My Car FolliesWednesday, September 08, 2010
For any who have been recently reading this blog they might know that Rosemary and I are in the throws of looking for a car to replace the leased Audi A-4 that we are returning on the 16th. There are many words that come to mind including the one that Rosemary is using a lot these days and that is downsizing. There is an expression in Spanish that is far scarier. “Nos hemos venido abajo.” It sort of means we have gone downhill and we are now in the dumps.”
The word downsizing isn’t quite as accurate as it might sound as the car that we now have in our sights, a 2007 Chevrolet Malibu sedan is about a foot longer than the Audi.
As we look at used cars and try to use logic as opposed to gut feeling or antojo. In Spanish an antojo is something that you suddenly want simply because you want it. It is something that you buy, try or perhaps eat on impulse. Mexicans call some of their overly rich elements of their cuisine antojitos, impulse snacks, perhaps?
The search for the car has also made me think of many of the cars in our past. It is almost certain our next car will probably be one of our last car purchases if not the last one. This realization has made me think back. Many of the cars were sheer follies.
We came to Vancouver in our solidly built Mexican-made VW beetle. It was a great car until one day, sometime around 1977, in a snow storm, Rosemary and I skidded down Renfrew (near Grandview highway) on to a 15 car pileup. After we climbed out of our car in a hurry a huge construction truck slid down and pretty well totaled our VW. This VW was replaced by a Rabbit. It is strange to consider that the folks at VW who for years paraded the fact that the VW as air-cooled and needed no coolant and hoses would then sell a car that had hoses galore. One of these hoses burst just as I was navigating into the old Connaught Bridge (the precursor to the Cambie Street Bridge) which had a central span made of wood slats. It was there that the car stopped when a thermostat protecting the engine reacted to the burst coolant hose.
Another car that we owned was an early four-door hatchback Honda Civic. This one was a good car but Rosemary kept fender bending it.
Rosemary drove the VW beetle, the Rabbit and the Civic. I drove two (one replaced the other) Fiat X-1/9s which in principle were fantastic mid-engine cars.
Because the engine was right behind the two bucket seats this car had two trunks. The front trunk also accommodated the removable roof which transformed my two-seater into a convertible. But like most Fiats then sold in Canada it was plagued by numerous mechanical problems of which the major one was a perennial slipping clutch that transformed the sprightly little car into sounding and reacting like a circa mid 50s Buick with a Dynaflow automatic transmission. Upon changing from red to green I would slowly ease on the clutch and ever so gingerly would I step on the gas. The car would whine, oo-oo-oo-oow!
The second of the two Fiats was blue (the first one had been appropriately lemon yellow). When almost new it stopped most suddenly as I was about to enter the freeway from First Avenue and Rupert (Again, Rupert!). The car had rear wheel drive and one of the drive-shafts connecting to one of the wheels had sheared off. Not long after I was driving on that very freeway near Willingdon and Hastings when I lost power even though the engine was purring ever so nicely. I was able to pull over even though the car decelerated quickly. I determined that the linkage between my gas pedal to the carburetor was broken. I had been shopping at a nearby Safeway and I remembered I had bought a loaf of white bread. I re-connected the broken gas pedal link to the carburetor with the bread tie and gingerly got home in one piece. Waiting for me was letter from Fiat Canada advising me on a recall on X-1/9 models that had problems with gas pedals!
My eldest daughter by then was around 14 and she was acting like a rebellious teenager. I decided that I needed that cliché man to man drive to nowhere to bond with her even though she was not a boy. I purchased a box set of Bruce Springsteen cassettes and we promptly went on a trip south to San Francisco with the top down. On our first night (somewhere in Oregon) we arrived at a motel. The attendant looked at me in disgust. It occurred to me why he was looking at me the way he was. She was 13 and I was in my late 30s. I tried to make the situation better by loudly saying, “Ale you should call your mother.” The man threw the room keys at me with disdain.
