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In Praise of Older Cars

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Enough iDrive, MyTouch and OnStar. Enough heated steering wheels, console beverage dispensers and automatic keister coolers. Enough traction control, stability control, blind spot warning, signal-sending and satellite tracking. People, you're on a trajectory for a macchiato, not Mars. Need to know where the nearest Starbucks is? Just ask any Goth driving a Mini.

Okay, I'm cranky. I dig most of that stuff, but can't have it. I'm strapped. My FICO number is a score usually recorded in stubby pencil. When friends tell me what their monthly car nut is, I think of the house I'd own. Yes, probably in Cleveland- hey, if you've never been there, it's great... right, maybe Akron. Point being, even if I had the $32K I just don't think I could bring myself to throw it down on a sparkly new gadget. I like cars, I just don't want to go down that road with them.

Luckily for me, I really enjoy old cars. I don't mean pampered antiques, classics or collectibles mind you, the census category of my ilk is "Garage-less Apartment Dweller," so their Turtle Wax would quickly wane under the roving bird sanctuary I always seem to park under. Folks, I'm talkin' junkers. Beaters, bangers, bruisers, junkyard dogs, winter cars, whatever ten-foot-pole of a term you care to distance yourself from them with doesn't matter, I embrace them as heroes of affordable day-to-day transportation.

In many cases, almost all really, I like the cars old better than when they were new. A '94 Bonneville? Ugh, couldn't stand it new. It looked like a melting Marquis. It looked laminated. But sun-bubbled clearcoat turns that disco Eurosheen into a Blade Runner-esqe dinge to which I'm helplessly drawn. Throw in fenders cauliflowered from hundreds of rounds with teen-aged drivers, a world-weary lean from mismatched tire sizes and a steering rack that creaks like the front door of a haunted house, and I'm straight up smitten.

I revel in old car idiosyncrasies. I see them as the battle scars of a survivor. I like a power window that groans its way up the tracks like a geezer getting out of a La-Z-Boy. I become part of the circuit when I hold the gearshift just off the "P" so it can eek out another connection with whatever nub of a switch still resides under that cracked, curling, sticky faux teak console cover. I like having to use my left foot on the brake in the morning because taking my right off the gas pedal is a guaranteed stall, it reminds me of my aunt's pump organ, and no, that's not a euphemism.

I like all old car smells except mildew. Dampness is fine, but if it has taken up serious horticultural root, no sale. I appreciate a nice chanterelle, I just don't want a crop flourishing in my bronchial tubes. That's where a small exhaust leak comes in handy. Just roll the widows up tight and let it idle until the carpet's been de-natured. Then engine heat works its metallurgical magic, pinches the leak shut, and you're off, having turned a weakness into a strength. See? We can learn from old cars.

Living in California, I miss body rust. During the Detroit years of my youth, I used to look at it and see shapes the way other people lie on their backs and decipher clouds. Look! On the tailgate of that Fury station wagon, it's the Cuyahoga river from 10,000 feet! Hey! The gas flap on that Fairlane looks like a piece of cinnamon toast! My favs were the behemoth GM sedans from the early 70's, with their lower rocker panels so uniformly ringed with perforation, it looked like you could tear the chassis from the body like the lower portion of a light bill.

The artist currently in residence with me is a 1984 Saab 900 Turbo with, best guess, 300,000 miles on it. The odometer retired six years ago at 225,587. I say retired instead of broke because it still shows up every month or so as a temporary consultant. It cranks a few wobbly tenths onto the tally then heads back to roll bingo numbers at a Trollhattan senior center. It handles well, burns near zero oil, passes smog with minimal flying colors, and unless my sextant is bent, gets around 26 hwy, not great but not evil. The black paint is still presentable enough to warrant a touch up with a Sharpie after every bi-annual wash/rainstorm, and it has a perfectly balanced bohemian jaw line that somehow is both slack and square at the same time. The rattling cv joints and thudding shock mounts sound like prisoners communicating by tapping spoons. It seeps a few flavors of Lucas and has no dash lights. If necessary, I can illuminate the gas gauge with the glowing end of the lighter, which still functions flawlessly with a clean, satisfying Scandinavian "pop." I call it Abba. It's slow as Christmas until the turbo kicks in, then it's slow as Christmas Eve. If you know anybody with this model Saab, then you've been regaled with "It's got unbelievable cargo capacity!" stories, about moving the entire contents of Hearst Castle in two trips, blah, blah. But honestly? It's pretty amazing. If David Blaine were a car, is all I'm saying.

If you struggle with the prospect of driving an old car for esthetic reasons--it is true that parking valets will handle your keys with sterilized tongs and friends will always insist on taking their car. I won't go into how much more pleasing a 1986 Jaguar XJ-6 is to the eye than a 2011 SharpStick, er, Honda CrossTour.

If you're uncomfortable with my premise on environmental grounds--I feel for you, but don't kid yourself, every squeaky clean, silently humming little scrubbing bubble of an automobile represents a silo-sized shovel full of metals and minerals ripped from the earth, and 20 years from now while the bulk of their husks loll on salvage yard recliners, gallons of sizzling mystery goo will be seeking the local aquifer and their nastiest bits will be picked apart by clusters of barefooted adolescents eagerly emerging their economies. It ain't easy being you know what.

If safety is your issue--you'll get no argument from me. My friend has a completely stock 1962 Chevrolet Biscayne with a massive front windshield and a big square bench seat. It's like driving a penalty box. Also in that car it's advisable to wear a helmet and a mouth guard.

Old cars don't get their due. I resent everybody suddenly talking about 40 mpg like it's the first moon shot. A 1991 Geo Metro: Anybody wanna guess? 43 city, 52 hwy. Suck on that Fiesta. A 1989 Honda CRX HF? 41 city, 49 hwy. Stick that where it Fit(s).

I am excited about the transformation of the domestic auto industry. I feel like they "get it" now, and hope consumers hold them to it. But we need to tell cars that while we still love them, we're not "in love" with them anymore. They're a useful tool and we should more fully see them that way. You shouldn't want to just go for a drive any more than you should just want to take a pipe wrench for a whirl. Bad example--pipe wrenches are pretty fun, and I have an entire plumbing warehouse in the back of my Saab.


Jim Hanna is a Santa Monica-based writer, driver, motorcyclist, lost hiker, sore bicyclist, damp sailor, marginal plumber, lousy carpenter, smoldering electrician and knackless musician. He is a 20% tipper and flosses semi-regularly.
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