I need a car that needs me, too

There is no experience I dread more than looking for a new car. For one, I don't like the adversarial nature of the buying experience and feel that, no matter how savvy I am, in the end I will be "taken." Second, I don't like all the fuss, bother, and ritual that go into the purchase of something whose only purpose is to take me from point A to point B.

I have, in short, been one of those idealistic, pie-in-the-sky individuals who believe that a car should run forever. My rationale is that if something breaks, you fix it. (And fix it. And fix it.)

My car for the past seven years has been a 1989 Dodge Raider. Although it is boxy and tippy, and has a tendency to veer across the road in a moderate wind, I have nevertheless loved the thing. My teenage son Alyosha, however, has despised it almost from the start because it wasn't shiny new and didn't fit his definition of "coolness."

Several years back, when the engine gave out, Alyosha released a whoop of joy that drove the pigeons from our roof. But I didn't buy another car. Instead, I replaced the Raider's engine. When Alyosha saw me drive home in the revitalized rig, his heart sank. "Back on the road again!" I sang out as I slapped the old girl's fender. But my boy was speechless.

After its second lease on life, the Raider continued to eke out a reasonably functional existence, asking only a fuel pump here, a muffler there, and a good five minutes of patience when starting it on a chilly day. I didn't care much that she leaked a bit of oil and antifreeze and transmission fluid. To me, these emanations were reminders that my car needed me. And I, in turn, became attached to her imperfections. But a few weeks back there was, at last, a reckoning.

On an otherwise pleasant summer day, Alyosha and I got in the Raider, attempted to start it up, and immediately heard something clank under the hood. We got out and Alyosha found a chunk of rusted metal lying under the front end. "What's this?" he asked as he handed it to me. I examined the thing, shrugged, and said, "Huh. Looks like an engine mount."

"An engine mount!" my son echoed.

"Yeah. I'm sure we can have it replaced."

"Replaced?" he echoed again, followed by, "Dad! The whole engine could fall out!"

I gazed into the distance and considered this possibility as I rolled my tongue against my cheek. "Hmm. That wouldn't be a good thing."

We got back in the car, but when I turned the key it was no go. "I think I need another engine," I remarked.

"Dad!" cried Alyosha, as if attempting to talk sense to someone about to jump off a bridge. "You need a new car. A new C-A-R."

After sleeping on his advice, I decided that he might, at last, be right. But I couldn't sell the Raider to anyone in good faith. What would I tell a potential buyer? She's in good shape, but the engine might fall out?

With a heavy heart, I finally decided to donate the vehicle to charity. But I made a point of not being home when they towed the Raider away. She had gotten me through numerous Maine snowstorms, had hauled wood for the stove, and, thanks to her powerful four-wheel drive, didn't know the meaning of the word "stuck." How could I stand by as she was so unceremoniously, and ignominiously, dragged off?

My odyssey to find a replacement (as if such a thing were possible) lasted two weeks, during which I grew increasingly grim. In its own understated way, the Raider had been an expression of simple elegance. It had a good, old-fashioned carburetor, crank windows, no air conditioning, and no fancy electronics. In addition the engine took up only a modicum of room under the hood, leaving ample space for both hands and tools.

Time constraints, financial limitations, and waning energy brought me to settle on a 1997 Volkswagen Passat station wagon. As the seller proclaimed its virtues to me, my spirits fell lower and lower. There were codes and lights for everything. If you twisted a key one way, this happened. If you twisted it the other, something else occurred. Red lights blinked here, orange lights there. I finally bought the thing with all the enthusiasm of a man rolling up his sleeves to do the dishes.

On the other hand, it runs. And it has four - as opposed to the Raider's two - doors. And it's better on gas than the Raider was. And it has air bags. In a word, the car is perfect, at least for the moment. But this is exactly what unnerves me. Compared with the Raider, whose needs were legion, the Passat, thus far, has given me nothing to brace myself against.

I divulged this concern to Doug, a mechanic friend of mine, who listened patiently before replying, "Don't worry. I've worked on these cars and there's plenty that can go wrong with them."

Suddenly, there was hope. If Doug is correct, it's only a matter of time before my car will need me as much as I need it.

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