Our father to daughter relationship was a tad warmed by the time we arrived in San Francisco. As I was navigating the up and down streets of the city I heard a clunk. I delivered Ale to some of my relatives and went to the last remaining Fiat dealer in the city. The man after inspecting the car (they took the front wheels apart) showed me a cracked piece of metal. “I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that your problem is a simple one. You have a cracked constant-velocity joint. The bad news (and here he looked at me like a funeral director) is that the part is in NATIONAL-BACK-ORDER. Would you like to sell the car to us? That would get you out of your present fix.”
In that pre-internet dawn where the telephone and yellow pages were king-and-consort, I called junkyards all over California. In some cases all I had to say was, “I have this Fiat…” and the man on the other side of the line would hang up.
I found the part in a Surrey junkyard on Scott Road. I had the part delivered by a taxi (from the junkyard) to the Air Canada Cargo office in the Vancouver airport. I picked up the part a few days later at the San Francisco airport and I proudly and triumphantly handed it to the Fiat “funeral director”. He was brusque in pulling back his hands and said, “Let’s go outside.” We have the policy here of not using used parts to repair our cars. You will give me the part outside on the sidewalk and that way we can circumvent our policy.”
In the late 80s I was making a ton of money with annual reports (day rates for weeks on end to Alberta, for example) and taking pictures for magazines from Vanity Fair, to obscure British magazines like Arena. I told Rosemary, “I am tired of driving a Fix-it-Again-Tony (my mechanic was not Tony but a most Italian Girolamo). I want a dependable car and one that will not be cramped so I can carry all the photographic equipment I want.
I had recently read an interview with Polish write Jerzy Kosiński who had revealed that his car of choice was a wide-track Pontiac. The reporter (and American) was curious as to why a rich author would have such a car, the domestic Pontiac and not a Mercedes or a Ferrari. Kosiński’s answer was a killer, “My Pontiac can accommodate my polo mallets in its trunk.”
“Rosemary I want to buy a brand new Chevrolet Caprice, the one that looks like a bathtub and is used by the cops and by the Yellow Cab Company.” My wife at the time was quite concerned about our image and she said, “There is no way you are going to drive a car that is commonly driven by vacuum cleaner salesmen. Why don’t you buy that used Maserati Biturbo that Girolamo is tempting you with?”
And that is where I made the worst, impulse car purchase of my whole life. The car (it was maroon and it looked sort of like a stylish, almost non-descript Toyota) had a V-6 double turbo charged engine and it accelerated almost like a Corvette. I liked to play macho-man at the light with some idiot driving a Mazda Miata on my right who would try to sneak up and pass me as the light turned to green at an intersection in which the other side the left-lane was blocked by a parked car. It was sheer pleasure. My pleasure was short-lived. Soon fluids were going into places that they were not supposed to go into. Gas was going into the oil, oil was going into the gas and to add insult to injury coolant was filtering into the gas.
The clutch slipped, the transmission clunked, the electric windows would not go up, or go down and soon I realized that the leather upholstery was leather only where my rear end was in contact. The sides and the backs were imitation leather that soon cracked badly.
I parked the car in my garage and closed the garage door. It is still there as a reminder of my folly. We do have a pretty English garden so I sometimes tell our garden visitors that our English Garden Folly (a most English custom) is safely locked in the garage. Like that overdue library book that if you safely keep in a closed drawer and does not exist until the folks at the VPL send a huge overdue notice by the mail, my Maserati does not exist because I cannot see it.
This time around as we agonize over our choice, we are going to make sure our car is an intelligent buy. The only problem is that Rosemary asks me, “Does that Malibu, have heated seats? Does it have a power sunroof, etc? Can you lock the car remotly?”
I sometimes wonder where we would be now had I purchased that Chevrolet Caprice. Perhaps all those Dollars that went down the drain to repair the Maserati would have helped me become rich and famous and rich enough to take up polo and perhaps store them in the Caprice’s trunk.