. I’d also bet we’ll be driving her progeny in the fall. It’s time to give the old girl a little love, perhaps some new rear shocks. She’s been a good horse, that one.Published in General
A very nice post, Doug.
Thanks. It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Glad you liked it.
Your name came to mind when I saw this in today’s WSJ:
A $14.995 Million Mansion With a Private Beach Lists in Manchester-by-the-Sea
I’m betting every guy here can give you excruciating detail on the acquisition, life and death of every car he’s ever owned.
We tend to keep cars a long time. Right now we own a 72 we bought used, and a 93, two 99’s, a 15 and a 17, all purchased new. The 72 and 93 have antique plates which remove the need for inspection. One of the 99’s will get an antique plate next year, but not my 99 truck as daily use vehicles don’t qualify. Some were/are love affairs while some have the satisfaction of a well worn pair of shoes. We purchased a couple of new motorcycles last year and are still in the love affair phase with them. As we age the likelihood of buying new vehicles is declining precipitously.
True that. Way back in ought-11 I bought a CRV with almost 100K Miles. We did a 90 minute MD to NOVA commute five days a week for the next five years with no complaints. Then we moved to flyover country and the next summer the AC gave out. $2000 for something I used four months outta the year? Nah.
My Michigan-based relatives gave me grief for buying “Made in Japan.” Jokes on them, it was built in England.
Gave it to my niece in ’21 when I bought a pickup. She turned it into a high school party wagon. It’s still rolling
I grew up no more than 4 miles from where that mansion sits, though it might as well be 4000. That was back when it was just Manchester, still by the sea, but not notably so, and as opposed to that blemish north on the Merrimac river, Manchester, the dying mill town (and largest city in NH.)
The property taxes on that place probably exceed $100K a year.
I bought a used ’98 CRV for my oldest daughter when she went to college. It followed my two other girls to college as well. I retired it two years ago with 265k miles. It needed a tranny. I sold it to my mechanic for $200. He put a used transmission in it and gave it to his sister. It is still on the road!
Those early Japanese cars saved Detroit by forcing them to get better. Remember how awful the K cars and Ford Granadas were? Our daily drivers are all Fords now. I wouldn’t have dreamed of that in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when we owned a succession of Hondas, Nissans (one Datsun) and Subarus.
Before we bought (new) our 2019 Ford Escape for which Mrs. Tabby was to be the primary driver, and which was to be our primary trip car, I did all kinds of research. The criteria she had were: taller than our BMW 3 series wagon (for easier entry and exit as we’re getting older), but no longer than the BMW (182 inches), a not-black interior (we had recently moved to often-hot Texas), and a local dealer for service. On paper, all the many compact crossovers were almost identical. But once I got the list down to about four options, as soon as she physically sat in and drove the options, the Ford was the only one that “turned her on.” The visceral experience of actual contact with the car sealed the deal.
We had traded a Dodge Caravan for the BMW when our younger child left college and reported for active duty Air Force ten years earlier, as Mrs. Tabby was tired of driving large-ish “minivans” after almost twenty years. And said child’s ROTC scholarship allowed us the free cash to afford a slightly used BMW.
Your tale of the Bardahl’s and the Sunbird made me think of the Bluesmobile after it threw a rod. Of course, how that car continued to work after it had thrown a rod was nothing short of miraculous…not unlike your Sunbird.
There is little romance left in today’s cars…too many electronics and safety devices.
What a fun post. It reminds me when I was young, in the ’60s in upstate New York, and my grandfather would keep all the cars he owned. He had a farm where he would drive them and leave them when they got too old. We loved visiting the farm and bringing a battery, a little gas, and use the abondoned ones as field cars. They included an Opel, a Corvair, a Vauxhall, and a few Cadillacs with those big fins on the back.
I’m burying the lede here, but Ernst & Ernst?
My first car was a 56 Plymouth Savoy that my dad bought for $75. It had a pushbutton transmission and the driver’s door didn’t open.
