As many readers already know, I’m an advocate for the preservation and use of old cars, trucks and other machinery. The ‘70s, when the Old Hippie (aka, wife Stephanie) and I were first married, was our golden age of economical, carefree driving; we drove ‘50s trucks. The trucks were designed to be serviceable (I could hand you the transmission out of our ‘54 Chevy in 12 minutes — I timed it). As North River Mills storekeeper, Bruce Miller, observed, referring to the tool I was using to make a carburetor adjustment, “A fella really could fix those old-time trucks with a pocket knife.” Those were the days. Sigh.
Eventually, though, traffic would become less tolerant of vehicles with a 45 mph top speed. Parts were becoming scarce, and the trucks we were using, after nearly half a century of service, were starting to wear out.
The vehicles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with their throbbing monster V-8s and being generally overbuilt, served us reliably. We still own 2 trucks from that period that we use regularly.
The ‘80s vehicles that we owned weren’t all that great as the manufacturers experimented with onboard computers and other advanced electronics. These were the only cars ever to actually leave us stranded by the roadside despite the fact that one of them was the newest car that we had ever owned. Often, one of our ‘60s or even ‘50s vehicles would need to be dispatched to the rescue much to my secret delight.
Giving the devil his due, the ‘90s cars weren’t all that bad; in fact, they proved quite reliable. As a school bus driver, Stephanie must sometimes leave home to pick up her bus before winter snow and ice road treatment is complete. It was always comforting to know that she was traveling with the advantage of all-wheel drive.
On the downside, repairs are often more involved and time consuming than that of the ‘50s vehicles (so, what isn’t?), and one must deal with smaller spaces and difficult access. This year, I somehow got behind on our auto repairs. Moreover, the low-slung ‘90s cars were aggravating some of my old injuries and worn joints. We needed a larger version of the little all-wheel-drive station wagons that we had become so fond of. It was finally time to join the 21st century.
A cheap used car is great — you go into the deal knowing that you’ll need to work on it, and the savings helps make this possible — if you have the time. However, I’m inexperienced in the high-end used car field and fear that I might inherit someone else’s problems at great expense. We thus decided to shoot for the big one — a brand new 2015 sport/utility vehicle.
I wasn’t there when she bought the car, and it was dark when she brought it home. I was busy with a few projects in Loudoun County, Va., so it was usually dark by the time I arrived home. I didn’t actually see the car for the better part of a week. I was, however, assigned the daily chore of going out to start it in the predawn. This is more of a ritual until we see some frost, but I do “pre-trip” the vehicle to some extent seeing that the tires are all up and that a cat hasn’t gotten locked inside and exploded.
Approaching the SUV in the early morning darkness, I push a tiny button on the ignition key. The vehicle responds with a beep and a flash of the tail lights — this is the unlocking phase. Two tiny spotlights then focus intense beams rearward to light my path to the driver’s side door. Depending on how one is attired, this should be an asset but isn’t always such.
As the door is opened, a TV screen lights up on the dash and the word “Welcome” appears along with some modern graphics. It’s 5:30 a.m. — yeah, whatever. I heard that you can select other languages to appear as the message on this screen — wish I knew how. If I changed it to Arabic or Russian would a spy satellite follow her around? How about Polish or Gaelic Scotch or Braille? Being from New Jersey, a suburb of Napoli, I have some pretty interesting responses to “bonjorno.”
The windows needed defogging, so I looked for the familiar sliding lever... none. How about buttons labeled with “heat,” “vent,” “defrost” and so forth? Nope. All I could find was a knob that read “Mode” with figures of what might have been windows. Was this perhaps the air conditioning and the label short for “a la mode?” I pushed the knob, gave it a cautious quarter turn and hoped for the best. Somewhere deep in the dash, a fan came on. What kind of air it was moving and where it was moving it to remained a mystery.
Next, I was to back the car up a few feet so that she wouldn’t have to navigate around a puddle while managing her 5-gallon bucket of coffee. Oddly, reverse was selected with — of all things — a floor mounted shift lever. However, I must have misunderstood the full implications of that letter “R” on the display. I felt the transmission engage, but the TV also came on. I was waiting for the credits to roll when the movie set and some of the props started looking very familiar. When had I seen this movie before?
Well, there’s no time for movies. Using the large rearview mirrors, I backed up the needed distance, placed the lever in park and the screen went back to numbers and graphics. Maybe I’m sitting on the remote.
That weekend, I got to see the new car in daylight and got to ride in it, too. I don’t like driving the newer cars because of their tiny steering wheels. Our ‘54 Chevy steering wheel is every bit of 18 inches in diameter. Now that’s a wheel you can get a grip on or even put your shoulder to — which was sometimes necessary. The barely 14-inch diameter wheel in her new car leaves me feeling like I’m playing bumper cars.
As she drove, I noticed a dead stinkbug on the dashboard, its little bug feet sticking straight up. Oh, how subtle begins the slow deterioration of a new car the moment it leaves the showroom. With less than 500 miles on the odometer, there’s already a dead bug on the dash. She noticed me contemplating this situation. “The newcar smell killed it,” she explained. This was, I reckoned, a pretty dignified way to go for a stinkbug.
She commented that it was nice not to be worrying about breaking down along the roadside. Thinking back, it had been a constant concern. However, except for a handful of instances involving ‘80s cars, it never really happened. We did recall one occasion when the starter quit in our 1954 Chevrolet truck. We rounded up a crew of locals for a push start and were soon on our way. However, it was the truck’s modernity not its antiquity that was responsible for this minor mishap. The 1954 models were the first trucks that weren’t equipped to be started with a hand crank. The Old Hippie’s new ride isn’t so equipped either, but maybe the manufacturers will catch on for future models.
First published Nov. 5, 2014 o