The Zombie Car Phenomenon

 

Several years ago, while I waited on the curb at the San Diego airport watching traffic flow by, I noticed something about the cars. They were different from the local vehicles in Northwest Montana, and although I’d lived in San Diego for 20 years, I had never made the connection. It wasn’t just the obvious preference for SUV’s and Subarus in the rugged north—no, it was something else, too. The city vehicles were shiny and updated. Many of them looked high-end. I thought of the beaters I often spotted in my Montana town—the ’80s sedans, the classic trucks, and the boxy early style of Subaru—and it made me realize the degree to which residents of my town make do with what they have. I was proud to be one of them.

In recent months, this trend toward junky vehicles seems to have gotten worse—or better, however you choose to look at it. Before I explain, however, I have to admit that my own little red car has its own issues. I will remove the log from my own eye first. This is a beloved vehicle that won’t quit, even though we’re at 198,000 miles. Each blemish tells a story. The longish dent on the driver’s side—that was a tangle with a tall stand of bamboo at the side of our driveway when we were in San Diego. My husband could not understand how I did that, as I had backed down our long, steep driveway a couple thousand times by then. I could understand, because I had backed down that impossible driveway two thousand times without incident, and it was only a matter of time before it got me, especially now that there was a giant, unforgiving stand of bamboo to complicate things.

Similarly, the dust-up with the deer happened because it had to, because a decade had gone by with no incidents in a landscape dense with these thick creatures (or thick with these dense creatures, if you prefer). My daughter and I were deep in an interesting discussion when she said, “Mom, deer!” By the time my brain processed the emergency, it was too late to stop. I had, however, slowed down enough to give a witless, fleeing animal a good bump with the front of the car and a quick but frenzied backward sprint when she got caught on my side mirror for a few moments. To my relief, she and her compatriots then dashed off into the woods and there was no need to bring anyone back to the site with a gun. The encounter had left a visible dent, however. Later, a friend helpfully brought attention to it by inscribing “Bambi” in the layer of dust coating my car. 

Even with its dents, dimples, and rusted out spots, my vehicle does not yet resemble what I would call a “zombie car.” Zombie cars are vehicles still in service that are so badly damaged they look uncannily like animated car corpses. An obviously totaled vehicle will swing by in the turn lane, with damage so telling that one could do an accurate play-by-play of the accident, and the visceral reaction is “Whoa!”

I understand not taking one’s car to the body shop after being creamed in an intersection. One, it’s expensive. It makes more sense financially to just drive your older car into the ground. Not only are your insurance rates stable, but your permanent registration is still working for you. Two, body shops are pricey. No matter what the problem is, no matter how subtle the damage, the employees always announce that they have to order the whole piece from the manufacturer, and that item always costs healthy percentage of the car’s current value. (I’ve experienced when they opted to not order the piece, when a teenager hit our parked car and was liable. I learned that it’s best to believe what they say and let them order away. In this case, someone at the body shop had whaled away on our panel with a hammer and then painted over that, leaving a mass of stipples. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.) Three, it costs a lot to have your car fixed, and it’s not a sensible expense given how brutal this area is on vehicles—potholes, dirt roads, salt, filthy slush, and impatient drivers at intersections all take their toll. It’s better to pay the rent than maintain a sleek, gleaming car.

Other mutilations I’ve noted lately: gaping, sightless holes where headlights should be, missing back windows crisscrossed with duct tape, a hood (and possibly the whole left front of the vehicle) secured with a rope. Cars go nonchalantly by with driver-side doors caved in, whole sections hideously ripped off, mangled bumpers. Rope, tape, tarp, and other materials at hand are pressed into service to make the thing driveable as soon as possible. My favorite fix is on a small, grey car that just happens to be in our church parking lot every day. Apparently, the front and back bumpers were having a problem severe enough to necessitate the use of black zip-ties as stitches. There are small series of them, front and back, in a careful ‘X’-shaped pattern. One can’t help but appreciate the resourcefulness of whoever saw fit to do this. And he did a nice job.*

I know our area has come a long way since the ’80s, when more families subsisted on venison, and residents had to drive all the way to Missoula for Easter dresses. That’s what I’ve heard from native Montanans, anyway. Now our town offers Costco, Target, REI, many grocery stores, chic shops, a grand movie theater, chain restaurants, quiet planned neighborhoods, multi-million-dollar estates, Internet everywhere—almost anything you could get in urban California. But the sordid state of our region’s vehicles show that perhaps Montanans haven’t changed all that much. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

* Not to be sexist, but of course it was a “he.”

