Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SUMMER REPEAT: Tale of the $1 Car

For me, our car began—and ended—with a phone call.

Six years ago, two of our friends (Mr. S. and Ms. K) phoned and said they wanted "to talk" with us. They told us nothing more than that, so we of course assumed the worst. They were coming over to finally announce, in person, that their stormy marriage would be ending in divorce. Or something even worse.

As it turned out, they wanted to sell us one of their cars instead.

For $1.

Mr. S had just inherited a car. He didn't want to pay the insurance on the three cars he and Ms. K now owned, and the logical one to part company with was the oldest—a beat-up Mazda 323, complete with a weird skull/rabbit sticker and an engine tuned like a hot rod. The car had been Ms. K's first real purchase with her own money, though. It was a symbol of her independence, so it couldn't just be "given up." It had to find a home, and a fitting one. Considering that my wife (who was not yet my wife at the time) was a grad student struggling to finish her PhD, and considering that I had recently moved across the country after selling or giving away nearly every single thing I'd ever owned, we seemed like the obvious choice. And besides, with a car, Mr. S. and Ms. K could expect us to make the drive from the West Side of LA up to the Valley, so they would see us more often as well. Everybody wins.

My wife didn't have a dollar on her at the time. I had to loan her the dollar.

It was a sweet deal, I must admit. The car cost less than $200 a year to insure. When gas prices hit their peak a few months ago, that just meant the cost of filling its tank finally broke $20. It got better gas mileage than anything that old and nasty had a right to provide. And even with the occasional repair—which became less occasional as time went on—and with the cost of a rental for those trips that even my wife wouldn't trust it to make, we came out ahead. And I mean way ahead.

On top of it all, our car had a "story," too, which meant everything to my wife. It was cool to her in a way that no Detroit "bubble" car of the suburbs could ever be. And it was the first car she ever bought, so Ms. K got to relive that experience all over again with her.

Thus began six years of ever more white-knuckled rides.

First, my wife had to learn how to drive stick. Second, I had to learn how to drive stick. Third, we drove the Dollar Car to Las Vegas, and like the brave explorer who comes home from the jungle with malaria, it was never quite the same after that.

We thought we had checked everything before we left. Tires. Fluids. Gas. Maps. You name it. But not even 30 minutes outside LA, it started to handle wrong, and then very wrong, and we realized that one of the tires was almost flat. After solving that problem, we next faced a leaky radiator, which forced us to pull over every 50 miles or so—both ways—so that we could refill the engine with badly needed coolant.

After that, life with the Dollar Car became a blur of this repair and that bit of tinkering, of this rattle and that squeak, of surging engine power that knocked the dog off her feet in the back and putt-putt, go-cart moments that sent the dog thumping into the backs of our seats. In fact, go-carts were often faster than we were. The car seemed to go through spark plugs faster than Cartman ate Snacky Cakes. And the fuel gauge became utterly postmodern, letting you graft your own meaning onto the abstract information it provided about the level of gas in your tank. There were the overheatings, especially on the grid-locked freeways of Southern California, and the jury-rigged control to start the engine fan when the actual control gave out. Mechanics knew a good thing when they saw us, and the automotive-tech students at the local community college found increasingly ingenious ways to keep it going and snag a passing grade.

Somehow, though, it always made it through California's stringent smog emissions test. The last time did take some serious tinkering with the engine, but the guys as Midas took it as a personal challenge.

I understood the appeal of your first car, though, and how you would do almost anything to keep it running—or simply keep it. My own first car had its quirks, too. It was an old Datsun 200SX (so old that Datsun was still Datsun and not Nissan) that apparently had been rewired by an electrical dyslexic. Turn on the radio, and the "Door Ajar" light came on. Just opening and closing the door to shut off the warning light would be too easy, however. In my old Datsun, you had to turn the dome light on and off. And part of me wonders if I wouldn't still have it, if those never-were-caught Philly teens hadn't joy-ridden it into a concrete railroad abutment 20 years ago.

So I did understand the appeal of the rather unique Mazda we'd acquired. And at first, we thought we would only have the car for a year or two before replacing it. Life had other plans for us, though. We moved from the West Side to the sprawl beyond Pasadena after my exotic Canadian wife landed a teaching position, and we paid for two rounds of immigration bureaucracy-go-round to secure her permanent residency. Which also included our going from two incomes to one for far too many months when her temporary work permit somehow failed to get processed along with all the other green card paperwork.

And always in our minds was one undeniable truth: Even with all its problems and all its repairs, the Dollar Car was unbelievably cheap to run. We were saving money hand over fist, which came in handy during a move, two rounds of immigration bureaucracy-go-round, and five-figures worth of lost income.

Of course, the car also scared the hell out of me, and never more so these last two years.

And of course, we both ran it for too long.

As I said, for me, our car began—and ended—with a phone call. Only this time, it was my wife on the line, and she sounded absolutely giddy. "Are you sitting down?" she asked. I wasn't, so I immediately did, preparing myself to hear some amazingly wonderful news of the unexpected.

"I'm all right," she said then, "but the car is on fire by the side of the 210."

We still don't quite know what went wrong. And to be honest, too many possibilities come to mind. We know the engine caught fire, and the rest of the car soon followed. My wife got out in time, though, and she came through it without a scratch, which is all that really matters.

R.I.P., Dollar Car. You gave us more than our money's worth.