Then a 61 Ford Fairlane, which wasn’t a bad car, except for needing to check the oil every time I stopped for gas.
Then a 69 Chevy Caprice convertible, yellow with a black rag top. Man, I wish I still had that one.**
Next up a 75 Dodge van that I fixed up with wood paneling and green shag carpet. Many trips to Bethany and Rehoboth Beach with then-gf, now wife of 45 years, listening to Frampton Comes Alive on the 8-track player.
82 Chevy S-10 pickup, which didn’t last long because we quickly needed room for a baby car seat.
85 Dodge Caravan, ’nuff said.
91 and 96 Ford Explorers, fine vehicles that went on a lot of youth hockey trips all over the east coast.
The last 20 years a 2004 Honda CRV, 2010 Outback, a 2014 and now a 2019 Nissan Rogue. All fine cars, but not much to reminisce about.
**Edit: Not the one I had, but just like it.
Did you not even think to make a claim against their insurance? That’s a typical “bonehead” event that all service facilities – at least the somewhat-respectable ones – carry for when they forget to put the oil in, etc.
They should have bought you a rebuilt – or even new – engine.
The first car my true love and I purchased as an engaged, but still in college couple was a TR4 similar to the one below. It was “HER TR4” said it right on the license tags (a rare extravagance for poor putting ourselves thru college kids). It was in constant need…. of something, but what ever it needed it would still take her, or us, to either work or school. Just perhaps with some of the lights not working, or the engine bucking a bit “in need” of a carb balancing, or cleaning the fouling plugs, or dirty spark coil cap, etc, etc, etc. We bought it for $450 bucks, probably spent 3K on it over the college years slowly restoring it, until the frame broke a year after graduation.
At that time in my life it was a repair beyond my ken.
As I mentioned it was “HER TR4”. Shortly before graduation I was allowed to purchase “HIS TR6”. I took that car and turned it into a Q ship. I replace the drive train with a small aluminum Old V8, a Camaro transmission, and a Corvette rear end. Except for the V8 more of the parts I needed were floating around the family’s gasoline alley (five children and all car enthusiasts)
That car secured me my first job as an Engineer. One day when I was dropping off my Dad at his office, and the VP of engineering saw me and decide to heckle me about my old British tin. I challenged him to a drag race across the then unoccupied 1/2 mile wide parking lot. Since he was driving the company’s CEO brand new Renault Alpine (transaxle V6, w mid engine layout), he thought it was a easy bet to collect.
Well I soundly beat him, and he insisted that I had done something to my Triumph. I said yes, but you never asked me anything about “my car”. I popped the hood open and revealed my handiwork. I guess he was impressed, because a month later I was offer an unsolicited job in the Aerospace arena working as a contractor for NASA. They saved me from a life of “cow engineering”
I had that TR6 for five years until the the wife’s nesting instinct of home ownership, (a real fixer upper) and full time employment started to completely occupy all of my time and the TR6 needed me to develop a solution to the fact that the TR’s half shafts (little axles between the rear differential and the rear wheels) kept snapping from the torque, and no more were to be found in any junk yards in Maryland, Virginia, or Delaware. I had cleaned them all out. So the car was sold.
Fast forward 40 years and the love of my life has let me revisit my youth, and we purchase another TR6. Here they both are.
We have nowhere we have to get to, the TR is still as reliable as the day it was born, and for us to relive a few memories.
We can live with that.
Ah, one of my favorite creations (yes, I did make this one from the video):
I got my V8 TR4 pre-built: I bought a new 1980 TR8. Only had it a few years though, before it was stolen/wrecked.
It was one of only 50 5-speed hardtops ever made.
The V8 I used was the brother of the one in your TR8. GM made two version of that 215 cid Aluminum V8 with the difference being the number of head bolts (the Buick version had 13/side that Old 18/side and was sold with a turbo charger of some models). The tooling for the Buick was sold to British LeLand and was still kicking around until a few years ago in the Rover.
Yep I think it was used for a long time in Australia too, might even still be.
