Are You Still Driving That Car?

I have been asked this question a number of times for nearly a decade and a half. I still give the same answer: yes. Neighbors look amused, longing to say, "Why aren't you keeping up with the Joneses?"

My philosophy is simple: When you have something good, you stay with it.

There are four cars on my street that no longer run, and they are all younger than mine. But this is not just a question of age or miles, but of neglect, impatience, and indifference. The impulse is to get rid of the old and replace it with something new.

But replacing the old with the new is getting more expensive all the time, so my 1980 Chevrolet Citation stays around for another year - and another, and another.

In 1984, I was looking for a car that was both decent and affordable. My father liked to browse, even when he wasn't buying. While he was on an errand, I found myself a 1974 Plymouth Duster for $500. I talked about it at dinner, with too much enthusiasm.

My father went to look at this car and was horrified. There was rust, some dents, worn tires, ragged upholstery, and a speedometer that read all zeros. "This car is a nightmare," my father said. My feeble defense was that it was an affordable nightmare.

Dad wanted nothing to do with my "bargain" or the lot where it came from. So while I was on an errand, Dad found a car: a four-year-old 1980 Chevy Citation for $2,000, with 38,000 miles. It was love at first sight.

Since 1984, all the people on my street have replaced their cars at least once, others twice, and some three times. But the Citation is purring on into its 16th year.

Many parts have been replaced, but the task was not only economical, but educational. Parts are far less expensive than I thought. Tender loving care for cars is a course they could teach in schools, but often don't. In 1994 the transmission on the Chevrolet went out after 100,000 miles, but the replacement was only $500, plus tax. To replace the Chevrolet would have been much, much more.

But my old car's continued health is the result of another blessing - a reliable, experienced auto mechanic who lives on my street. Finding a good, honest auto technician is hard to do. They are out there, but they don't attract attention to themselves. You have to seek out the good ones.

"Work is love made visible," wrote author Khalil Gibran, and the small six-cylinder car has given obedient, quiet, lengthy service in return for tender care.

Neighbors love to be neighbors, though. They finish washing and drying their $30,000 cars or pickups. They are feeling good, as though they just had a turkey dinner, and sometimes they feel called upon to spread their expertise on finances or automotive servicing. "When are you going to part with that old car and get one like mine?"

They don't do much boasting about the high insurance they have to pay, or the monthly payments. Since 1964, when I bought my first car, I've never had a car payment. The Chevy Citation has been driven debt-free for 12 years, with many more to go. Having a mortgage on a home is accepted business. Having a mortgage on an automobile is questionable logic.

But the neighbors are kidders, and I can laugh right along with them. There are role models for car lovers like us. Down the street is Al, a retired well-to-do who just had a rebuilt engine put in his favorite car, a 1970 Ford Torino. There is also Wesley, who drives a 1957 Chevy Bel Air and will not drive anything else.

Such attitudes may lead to continuing bachelorhood among men. But some people love uncomplicated things.

And as cars become more complicated and technological, the innards of the Chevy Citation are looking more like an Erector Set in comparison. Each year I learn more about what makes it tick, so when it stops running, I'll have the knowledge to bring it back to life.

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