There are 53 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Great post, Sawatdeeka! And very entertaining.

    • #1
  2. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    sawatdeeka: but your permanent registration is still working for you

    Is that a Montana thing, or is it just me that is confused?

     

    • #2
  3. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka: but your permanent registration is still working for you

    Is that a Montana thing, or is it just me that is confused.

     

    I dunno. I have one, after paying annually for a certain number of years.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    If droll, whimsical personal interest newspaper and magazine columns were this well written, I’d still be buying print. 

    • #4
  5. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    Did I read too fast, or was “baling wire” nowhere in this? Well, “zip ties” may serve quite well!

    • #5
  6. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    sawatdeeka: imilarly, the dust-up with the deer happened because it had to, because a decade had gone by with no incidents in a landscape dense with these thick creatures (or thick with these dense creatures, if you prefer)

    At the Montana meet-up, I remember driving past an empty lot (less than 1/2 acre within a sub-division!) at night with 20+ deer settling in for the night. It was spooky! 

    • #6
  7. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Ah, you spotted my T-Bird, did you?

    I have a permanent Reg also, it depends on the age of your car. Also, in MT the license plate belongs to you. If you buy another car, the plate will go with you, and you put it on your recent purchase. In CA the license plate belongs to the car. If the car gets sold, the plate will go with it.

    • #7
  8. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    If droll, whimsical personal interest newspaper and magazine columns were this well written, I’d still be buying print.

    Thank you, Gary!

    • #8
  9. Mrs. Ink Member
    Mrs. Ink
    @MrsInk

    To defend Rocky Mountain cars and drivers a little bit, there is no need to plow or salt roads in southern California, so cars don’t age as quickly.

    • #9
  10. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Kay of MT (View Comment):
    I have a permanent Reg also, it depends on the age of your car.

    Interesting.

    Also, in MT the license plate belongs to you. If you buy another car, the plate will go with you, and you put it on your recent purchase.

    That’s how ours works too. Unless your current one is too damaged.

    • #10
  11. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    Ah, you spotted my T-Bird, did you?

    I have a permanent Reg also, it depends on the age of your car. Also, in MT the license plate belongs to you. If you buy another car, the plate will go with you, and you put it on your recent purchase. In CA the license plate belongs to the car. If the car gets sold, the plate will go with it.

    I figured you would chime in and know a lot more about the state law  details than I do.

    • #11
  12. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Well, I have this grandson, that learned to do wheelies with my 1995 T-Bird, had to take it away from him.

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    Well, I have this grandson, that learned to do wheelies with my 1995 T-Bird, had to take it away from him.

    So are you saying he had fun, fun, fun till his grandma took the T-Bird away?

    • #13
  14. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    John H. (View Comment):

    Did I read too fast, or was “baling wire” nowhere in this? Well, “zip ties” may serve quite well!

    Not to mention duct tape.

    • #14
  15. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    Well, I have this grandson, that learned to do wheelies with my 1995 T-Bird, had to take it away from him.

    So are you saying he had fun, fun, fun till his grandma took the T-Bird away?

    Yep, and that last one cost him mega bucks. He left rubber on the road, and the Sheriff caught him doing it. You’d think these kids would at least look around them to see if a cop is watching.

    • #15
  16. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    Well, I have this grandson, that learned to do wheelies with my 1995 T-Bird, had to take it away from him.

    So are you saying he had fun, fun, fun till his grandma took the T-Bird away?

    Yep, and that last one cost him mega bucks. He left rubber on the road, and the Sheriff caught him doing it. You’d think these kids would at least look around them to see if a cop is watching.

    Now now… I am the last one to chime in on that, as I once hit a Mountie with a six pack of beer at a traffic stop.

    ——————–

    Great post, I am currently driving my first ever new car. I purchased it 2 years ago. A Honda Civic Hatchback. My plan is to drive it forever, likely it will be the only new car I ever buy in my life. I think a lot of new car purchases are culturally driven, in that they feel pressure to keep appearances. Maybe in states like Montana, your status is not as dependent on the car you drive.

