Wednesday, July 25, 2007

That New Car Smell

There's an article in the New York Times this week about the old Auburn, Cord, and Duesenberg autos, marques which fell victim to the economic disaster of the Great Depression. These were impressive cars with designs that still elicit sighs and envious longings at car shows around the country. Held up for comparison against today's more expensive models - just about anything from the BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, or high-end Japanese automakers - these cars ooze originality and innovation. Even Maybach's, Aston-Martins, and the sportier Bentley's seem flatly boring next to a stylish Duesenberg. And although made in the 1930s, the Duesenberg would have given these new models a run for their money as far as performance is concerned.

Surveying these icons of American auto design, I started thinking about my family's history of car ownership. And, alas, I realized we had never owned anything more exciting and unique than a 1964 Volkswagon Beetle. But chronicling our parade of cars one learns a great deal about our family and its habits, which I'm guessing would be true of most families if one were to write the clan saga based only on car ownership. Looking back I wish I could say that our garage welcomed Beemers and Jags. Yet with only occasional but noteworthy aberrations, we were a Ford family.

The early models of my childhood are really a blur. I can remember a green Rambler station wagon and a white 1970 Dodge Dart (which I've mentioned before simply because my dad brought it home from the dealership with an oil leak). Normally my parents would keep a car for a decade on average and always pass the 100,000 mile mark on the odometer. With the Dodge Dart, however, my parents were so disgusted by the experience that they traded it in after only two years for a brown Gran Torino station wagon. The Gran Torino would prove the dominant car of my childhood - the vehicle for vacations, groceries, hardware, garden supplies, and, in its last years, trips to college. The VW Beetle, purchased new in 1964, was my dad's car for commuting and errands around town. He finally sold it after about 15 years and over 200,000 miles. (I was so sad to see it go before I got my driver's license in 1980.)

In the mid-70s my parents made one of those car purchases that still leaves some members of the family puzzled: a white Ford Pinto. It was such a cheap and craptacular model that it didn't even have carpet; the floor was covered in that black vinyl that was given a pebbled surface to resemble carpet. If there ever was car that embodied the wisdom that white cars show dirt more readily, this was it. Within days of leaving the showroom it looked like one of my dad's dingy t-shirts. Still it was the car on which I learned to drive a manual transmission.

The next twenty years gave us a parade of Ford Tauruses, Mercury Sables, an Escort (which I inherited after completing college), and a Windstar minivan. The only oddity in the group was a used, yellow Datsun 710, bought for my mother as a commuter car. This vehicle holds special memories for me because it's the car in which I learned to drive, first went 100 m.p.h., and had sex. It also occupies a humorous place in family lore because of my dad's decision to have the Datsun repainted. No, Earl Scheib's claims that he could paint a car for only $39.99 weren't cheap enough for my father. He went to the hardware store, bought several cans of yellow Krylon and spray painted the car! My mother was mortified but continued to drive the Datsun to her office each day.

One thing is clear from this catalog of family transportation: cars were viewed in strictly utilitarian terms. Anything flashy, sporty or performance-oriented simply wasn't considered. My father's most recent car purchase? A beige Ford Focus. I vowed that when I was old enough to afford a car, I'd have at least one fun vehicle . . . while sticking to more practical cars for daily driving. (I at least learned that important lesson from my accountant parents.) Since buying my first new car in 1990 I've stuck with Hondas which have been nearly flawless. Still, I managed to pick up an MG while I was in grad school (a fantastic car to drive and not nearly as unreliable as their reputation), and a BMW 2002 before I moved to New York City. Although I don't have a fun car right now - parenthood and practicality winning the day - I'm already thinking about what kind of sports car I can pick up when my sons are older. It can be our project car, something we tinker with on weekends and through which they learn about the basic mechanical systems of a car. I'm thinking perhaps an old Triumph, MG, or possibly Porsche. My younger son in particular has started to show an interest in auto aesthetics and his tastes thankfully mirror my own. If I'm lucky in just a few years we'll be adjusting a pair of Zenith-Stromberg carburetors under the hood of an MG.

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