Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Road Worrier

A month ago my venerable Jeep Cherokee decided it had had enough. (See October 15 blog: So It Goes.) My pickup (as old as the Jeep, but with 112,000 fewer miles on it) is still in good shape, but this is not a suitable vehicle for all purposes, so the purchase of a replacement car could be put off no longer. The deed is done. A brief finger-count reveals to me that my new vehicle is my 10th in my life. I could count differently. I could include a 1965 GMC pickup that I frequently used, for example, but it wasn’t “mine” formally or informally; it was my dad’s. There were two vehicles during my ill-fated marriage that were “ours,” but as a matter of practice they weren’t ours: they were hers. On the other hand there was a Jeepster that wasn’t in my name (again, it was my dad’s), but which nonetheless I do count, since I was the most common driver of it. So, I’ll stick with a 10-count. Many of our significant memories involve our vehicles in one way or another. The nice round number 10 invites a bit of retrospection. The ones below were purchased new unless I mention otherwise.

1970 Jeepster C101 Commando
My father bought this Jeep in the autumn of '69. I think it reminded him of the war surplus Willys he had owned in 1946. This was the first vehicle I drove on my own -- i.e. with no instructor in the passenger seat. The Jeepster was an excellent vehicle on which to learn to drive: a V6 stick shift with no power steering, no power breaks, and a clutch with scarcely any slippage. Every other vehicle I’ve driven since – regardless of transmission type – has been a breeze by comparison. It wasn’t very practical for most of my father’s needs on or off the job (he always had a full-bed pickup for work), so I was its driver most of the time for the next decade – almost exclusively after the first few years. By 1976 it developed a reluctance to start in the morning that even changing the starter didn’t cure, so I took to parking it on an incline. Even before trying to start it conventionally, I would let it roll forward, turn on the key, and engage second gear. Worked every time. Fondest memory: my dad’s clear but unvoiced expressions of alarm in my early driving days on the occasions he was in the Jeepster with me.

1973 Ford Maverick
This was the first car actually in my own name. Though it sported a 302 V8, it wasn’t terrible on gas by the standards of the day, perhaps because such a powerful engine in a light compact car never had to strain. Good thing, because the first oil crisis struck just a few months after I bought it. The Ford remained with me for the next 7 years and took me around the US. They were eventful years for me, as one’s 20s tend to be; the Maverick was a part of them. (The car figures in two of my nonfiction short stories over at : The Driving Lesson and The Roxy Caution.) Fondest memories: 1) extracting my girlfriend Angela from the seat belt when the buckle inexplicably jammed – no doubt a more amusing circumstance for me than for her – and 2) navigating LA in those pre-GPS days en route to the Hollywood apartment building where my sister Sharon resided with her first husband Frank.

1979 Ford F150 pickup
The truck had an automatic transmission and the same 302 as my Maverick, but otherwise it was no-frills. Nonetheless, it was with me until 2001. Though utilitarian, this is the one vehicle I regret having sold. It did, however, belong to the model years in which the Ford transmissions had a quirk. The shift sometimes would be obstructed from sliding into “Park.” If you didn’t look, but just shifted by feel, you could think you were in “P” when in fact you were hung up between “P” and “R.” If you left the vehicle to open a garage door or some such thing, the shift could slip back into “R.” This leads to a fondest memory (though I’d be hard pressed to explain why it is): I exited the truck to open a garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off on a backwards journey – it had shifted into reverse. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t obey me. It arced off the driveway to the left, slipped between two big black birches, and smacked into a flexible young cedar. The cedar bent and thereby stopped the Ford without noticeable damage. I scolded the truck for running away but praised it for its choice of trees.

1981 Dodge Aries
This was a “K car,” the platform designed to bring Chrysler back after its brush with bankruptcy. With front wheel drive and a fuel-saving 4-cylinder engine, it was considered innovative in the day. Though it had and still has a fairly decent reputation, no car ever gave me more trouble. Its worst habit: it would vapor lock unpredictably in any time or place and sputter to a halt. There was nothing to do at that point but to wait for the engine to cool down, after which the fuel in the line would reliquefy and the engine would start as though nothing were wrong. Usually this took 20 minutes or so, but on one occasion the Aries stranded me overnight in NYC. Fondest memory: driving into the driveway of my first house (more of a cottage, really) after the closing.

1982 Oldsmobile Toronado
This had been my mom’s car. I bought it from her in 1986. In a reverse of the Aries experience, the V8 diesel Toronado had a terrible public reputation, but it served me well and flawlessly. The car also was economical considering its size. The Toronado was the largest and most upscale of any of my cars; with its long hood, it made a U-turn feel like a circumnavigation of the globe. Fondest memory: the drives to Mineola from 1986 to 1989, the year when the young lady I’d visit there finally gave me one of those 1:00 a.m. “We have to talk” phone calls.

1990 Ford Taurus
This was an unremarkable but reliable vehicle, which is all I ask a car to be. I none-too-successfully chased a blues singer while it was my primary ride. Fondest memory: squeezing said blues singer and her band into the car in Greenwich Village for a ride out to a gig in Denville, NJ.

1995 Ford Taurus
Based on my experience with the previous Taurus, I bought another one. This one had more bells and whistles, but also had a familiar problem: vapor lock, It didn’t happen as often is it did in the Dodge, but there is never a convenient time for it to happen at all. I met my future ex while driving it. Fondest memory: selling it.

1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee
I inherited the Jeep when my mom died in 2001 – my father had died the previous year. In the dozen years thereafter the Jeep took me anywhere I wanted to go, anytime and regardless of road condition. It never got stuck, even in major snowstorms or in Hurricane Sandy. Although it nickel-and-dimed me with small repairs – the worst of them being a wiper motor – it never once stranded me until its very last day on the road when it could go no farther. Fondest memory: teaching a neighbor’s daughter (a sort of quasi-niece) to drive in it.

1998 GMC 2500 Sierra pickup
I inherited the GMC truck at the same time as the Jeep – as a practical matter it already had been mine for a year. It is with me to this day. I don’t put many miles on it. I use it as a back-up transport and…well… as a truck. So, though it is 15 years old, it has less wear and tear than a typical daily user’s 4-year-old vehicle. The 4WD is handy in winter, but the 34 gallon tank makes filling up an expensive proposition. At this point, I see no reason it can’t match my old F150’s 22-year longevity. Fondest memory: as a passenger when my father was behind the wheel.

2014 Chevy Cruze
The size and feel of the new Cruze reminds me a lot of my old Maverick, which (counting only the cars) makes a full circle of sorts. It’s my first Chevy. I haven’t had it long enough for a memory fonder than “driving it home,” but there is time to make more. Given how long I usually keep cars, there is likely to be lots of time.

Chevy Commercial from my birth year 

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