Raider redux: An extinct car rises again

For years I drove a 1989 Dodge Raider - a big, red, tippy box that seemed to have more problems than it had parts. If it wasn't a leaky windshield, it was the distributor cap; if not the exhaust system, then the brakes.

The car was also prescient - it had a tendency to break down whenever I needed it most, like the time my son, then 14, and I were en route to a soccer game. The engine blew, and my boy, having implored me to get rid of the car for years, could do little more than sink his head against the dashboard in exasperation.

But I loved the thing. Why? For many reasons. First, it was unique. Everyone in town knew the car and waved their recognition as I drove past.

Kids would ask for rides just to be able to say they had been in it. And on those rare occasions when I passed another Raider on the road, the other driver and I would exchange high signs.

Once, while eating in a fast-food restaurant, a man entered and asked, "Who has the red Raider?" Fearing a problem, I owned up. The fellow beamed and pointed out the window at a blue Raider parked next to mine. "Look!" he said. "Brothers!"

Beyond the goodwill the Raider generated, it was easy to work on. When I popped the hood, I wasn't greeted with the enigma of the endless shrouding that characterizes newer cars and announces, "Hands off." Rather, there was so much work room that I could have rented out the space. All the parts were within easy reach, and I rejoiced in the singular pleasure of changing my own oil.

Finally, she was tough. I live at the bottom of a steep hill, but the snow and ice of winter were little more than a fresh invigoration for the Raider. While others were spinning their wheels in a slow, upward grind, the Raider's powerful four-wheel drive allowed her to paw her way to the top without breaking a sweat.

After eight years of keeping up with repairs, though - including the engine I threw into the old girl after the soccer debacle - I was finally overwhelmed with the list of things that the Raider needed. The suspension was disintegrating, the heater core was leaking, and my son found an engine mount in the driveway. A warped cylinder head was the coup de grĂ¢ce. I yielded to cruel reality and donated the vehicle to my local public television station, making it a point to leave the house before the tow truck came. I wouldn't have been able to bear it.

To make a long story short, I was immediately beset with donor's remorse.

The 1997 Volkswagen Passat I replaced the Raider with ran well, looked nice, and was reliable - but it baffled me. There were codes for everything. I've twice been stranded because I somehow had turned on the security system and locked down the engine. All the electronic windows have mysteriously opened in driving rainstorms. Little red lights wink cryptically from dashboard and doors.

Sadly, I can't figure out how to change my own oil. The Passat is like a child I can't seem to bond with, and mechanics have to do all the little things I had always taken pride and joy in doing myself when I had the Raider.

Six months after losing the Raider, as I was driving to work, I noticed a large, unusually shaped mound of ice and snow in someone's driveway. As winter turned to spring, the mound shrank until finally, a red front fender emerged, like the tusk of a Siberian mammoth exposed by a retreating glacier. I pulled over, jumped out of the car, ran to the snow mound, and began to excavate with gloved hands. Within a couple of minutes I had identified the species - a Raider! She was well preserved, looking exactly as she had in life.

I struck while the iron of inspiration was hot. One day and $500 later I was rumbling up the road, riding high, rattling, backfiring, leaking antifreeze, and keeping one hand on the emergency brake (just in case). As I turned onto the main street of my home town, eyes looked up, children whooped, and friends came onto porches to wave their welcomes home.

My only concern was my son, now 19. What would he think? He still doesn't know, as I have hidden the Raider away at a local tech school, where it is being overhauled. I intend to keep my teenager distracted until the Raider is once again roadworthy. My 8-year-old, however, keeps threatening to spill the beans.

But he is easy to buy off, so long as the ice cream and pizza hold out.

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