The Truth, Mainly - 02/02/2004

Old cars and why to keep driving them
by Leon Satterfield

I have a confession: I read the New York Times. Not every day, of course—but often enough to feel patrician.

That's an admission that would be greeted in my hometown barbershop with these words: "Well, la-de-damn-da." The phrase was our barber's and it was reserved for words and acts he deemed ultra-pretentious. If he were around to read "ultra-pretentious" he'd say "Well, la-de-damn-da" to that too.

But I digress. The barber isn't my subject. Automotive snobbery is my subject.

Last week there was a story in the Times headlined "That Car Is Only 20. Why Give It Up Now?" It's an ironic headline, of course, full of aristocratic amusement at people like me who when they get a car they like, they mate for life.

Such people, the Times says, drive old cars because of "thrift, sentimentality, or perhaps plain old inertia."

My wife and I have two cars: a 1984 we bought used in 1987, and the new one, a 1990 we bought in 1995. It's barely broken in, having logged only 145,000 miles.

It's the '84 that's exciting me right now. It has 194,000 miles on it and I expect it will hit 200,000 sometime this year. That will test my belief that when a car logs 200,000 miles, it immediately ascends to Clunker Heaven. I want to watch.

So why don't we have a car newer than an '84 or a '90? I'll admit that the Times' three factors—thrift, sentimentality, and inertia—are relevant.

I occasionally check out new car prices and decide I'm happy with what we have. The '84 is maroon colored and five years ago I found some maroon duct tape that nearly matched the car color, and I taped up all the rust spots. It looked fine for a year or so, then the rust spots grew out from under the duct tape and made people laugh. But I can duct tape the whole car for a lot less than a new car costs. Thrift, thrift, Horatio, I always say.

And certainly, inertia plays a part. As long as both cars start and go until we either turn off the key or run out of gas, I believe they're keeping their end of the agreement and it's easier to retain them than to replace them.

I suppose sentimentality is an even stronger reason. When I drive alone, I often talk to the cars, telling them what wonderful machines they are. And not just because they get me from point A to point B, but because, more than any of our other possessions, they contain the past.

Both cars, for example, still have dog hair in them, left there by Ned, our late one-eyed beagle with the headstrong personality and the mismatched jaws. You can vacuum and vacuum and still his presence is there in the form of beagle hair and an occasional whiff of beagle essence. We know just where he sat in the '84 backseat when we brought him home from the puppy farm—in the same place he lay when we took him to his last vet visit and then to the doggy crematorium.

And it's nearly impossible to drive more than fifty miles in cold weather without talking yet again about how Ned would coerce us into giving him fresh—and frigid—outside air: he'd pass gas—at will—so incredibly foul we'd have to open a window enough he could stick his nose out.

That, I admit, is sentimentality writ large.

But there's a metaphysical reason—the most important of all—for hanging on to an old car, a reason the New York Times in all its urban sophistication seems unaware of. That's probably because the New York Times thinks the purpose of cars is transportation.

It's true that cars will transport us, but that's simply to catch us off guard so they can break down when it will cause the most trouble. Humiliation, not transportation, is a car's ultimate reason for being. A trustworthy car is eventually a contradiction in terms.

I drive old cars instead of new cars because I expect old cars to break down. If my '84 breaks down tomorrow, I will not be distressed. I will thank it for transporting us for the last 17 years, and I will walk away, content that I got more out of it than I deserved.

But if I get a brand new car, and next month it breaks down—don't say it can't happen—between Ogallala and Sidney at 2 a.m., I will be taken by surprise and become an embittered old man who kicks kittens and ridicules the inadequate toilet training of puppies and grandchildren.

So driving old cars is for me a way of retaining my sunny disposition, a way of keeping my balance in a decidedly unbalanced universe.

The New York Times could probably figure that out too if it weren't so busy making barbers say "Well, la-de-damn da."


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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