A few weeks before my last birthday, I signed away a bunch of money for a brand new car.
Dad called a few weeks later and asked me how I liked my new ride.
“I guess I’m getting used to it,” I said.
He laughed (at me). “You’re the only person I know who is not excited about driving a new car.
“It just doesn’t feel like me,” I said.
I’m just not the new-car kind of gal.
What feels like “me” is cruising in a car with so many dents, I feel comfortable parking in a big-city, bargain-priced parking lot in the bad side of town. In a clunker, you don’t hesitate to haul 10 bags of steer manure in the trunk. You don’t cry when you spill coffee on the passenger seat. Driving an ugly car means you have more freedom, such as never needing to drive through a car wash.
The majority of my cars were handed down when my parents upgraded their rides. This ensured I always got a great deal, and knew the car’s maintenance history.
People who drive brand new cars drive like they’re riding in an egg. They cringe when teenagers erratically open their car doors quickly in a parking lot. New-car drivers find a space in the parking lot hinter-land, as if to advertise they drive something precious – and you don’t.
Over many years, my mother and my father had separately encouraged me to buy a new car. The nagging increased in intensity each time I had engine trouble.
In the case of my father, he had spent more than his fair share fixing water pumps, cleaning battery terminals and investigating strange sounds. When he reached his 70s, he said his days of wrenching were over; I needed to buy a new car or find a boyfriend with a tool chest.
Both my father and my mother also wanted assurances I would not be stranded (again) on one of my favorite, dusty back roads.
When my birthday rolled around, Mom offered me a bunch of money with strings attached: She’d pay for a chunk of the new car, if I paid for the rest.
Could I truly end this particularly unglamorous chapter of my life?
In some ways, I blame my penchant for clunkers on my parents.
When I turned 16, I gained freedom in the driver’s seat of a 1975 Gremlin. Sure, the kids in my affluent Bay Area high school made a few jokes. I took that in stride. I was headed for the wild beyond. My car had a cassette player and I was ready to be unbridled. The fact that I did not have air conditioning meant my hair was perpetually blowing in the wind.
In college, “Wayne’s World,” was a big hit and the jokes intensified. For some reason, everyone believes Garth drove a Gremlin in the film. It was a Pacer, people! Not a Gremlin.
My Gremlin was a gem. It kept going through college and for several years into my career at the newspaper.
The vinyl on the bench seat began to peel, and I covered it with bedsheets. One day, my brother needed some cash, and I paid him to wash it. Some vital component must have rusted, because the passenger side door never closed again. I had to tie the door shut with a belt. To get out of the car, I scooched over the bench seat and opened the door on the passenger side.
And yet, the engine kept going. At the bitter end, the brakes were metal-on-metal and I drove carefully to Chico Scrap Metal, where I received $16.50.
I drove two other cars into the ground, pocketing money from the Cash-For-Clunkers program – a 1992 Saturn with an obliterated transmission and a 1998 Toyota Camry that had logged 311,000 miles.
My logic, all this time, has been that a cheap car requires $1,000 in maintenance a year, but almost nothing upfront.
I bought the car, a 2019 Honda Civic, which is at the top of Consumer Reports’ lists of reliable, reasonably-priced vehicles. If all goes well, I can drive my first new car until I retire my driver’s license. My step-dad helped pick it out, based on the latest safety features. My first week with the car, I took my students on a camping trip. They stomped with muddy shoes in the back seat, and I was glad.
“How do you like that new car?” Dad asked more recently.
“I’m getting used to it,” I said. “I got my first ding in the paint when I was parked at the grocery store. That makes me feel better.”
Last weekend, I drove my nearly-new car onto my lawn and washed it. It had been a while, and I might as well enjoy the fresh paint, even if the car’s value dropped $5,000 the minute I drove it off the lot.
It was a beautiful day, so I waxed it.