     

    • #16
  17. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    sawatdeeka: Other mutilations I’ve noted lately: gaping, sightless holes where headlights should be, missing back windows crisscrossed with duct tape, a hood (and possibly the whole left front of the vehicle) secured with a rope. Cars go nonchalantly by with driver-side doors caved in, whole sections hideously ripped off, mangled bumpers. Rope, tape, tarp, and other materials at hand are pressed into service to make the thing driveable as soon as possible. My favorite fix is on a small, grey car that just happens to be in our church parking lot every day. Apparently, the front and back bumpers were having a problem severe enough to necessitate the use of black zip-ties as stitches. There are small series of them, front and back, in a careful ‘X’-shaped pattern. One can’t help but appreciate the resourcefulness of whoever saw fit to do this. And he did a nice job.*

    I see some new squares in the Wal*Mart Parking Lot Bingo:

    Wal*Mart Parking Lot Bingo

    No License Plate

    Spin Rims

    Door Different Color Than Car

    Bullet Hole

    No Hood

    Trash Bag Covering Window

    Emergency Spare on Wheel

    Cracked Windshield

    Pit Bull in Truck Bed

    Obscene Bumper Sticker

    Homemade Wheelchair Rack

    Primer Gray Fender

    “Obama-Biden 2008 Bumper Sticker

    Red Cellophane on Taillight

    Old Guy Smoking in Car

    Missing Front Bumper

    Expired Temporary Plate

    Bullet Hole Decal

    Abandoned Vehicle Sticker

    Graffiti

    “Calvin Pissing” Decal

    No Rear Window

    Flat Tire

    Missing Headlight

    Expired Out-Of-State License Plate

    • #17
  18. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    So are you saying he had fun, fun, fun till his grandma took the T-Bird away?

    I think I’ve told this story before, but it’s a good one, so I’m going to tell it again.

    When I was at Davidson one of the professors was the cousin of a roommate of mine.  The professor was a sort of mousy little guy who was independently wealthy and taught for $1/year.  His name was Dr. Thomas Clark, though he was known around campus as “T-Bird Tommy” because he bought a new T-Bird every year.

    Because of his relationship to my roommate, we got into the practice of taking each other out to dinner.  We’d take him to Shakey’s Pizza, or something like, and he’d take us to The City Club.  Anyway, at one point he wrecked his car, and rented a Mercury Cougar for a while.  As it happened, his turn to take us to dinner fell while he had the Cougar.  On the way back from dinner we asked him if he was going to buy a new T-Bird, and he said “Yes, unless you think the name ‘Cougar Clark’ will stick.'”

    Edit:  Dr. Clark is also the Tom Clark behind the Tom Clark gnomes.

    • #18
  19. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    We have deer in the yard sometimes.

    They carry the ticks that give Lyme disease and probably killed my schipperke “Louie”.

    The fewer deers, the better.

    • #19
  20. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    Now now… I am the last one to chime in on that, as I once hit a Mountie with a six pack of beer at a traffic stop.

    Because he didn’t offer you one?

    • #20
  21. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    The fewer deers, the better.

     

    Kill ’em all and let the butcher sort them out.

    • #21
  22. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    I’d like to recognize our 1984 Nissan Sentra that, by the time we finally retired it in 2001, had been totaled twice, and brought back to life both times by “Kenny.”

    The first time was rather mundane, some ditzy girl having driven into the back of it while Mr. She was pulling onto the Interstate.  The second time was much more impressive, and involved a terrific thunderstorm and a large tree.  That was around Thanksgiving 1989, and I discovered the poor thing in the driveway looking very much like a pancake, the following morning when I was about to set off for work.  Somehow, Kenny pounded out the worst of the damage, and, with the aid of about half a ton of filler and fiberglass, and Lord knows what else, made it road and inspection-worthy again.  And I continued to drive it, along with the 1975 Mazda pickup that we bought in 1986 for $500 from the motorcycle guys next door (it was also a “zombie,” but in its case, a testament to the clever stitching-together job that one can do with parts from different vehicles of different colors and types across the years).

    In 2001, I bought my first new car in almost two decades.  By that time, I’d been working at our little community hospital for eleven years (where my car always looked perfectly at home in the parking lot, unlike the big city hospital where I’d worked previously, where it stuck out like a sore thumb among the Mercedes and BMWs).

    When I left the building to go home at the end of the day, I noticed several of my co-workers surrounding a vehicle in the parking lot.  Some of them were holding helium balloons, and there was a cake.  They were having a party!

    For me and my new car.

    When you live where I do, and you have a reputation as the “Queen of the Zombie Cars,” it’s pretty special.

    • #22
  23. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    We have deer in the yard sometimes.

    They carry the ticks that give Lyme disease and probably killed my schipperke “Louie”.

    The fewer deers, the better.

    I’m sorry.  Beautiful Louie.  

     

    • #23
  24. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):
    Now now… I am the last one to chime in on that, as I once hit a Mountie with a six pack of beer at a traffic stop.

    Because he didn’t offer you one?

