My old car
November 8, 2006
I didn’t think I’d feel a pang of loss when my old car was driven away, but I did. Standing there in my driveway watching the old Volvo putter down the road was like saying good-bye to a dear old friend.The car wasn’t at all pretty. White primer showed through the faded paint, and there were no hubcaps, just wheels with unadorned lug nuts. The car had an old Barecrafter ski rack on the roof and one of those hoop bike racks bolted to the rear bumper.The interior was like a worn-out sofa, threadbare from 20 years of use. It had that well-worn look of a vehicle that has carried many people many miles. The odometer spoke to its tenure – 240,000 miles – original engine and transmission, and still didn’t burn any oil.I bought the 1986 Volvo 240 GL about ten years ago when it had only 180,000 miles. For a Volvo of that vintage, that car was barely broken in. I don’t know how many knuckles I skinned in the process of keeping that heap running, but there were plenty during various mechanical challenges. And there were curses, too, for the times it didn’t start in below-zero weather or had a flat tire or got hopelessly stuck in the snow. There were times that old car couldn’t make it up my icy road in the winter, when I left it at the bottom of the hill and walked up in the dark.That car could disappoint me, but it always redeemed itself with a kind of predictable loyalty that made it start when it was absolutely necessary, made it run on an empty tank, and usually got me where I needed to go.When you drive an old beater for a decade, you take on some of its personality. As the Roaring Valley has gentrified into a high-fashion, status-car kind of place, that old heap provided a countervailing sense of humility.I never had to take my keys out of that car because I knew no one would steal it. And I never worried about a ding or a dent because no blemish would show any more than the blemish the car described as a whole. Insurance and registration were dirt.My son once remarked that it was a little embarrassing getting picked up from school in the oldest car in town. I reminded him that the Volvo was once considered a yuppie car. Driving a classic old heap set us apart, I explained. In an age of heightened material identity and blatant commercial gloss, the Volvo was authentic and utilitarian.My son learned to appreciate the old wreck, and so did the neighborhood mice. Every fall they built nests in the trunk or under the hood. At one time there were a dozen mice living in my car as I drove it around the valley. I finally resorted to mouse traps, which snapped occasionally in the trunk as I drove.For its overall funkiness, my old Volvo produced a kind of reverse status. Once, when meeting new friends from Aspen who needed a ride, they frowned at my car. “How old is this thing?” asked the man as he climbed in. I told him the mileage and he grinned, rolled down his window, leaned back in the seat, and shouted to his friends in the parking lot that this car had almost a quarter million miles and still ran great. I could see him relax into something from his youth, something pleasantly reminiscent of a simpler time.When you opened the hood of that car, the engine compartment was roomy enough to crawl into. You could easily reach the spark plugs for cleaning and gapping. You could handily adjust the fan belt or the compressor belt. An oil change took 10 minutes. I never had to mess with the fuel injection or the timing. That car just ran and ran and ran, and it was easy on gas, too.Finally the transmission faltered. The car could no longer get up the hill to my house. So I listed it in the classifieds “Good for parts: $100 OBO.” A man called and came over and looked at it. He was a mechanic and thought he could get it running for a friend. He said he didn’t have any money, so I just gave him the car.After cleaning out my accumulated junk – and there was plenty – I signed over the title, gave him the keys, and off he drove. I watched the familiar old car disappear down the road and wished them well in their new life together. With any luck that old heap will make it to 500,000.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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