Opinion

My clunker has a right to life

After 200,000 proud miles, every day is an adventure: Will the radio work? What about the windows?

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I own two clunkers, and I'm proud of it. I drive my cars until my mechanic, fearing for his own safety, refuses to work on them. To get my wheezing metal geezers, someone is going to have to pry my cold, dead fingers from the steering wheel – or at least offer more than a few measly grand to euthanize them.

I'm all for stimulating the economy, cleaning air, and improving fuel economy, but there are better ways to achieve all that than throwing away perfectly serviceable vehicles as though they were disposable razors.

My jalopies were born in 1991 and 1992, and they each boast well over 200,000 miles on their respective odometers. My son's first car was older than he was. The current rust buckets parked in the driveway were old when I bought them for $1,200 and $2,500 respectively, cash money. No ballooning monthly payments for me. They have taken me more than 100,000 miles combined. That's less than 4 cents a mile. Despite their age, they get respectable gas mileage, too, with the sedan approaching 35 miles per gallon and the wagon getting 25 m.p.g. on the highway (all on regular gas, no additives). I should turn these cream puffs in? True, their great mileage means that they're ineligible for the clunker program, but even if they did qualify I wouldn't hand them over.

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First, let's consider the myriad joys of the older vehicle. You don't have to garage it, wash and wax it, or keep the interior tidy. I park the wagon under a bird's nest in the lilac tree and view the inevitable fallout as impressionistic art. If the rain washes the accumulation off, fine; if not, it's no biggie.

And, my fellow levy-loathing Americans, taxes are low. This year I paid $34.94 to the town for my '91, less than $75 total for the Dynamic Duo.

Unlike shiny new models, old cars don't have to be taken too seriously. My friend Andy drilled a hole in the hood of my son's blue bomber, God rest its chassis, and installed a custom hood ornament he bought on eBay: the spit and image of an exceedingly dead, but well-coiffed Elvis, grinning straight ahead at the traffic like the Cheshire Cat.

As for insurance, there is no need for collision – or theft coverage, either. Criminals have their pride. Besides, for all they know, my rambling wreck is owned by a colleague. Neither of my vehicles can be locked anymore, and it hasn't been a problem. I've found that an unkempt interior replete with old pizza boxes, hockey sticks, yellowing newspapers, and empty cans and bottles makes for an unappealing target.

An old car is way easier on the psyche, too. If you are 10,000 miles overdue for an oil change, no sweat. It's not like you've put a $25,000 investment at risk. Ditto when the "check engine" light flashes on the dash. Odds are pretty good that the problem is with the bulb itself, rather than the engine. A little duct tape fixes that unsightly glare. And what if the big lug really is about to kick the bucket? C'est la vie, I say. Neither of my clunkers owes me a penny.

All right, I spend a little money on repairs now and then, but only when it's absolutely necessary. And I compensate by not wasting money on cosmetics, like the rear windshield washer or decades' worth of unsightly dents.

Sure, there are new cars out there that get better gas mileage – and some that don't. But consider this:

Warts notwithstanding, my buggies are a daily adventure. Will the radio work today? Is the tape player still jammed? Which window won't budge now? The important thing is that they start. Whatever else is acting up on my clunkers, they, with rare exceptions, start. The biggest intrigue, of course, is how long can I keep these suckers on the road: maybe a quarter of a million miles? Why not 300,000 and beyond?

To stimulate the economy and help the cause of conservation, we should take aim at the clunkers of tomorrow today. Give incentives for buying really gas-efficient cars that get over 35 m.p.g., not just the government minimum of 22 m.p.g., and leave my buggies alone.

David Holahan is a freelance writer based in East Haddam, Conn.

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