    No. This was in 1982-3ish I was with my under age buddy. He was driving 1 of his dad’s trucks. He didnt want the ticket for having beer in the cab of the truck. I tried to roll down the window – but he had the fancy electric windows, by the time I figured out how to get the window down, I tossed the beer out the window, but the cops where already standing on each side of the truck. I tossed the beer straight into cop’s chest.

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    We have deer in the yard sometimes.

    They carry the ticks that give Lyme disease and probably killed my schipperke “Louie”.

    The fewer deers, the better.

    I wouldn’t say the fewer deer, the better. However, I would say that fewer deer would be better, and not just because of Lyme disease.

    Several years ago when deer populations were higher where we live than they are now (though they are still too high on our small acreage) I was looking for evidence that reducing deer density would reduce deer tick abundance and Lyme disease. It seemed there was no clear-cut evidence that it made much difference. However, a quick internet search just now shows that more research has been done since then and there is some evidence that it helps. It’s a contested issue.

    Mrs R and I have both been bitten by deer ticks. I’ve had at least two that dug in before I removed them. (Ticks require eternal, seasonal vigilance.) I recently had the Mayo Clinic test that checks for antibodies that would indicate I had the infection in the past. No sign of it. The results of such a test are ambiguous in the case of recent infections, but mine would not have been recent. It seems every other person I know from north-central Minnesota has had Lyme disease. It probably isn’t that high a frequency, but their outdoor pets certainly suffer from it.

    I’ve sometimes proposed an auto safety feature: turret-mounted machine guns on cars to get the deer in the ditches before they jump out and get you. Make it mandated equipment. If it saves even one life, it would be worth it.

    A number of years ago I did an informal survey at work, and found there was a correlation between the length of time a person had lived in southwest Michigan and the number of violent deer-vehicle encounters he had experienced. Two people told me about deer that crashed into their cars when their vehicles were not even moving. First they’d look around to see who was listening, and then say, “You might not believe this, but…”  

    • #25
  26. JosePluma Thatcher
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    She (View Comment):

    I’d like to recognize our 1984 Nissan Sentra that, by the time we finally retired it in 2001, had been totaled twice, and brought back to life both times by “Kenny.”

    The first time was rather mundane, some ditzy girl having driven into the back of it while Mr. She was pulling onto the Interstate. The second time was much more impressive, and involved a terrific thunderstorm and a large tree. That was around Thanksgiving 1989, and I discovered the poor thing in the driveway looking very much like a pancake, the following morning when I was about to set off for work. Somehow, Kenny pounded out the worst of the damage, and, with the aid of about half a ton of filler and fiberglass, and Lord knows what else, made it road and inspection-worthy again. And I continued to drive it, along with the 1975 Mazda pickup that we bought in 1986 for $500 from the motorcycle guys next door (it was also a “zombie,” but in its case, a testament to the clever stitching-together job that one can do with parts from different vehicles of different colors and types across the years).

    That sounds more like a Frankenstein car.

    • #26
  27. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    And I continued to drive it, along with the 1975 Mazda pickup that we bought in 1986 for $500 from the motorcycle guys next door (it was also a “zombie,” but in its case, a testament to the clever stitching-together job that one can do with parts from different vehicles of different colors and types across the years).

    That sounds more like a Frankenstein car.

    That too.  It was truly amazing.  It’s the genesis of one of my occasional comments, whenever I see a vehicle on the road that is its equal or better, “now, there’s a vehicle I’d be proud to drive!”

    • #27
  28. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Two people told me about deer that crashed into their cars when their vehicles were not even moving.

    I’ll be your third, but not in MI, in MT. Stopped for a red light, bank on left, a hillside on the right. Deer leaped off the bank lawn and landed on the hood of my car, slid off, got up and dashed up the hillside.

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Two people told me about deer that crashed into their cars when their vehicles were not even moving.

    I’ll be your third, but not in MI, in MT. Stopped for a red light, bank on left, a hillside on the right. Deer leaped off the bank lawn and landed on the hood of my car, slid off, got up and dashed up the hillside.

    I could also add that to my list of clumsy deer anecdotes. Some people say deer are graceful, but they don’t always look so graceful when they pick themselves up after a leap into a fence, onto a car, or into another deer. 

    • #29
  30. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I could also add that to my list of clumsy deer anecdotes. Some people say deer are graceful, but they don’t always look so graceful when they pick themselves up after a leap into a fence, onto a car, or into another deer. 

    I’m beginning to think they have bad eye sight. Why would a deer, who was standing still while I came to a stop for the light, then decide to jump and land on the car?

    • #30

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