Lucy was one of my finest companions. She was a spunky yellow miracle, and I picked her out of the pack the minute I laid eyes on her. “I’ll take her,” I said to her owner without a moment’s hesitation. I signed her papers, handed over my money ($800, to be exact) and took her home, feeling as if we had known each other for years. She was the last of a great breed: Datsun—now Nissan—hasn’t made 510 wagons since the ’80s.
Most sane individuals wouldn’t trust a car like Lucy—who clocked in at 17 years of age on the day I bought her—to get across town, let alone across half of Canada as I was planning to do. To those unable to see her finer qualities, she surely appeared to be…well, junk. She wasn’t great to look at. She was very crabby in cold weather. Her A/C had been dead for who knows how long. And the upholstery? Let’s just say it was dirt-gray. But I had complete trust in the mechanic I bought her from, and I chose to believe that her longevity potential had already been proven.
I have friends with older cars who will not drive on long trips because “something could happen to the car.” But something could always happen to the car, regardless of its age. The idea that a car has to be new to be reliable is a myth, like the idea that people over 65 are better off retired than working. In a sense, the car dealers who delight in tempting us with shiny new automotive toys are like the fashion scouts who pay handsome rewards to teenagers to pose on magazine covers because models in their 20s have already become “too old.” Wrinkles, like rust spots, are not allowed.
Lucy was not a good car in the sense that most people think of a good car, but that’s not the point. There is a certain character about worn-out things that keeps us mortal. Hang out in East Nashville, and you understand that human life is temporary. We come from the earth, and we will return to it again someday. Spend time in Cool Springs, and you may succumb to the illusion that life is a one-way street heading straight to eternal youth, or at least a nice place with spotless marble floors and the option of plastic surgery.
Then there’s the whole cost issue. New cars lose around 30 percent of their value as soon as they’re driven off the lot. That’s a tremendous price to pay for the anxiety of wondering when you’ll get that first dent, scratch or tear. If you buy a car used, you’ll save yourself the hassle of trying to maintain a perfect finish, and several thousand dollars to boot. (Let’s hope car manufacturers don’t catch on to the games the designer jeans folks are up to, or we’ll be having to fork over big bucks for “pre-dented models with custom seat imprints.”)
I’ve never spent more than $1,500 for a car. I find great satisfaction in looking at a year’s worth of transportation expenses and seeing that my grand total (gas, tags, insurance, repairs) amounts to less than a handful of new car payments. The thought of spending $20,000 or more on a machine that’s going to ferry me a few miles a day from point A to point B at an average of 28 mph makes my head spin. That’s like spending $150 on a pair of running shoes to walk from my kitchen to my bedroom. At least I can look at the shoes as I walk. I couldn’t admire my car’s spaint job and drive at the same time.
Recently, I was the winner in a drawing for $500 in free automotive maintenance at a local garage. My current car needed a couple of new tires and not much else that wasn’t going to cost way over $500. So I told the mechanics that I was due for a tune-up, and they replaced a bunch of parts that were probably original and no doubt coated with 14 years of grime. As nice as it is to know I’ll never have to replace those parts again, I feel a little uneasy about all that newness under my hood. My car still runs the same, so I can’t actually tell that anything was done to it, and that makes me sad—something like the feeling you get when you send off a payment to an insurance company, knowing it’s a good thing to do in theory, but wondering if you should just buy some new kitchen cabinets instead.
My car still needs new struts, and I can’t afford them right now. But even if I had the funds, I’d hesitate to replace them. I’ve heard that Persian rug makers always weave a flaw into their rugs so they’re not perfect, and after my experience with Lucy I can see that there is a certain logic to such a practice. That geezer of a car exceeded my best expectations, taking me and about 70 pounds of camping equipment more than 10,000 miles across the Canadian Rockies in the space of two months, without a single problem. She even lasted a couple years more, before I had to send her to the great junkyard in the sky. Her engine sits in a mechanic’s garage somewhere, a donor heart waiting for the right body to come along. If the rusted beast that emerges from that matching is ever put up for sale, I’ll take it.