This morning, my mother fired the latest volley in her ongoing “you need a new car” campaign. I don’t remember what she said; I wasn’t really listening. That’s mainly because I’ve heard it all before; her campaign has been going on for quite some time.
Let me back up a bit. In June 2000, I did the unthinkable. I bought a new car. It wasn’t economical; it wasn’t used; it wasn’t a practical, modest sedan. I bought my first—and so far only—new car: a brand new, fresh-from-the-factory, made-just-for-me Jeep Wrangler. Silver grey and black, automatic (I never did learn to drive manual), CD player (quite a big deal nine years ago), both hard AND soft top (I thought the soft top wouldn’t hold up to our frigid winter temps—I was wrong and if I had the chance to do it again, I’d skip the hard top).
When I fired it up for the first time, I saw that it had 2 miles on the odometer. TWO. I could have spontaneously combusted, I was so ecstatic.
Why? Let me back up a bit more. My uncle (my mother’s brother) was a car guy. He first sold Pontiacs after he came home from World War II, and then, in the mid-1950s, he opened his own dealership: Oldsmobiles. Hey, they were cool then.
And he was incredibly successful. Everyone in the family worked for him at some point or other—my other uncle as a salesman, my dad as a parts guy, my mom as his bookkeeper, etc. It wasn’t a family business, but it was a kind of black hole. Everything and everyone in the family was sucked into my uncle’s orbit, because of the sheer force of his personality.
That included exerting his influence on the entire family regarding what cars they drove. The expectation was that my uncle would sell each and every relative a late-model Olds, which they would drive for a year or so, then trade it in for a new one. They got to drive new cars, and my uncle got the exposure on the roads. That was good marketing sense. And there was no questioning this practice. Everyone in the family always obeyed my uncle when it came to cars. He told them what to drive, and they dutifully forked over the down payment, got behind the wheel, and drove off.
Then there was me. The rebel. The brat, some might say. Why? Because when I was ready to spend my hard-earned money on a car to drive to college, I stated that I wanted a small car. I outright denied that the Cutlass, or whatever V8 barge my uncle was pushing on me, was actually “small”. Yeah, small by Queen Mary standards. I don’t care that it was technically called “compact.” Who were they kidding? I wanted a car that I wouldn’t need the help of flagmen to park. My uncle said small cars were deathtraps, and I needed one of those fortified tanks he was selling to keep from being smushed into a stain on the roadway when someone plowed into me, which apparently was inevitable, and was going to happen nearly immediately, according to him.
Still, I fought the familial conventional wisdom, which was unthinkable. Here I was, this upstart 20-year-old, flat out refusing to do whatever my uncle, the de facto head of the family since my grandfather died, and the only successful independent businessman in the whole clan, told me to do.
The family thought I was mad. Perhaps I was. But I dug in my heels, and eventually we compromised: I bought a trade-in off his lot. It was still an American car (dammit)—if he even accepted foreign cars as trade-ins, he sure wouldn’t sell one to me—but at least it wasn’t a land yacht. I ended up with a Pontiac Phoenix hatchback, dark blue, with a wonky carburetor that flooded if I didn’t talk nicely to it before I turned the key. Every. Time. The AAA guy in my college town and I were on a first-name basis by the time I graduated.
Still, I loved it as only a youngster can love a first car. I drove Penelope (yes I named her—after Penelope Pitstop of cartoon fame) back and forth to college and then to grad school in Boston. And when she was totaled by an idiot driver who blew through a stop sign (I took all her insurance money and I’m not sorry nyah nyah), I bought another car off my uncle’s lot. Yeah, it was another American car (dammit): a white Chevy Nova (promptly dubbed Alice by my boyfriend at the time). That survived Boston—and a parking lot full of high school kids angry at the grades I put on their report cards in the “English” spot—that got me a flat tire—but didn’t last much longer than that. Carburetor conked out. Something about me and carburetors…?