I just sold my 93 Volvo. A couple of college students are going to refurbish it from end to end and then sell it.
The Reckoning by David Halbertsam chronicles those early days of the JPY vs USA auto wars. It’s lengthy, but excellent.
Agreed. Our first Honda was a 1988 Honda Accord with a proper manual gearbox and flip-up headlights:
We were more or less broke with a newborn. But I had noticed a relationship between USD/JPY foreign exchange rates and the US trade deficit. One month, I predicted a big change in the trade deficit and bought $600 worth of out-of-the money Yen put options. Best single trade I ever made. That $600 bucks turned into that car, new furniture for the baby’s room and a bottle of excellent bourbon for Mrs E and myself. License plate was XJYUP-0 … the ticker symbol for those options.
It never asked for anything beyond regular maintenance items and gas. Once it ticked over 250,000 we gave it to my father-in-law. It had around 310,000 when it got totaled in an accident. He was OK, but the car was toast. If not for that, I have every confidence it’d still be going today.
My mother did not drive until I turned eight or nine. When she did, my dad bought her a used 1962 Bel-air. Though it was just three or four years old, it was old, with seventy-grand-plus on the odo. Straight six, three on the tree and two doors the size of picnic tables, it was a wallowing beast of a vehicle. Rust had carved circular holes behind the front fendors which we covered with SS stickers. My dad called it a Rolls Cannardly – rolls down one hill, can hardly make it up the next. In jr high an older kid asked what kind of car my family owned. “We have a Rolls Cannardly,” I said and everyone there, including my close friends, nodded with amazement. Then I repeated my dad’s old bromide and after some hesitation, the crowd kinda laughed, likely wondering if this was a laughing or beating situation. I was a wise ass, of course, and fearless. I escaped unharmed that time.
We had an 83 Prelude, 84 Accord, 02 CR-V and an 06 Acura TSX. If that TSX had a bigger back seat we’d probably still be driving it. Compared to the competitors those early 80’s Hondas were like precision instruments.
In 86 my AF pilot wife had to have an Alfa Spyder. Pretty much the opposite of a Honda, and proved that character is overrated when it comes to motor vehicles. I once read a magazine review that said Alfa’s are like the crazy girlfriend you had in high school. When it was good, it was great, but sooner or later you’d end up standing on the side of the road in the rain, wondering what went wrong.
British cars used to be a joke all to themselves because of weird electrical systems etc (“Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators” and so on) but my TR8 had no such issues.
Relative to your ‘65 VW Bug, did you ever learn to shift gears without using the clutch? With my ‘67 Bug, I could pop it out of gear, rev the engine and as the revved engine calmed down, pop it into the next gear.
Back in 1979, some friends and I drove a 1969 Triumph through several border stations in Europe.
We used to joke that the car held that brand name, as it “tried to have some umph.”
Crossing into Germany at some remote border and customs station, we were very worried. We had heard via conversations at a pub up the road from this place that its staff was notorious for making sure that any car entering Germany was road worthy. This included such items as no fumes belching from a muffler, nor noise from the same appendage, & of course the car must not stall.
We all held our collective breath as we approached the station.
Luckily for us, the station was at the bottom of a small hill. (Whoever claims there is no God was not along with us for the ride that day.)
And so without much use of the brake, we handed passports to the official, then smiled and acted cheerfully like our car was worth a million bucks.
It was obvious that we had interrupted his eating lunch. He seemed as eager to get back to finishing his sausage sandwich as we were eager to proceed along our merry way before the vehicle died in front of him.
Without the engine’s pistons missing a beat, we simultaneously retrieved the passports from this official, punched the clutch & tranny into drive & let the momentum of that convenient hill keep the car up & running for the rest of our ride thru Germany.
I had a ’64 VW van. For several months it had a bad battery so I had to jump start it. I was careful to park it on an incline, preferably facing down hill.
The technique was to get a firm grip on the steering wheel, give the the jitney a strong push, jump into the driver’s seat, shift it into gear, and pop the clutch. Started, nearly, every time.