Revisited: My life with cars (help me, Honda)

With all the attention recently given to the plight of the American auto industry, I thought I’d take this opportunity to use other people’s hardship for my own personal gain as a topic for a blog posting.

Not that I’d be caught dead driving an American car, because driving while lifeless can be very dangerous. Actually, my family and I have a long history with domestic auto producers. My grandfather worked for a Ford dealer in Pennsylvania. My father owned almost exclusively Ford products for most of my childhood, except for a failed and ultimately flaming experiment with a Renault. The two most memorable vehicles of my youth were a giant Mercury Monterey with a reverse angle rear window that rolled down at the touch – actually it was more of a 15-second jiggle – of a button, and an even gianter Galaxy 500, our first car with air conditioning.

And my first car was a “blue” Ford Falcon I inherited from my mother just before my junior year in college. I put blue in quotes because the paint job had become almost crystalline in the heat of the Miami sun. It ran reliably enough despite its stunningly ugly appearance, safely taking me the nearly 500 miles I’d routinely drive between Tallahassee and Miami. My most vivid memory of the Falcon was the day I parked it in front of my landlord’s office while I ran in to pay the rent, then emerged just in time to see it rolling downhill toward several parked cars. Not the best way to find out that adding transmission fluid twice a day was an inadequate alternative to actually getting the transmission fixed.

My next car was also a Detroit creation, the much-maligned Chevy Vega. This one really was blue, a “fastback” that seemed like one first-rate vehicle to a poor college student of the early ‘70s. Even though it was another automatic transmission, the gearshift was on the floor, which gave its sluggish drive a certain sex appeal (if only to me). We bought it from a neighbor in Miami, who convinced us it was a great deal, which it probably was since he used his front as a used-car salesman to hide what in retrospect were obvious organized-crime connections. I don’t know how many headless bodies were crammed into that hatchback before the Vega came into my hands, but I know they had a remarkably smooth ride to whatever paving project they ended up in.

The Vega had the distinction of transporting me from my dismal life as an eternally under-achieving college student in Florida to an honest career in a suburb of Charlotte. I drove it for about a year in my new hometown, until I became concerned the corrosive oxidation would metastasize from its body to mine. In my first independent transaction with a car dealer, I made the ghastly mistake of trading it in for a brown VW Rabbit. Not an American car, I know, but by the early ‘80s VW had picked up many bad influences from its U.S. counterparts, not the least of which was constant breakdown. I wasted a lot of money on fruitless repairs before taking it back to the dealer, who took pity on me and put me in my first brand-new car, a Datsun 210.

I was still a very uneducated consumer – I bought the car in the hope that the “cool” setting on the dashboard fan was actually air-conditioning, which it wasn’t – yet I lucked into a reliable basic vehicle whose fanciest extras were FM radio and faux leather seats. I still remember the feel of those seats after driving through the afternoon heat to my second-shift job a half-hour from home. Open windows on the interstate and that “cool” setting provided little relief to the pit of my lower back, which was utterly sodden by the time I arrived.

Now that I was experienced with Japanese models, I bought a succession of sensible cars. First there was a red Honda Civic, then a white Honda Civic, then a grey Honda Civic and finally a silver Honda Civic. Not much imagination, I admit, but memories of that damn VW were slower to recede than the stench of a dead rabbit jammed in the under-carriage, and I wanted reliability above all else. I admit I was tempted more than once during that 20-some-year span to go all middle-aged in my car selection, maybe a Miata or a convertible or at least the Honda CRV, the company’s smaller SUV. But common sense (and the advice of my wife) always prevailed. The craziest I was ever able to get was the Honda Odyssey, a chick magnet of a minivan if ever there was one.

My only complaint with the succession of Civics was that there always seemed to be a slight problem in the same area, one I’ve found hard to describe to my mechanic. It’s sort of near the steering wheel, a bit to the left of the gearshift, maybe just above the accelerator pedal. I think it’s referred to as the vehicle operator, or “driver.” Aside from that incident with the wandering Falcon, I’d never had any accidents with my American cars, probably because I was so attuned to every detail of their operation that I actually paid attention while I was driving. With the Hondas I was able to do other things, like listen to the radio and go in reverse.

In my first accident, an oncoming driver tried to turn left in front of me and we had a major fender bender in which I actually sustained an injury, a sprained thumb. The next incident was on the interstate near the exit ramp on my way home from work. A line had backed up for some reason, and when the truck in front of me rear-ended the vehicle in front of him, bringing him to a sudden and, I might add, un-signalled stop, I naturally plowed into him. Some extensive front-end damage but nothing irreparable. Finally, I was backing out of a parking spot at the mall on a foggy day, trying to see over the monstrous SUVs that flanked me on either side, when another driver looking for a parking space backed into my rear side panel. In none of these three cases were the Hondas “totaled,” an extremely cool verb I’ve always wanted to use; they were only partialled. All were fixed and returned to service.

In the judgment of the moment, none of these episodes seemed even remotely to be my responsibility. All of them were largely caused by the inattention or carelessness of others while I was going about my business. I couldn’t have anticipated things were going wrong or changed to a direction that would have led to a more positive outcome. Simply put, none of the three failures were my fault.

Sounds like I could get a job as head of one of the Big 3 automakers.

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One Response to “Revisited: My life with cars (help me, Honda)”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    You are so right! I believe GM is hiring?
    But wow did this bring back memories. Most of us, I mean some of us, haven’t had that many cars in our lives, and each one sort of defines an era. I am inspired to do a blog of my own which I will call “My Life With Cars”. But geez. You haven’t shouldered nearly your fair share of accidents. “Totaled” is a word with which I’ve been intimately acquainted for years. Of course, it was never my fault.

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