Adios, Alice. Next up: again, a used car from my uncle, this time a Saturn four-door. I loved it, but I didn’t love finding a melted lipstick in the storage pocket in the driver’s side door. Apparently my uncle’s guys were a little cursory when it came to cleaning up used cars. And from the very second my fingers sank into that red squishy mess, I vowed to myself that the next car I bought was going to be new. BRAND NEW. Not “new to me.” Not “gently loved.” I wanted a nice blank odometer and that new car smell—along with the knowledge that nobody’s butt had made an imprint in the driver’s seat before mine. I also wanted the comforting thought that I wasn’t going to find any nasty surprises under the seats or wedged in a crevice.
By 2000, the Saturn had kicked it. So had my uncle’s business. The family puzzled as to why, but it was clear as day to me: Although my uncle had built up a large base of loyal customers over the years, they aged along with the brand. Then they started dying off. And the number of young people clamoring to buy Oldsmobiles in the 1990s? Not many. With Oldsmobile ranking near the bottom when it came to the auto cool quotient, and his clientele entering nursing homes and giving up their car keys, my uncle shuttered his business after more than 40 years.
In the meantime, I found myself free, for the first time in my life, to buy whatever kind of car I wanted. I was stunned. I was helpless at the myriad of choices before me, so many of which were (gasp) foreign…(double gasp) small…(asthmatic gasp) and not Oldsmobiles! I dithered for quite some time; I wanted something fun but not low-riding, as I had a long commute to work from the countryside, and one of the things I hated most about driving my Saturn was the perception that I was driving in a hole, surrounded by walls of monster SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans. I couldn’t see a danged thing on the highway.
Hubband suggested a Jeep, and everything just clicked. Bought it, loved it, still love it. Sure it’s nine years old, but by now it’s paid for! Who cares that the driver’s-side door fell off about 18 months ago! A few bolts and it was good as new. Now I can call it Frankencar.
I’ve heard that Jeeps will rust out before the engine quits, and so far that’s been true (cf driver’s side door; also major rust spots blistering the paint, as well as an undercarriage that looks like something out of Mad Max). It’s got 169,000 miles on it as of last Friday. It’s on its second battery and just had a new power-steering fluid line put in; other than that, and the door, and the back wiper that quit, everything’s been good.
And yet my mother keeps nagging me to get a new car. She started this when my son was born, because she thought the Jeep wasn’t “practical” or safe for him to travel in. Well, I trusted it more than those topheavy, tiny-wheeled minivans, plus it was way more fun. (A new mom with a minivan? I might as well buy elastic-waistband jeans and just sign my own death warrant right now.) Nope, I was going to keep my Jeep. Dammit. And I did.
However, I realize that pretty soon—maybe another 50,000 or 60,000 miles—my darling Frankencar, otherwise known as Millie (for millennium, when she was born), will have to be put to sleep. Then I’ll have to figure out what my next car will be. I’ve been thinking about it, and I truly haven’t a clue. I’m not too impressed with the newer Jeeps (can they make any more parts out of plastic?), not to mention the fact that I feel I should get a vehicle with better mileage. Seventeen mpg is just shameful.
What’s worse is, thanks to Hubband and son, both gearheads—excuse me, petrolheads—I’ve become addicted to Top Gear, the “car show” from the UK. It’s great fun, but it gives me Eurocar envy. There are so many cool cars that we plain old can’t get around here (for those of us who can’t afford to visit the import dealers). I want a Fiat! I want an Alfa! I want…heck, I want one of those VW Polos that co-presenter Richard Hammond drove from Basel, Switzerland, to Blackpool, England, on one tank of gas—the one that got 74 mpg! But no. Not here in the Land of the Free. We can’t have stuff like that.
So I’m flummoxed. And you know, in some weird way, I’m a little sad that my options don’t include Oldsmobiles, and that my uncle isn’t around anymore to insist I should buy a giant sedan. But I won’t get one out of nostalgia. That would just be dumb. Maybe I’ll buy a Mini. I’ll be back to driving in a hole, but at least it’ll be kind of fun. Good thing I’ve got tens of thousands of miles to go before I have to decide…. In the meantime, all suggestions welcome…