The Old Car Worth Keeping

My car recently completed an indulgent year for itself: a new headlight ($26), new brakes ($200), an overhaul of the air conditioning ($450), and a new set of all-weather radial tires ($600).

But as these were the first major repairs since I bought the car in March 1986, I'm hardly complaining.

A vanilla-white Mazda four-door sedan nearing a decade of service is not what I expected to be driving in my mid-40s. If, 20 years ago, I had set an automotive goal for this stage in my life, it would have been a powerful big BMW, at the least. Red, black, or silver.

And now? If I bought a car tomorrow, it might be a Volvo. Safe, strong, sturdy, durable. In gray or blue.

Coming late to marriage (my late 30s) and late to parenthood (nearly 40), I've altered my vehicular overview. My standards are set by the occupant strapped into the booster in the middle of the rear seat: my five-year-old daughter. She tells me what's important.

``Daddy,'' she says, ``are we going really fast?''

Not when Daddy is driving, which can be irksome to Mommy. Mommy's car, newer, faster, with more safety features than Daddy's jalopy, is our family car.

Yet Daddy's car is the one that has taken Jenny to her playgroups and story times, ceramics and gymnastics, playgrounds and friends' homes, and back and forth to preschool. My dependable old car was a remarkably prescient purchase, particularly since it was made before I had met my wife and before I had ever considered having a family.

I had been driving sleek, red, European coupes for several years. About half those years, they were recumbent in repair shops. It took one last major leak to get me researching the frequency-of-repair records for other manufacturers and to come home with a dependable four-door sedan.

Not that my Mazda completely lacked pizzazz. The first time my wife-to-be sat in the passenger seat, her eyes widened as the multi-dialed dashboard lit up. ``It looks like an airplane!'' she said, another small sign we were meant for each other.

Long since paid up, my old car seems oddly orthogonal alongside today's inverted-bathtub designs. It's often carpeted with crumbs from after-school snacks. But it handles well, stops well, gives 30 highway miles to a gallon of gas, and makes few demands beyond oil changes.

Looming somewhere in the future is a new car, with air bags, antilock brakes, and even an automatic transmission so my wife can drive it. But not too soon. My old car and I are bound by history.

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