This story was originally published January 28, 2010
Like a monk who has decided to renounce celibacy, I knew that buying a minivan marked a point of no return. Now the moment was here: I was in a car dealer's inner office, known in the trade as “the closing room.” I gripped a pen in my sweating fingers and prepared to sign the contract.
I studied the specifications one last time: three rows of seats, a video player and a fold-out picnic table. This was pure automotive sacrilege, yet at this moment I lusted for it all. My wife and I had just finished a summer trip to Nova Scotia with our two kids in a Honda Civic that had no radio or air conditioning (I had nixed both as unnecessary, power-sapping frills.) Now I was going the other way, signing the papers for a recreation room on wheels.
But I couldn't do it. I put down the pen and stood up. “Let me think about it some more,” I told the manager, vowing never to darken his door again.
I grew up as a vehicular ascetic. I loved cars like the Fiat 500 sedan, the Porsche Speedster and the Caterham Seven, a sports car that makes a Porsche 911 look like a Winnebago. In my twenties, I drove across Canada in a Volkswagen Beetle with everything I owned packed inside it.
For my wife and I, buying a minivan with a dozen cup holders was an irrevocable first step into a consumer abyss of 10,000-square-foot houses, Big Gulp soft drinks and XXXL stretch pants. But our lives had changed. We had two children, and we spent our days making grocery runs, daycare pickups and trips to IKEA. The mission practically screamed “minivan!”
But a Honda Civic was about as far as we were willing to go. It had four doors, but it was light, small and had a 16-valve engine with a manual transmission. We tried to get it with manual windows, but they weren't available.
So you can imagine how I felt when the minivan bug first insinuated itself. It happened somewhere in northern New Brunswick, during our annual summer drive to Halifax. Because we had no air conditioning, the windows were down, and we sweated like jungle adventurers, coated with a thickening film of grit, bugs and vaporized road tar. Our two kids were in the back, along with several bags of diapers, half a dozen colouring books, several cans of crayons, a plastic cooler, some suitcases that hadn't fit in the trunk, maps, binoculars and a Ziploc bag loaded with bibs soaked in regurgitated baby formula. And that was just the inside: On the roof were two bicycles, my hang glider and some additional luggage.
A family in a Chrysler minivan went by. They had two kids. Their bicycles were inside, and their windows were rolled up. It was a moment of epiphany – their vehicle suited the mission. Ours didn't.
I hated people who allowed vanity to push them into ridiculous vehicles – like middle-aged Toronto guys who drive giant pickup trucks so they can look like cowboys, and sparrow-boned trophy wives tooling to Holt Renfrew in their Cadillac Escalades.
Was I any better? My automotive minimalism had condemned my family to steerage accommodations and forced me to spend hours at a time lashing things to the roof. But my minivan conversion was a tortured one. For nearly three years, I went to showrooms, but always found a reason to walk out. Then I found myself in Afghanistan, covering the war. One of my interpreters stepped on a mine, and died half an hour later. That night, I dreamed I was home with my wife and kids, packing up for the longest summer trip ever.
When I landed back in Canada, I was finally ready to sign up for a minivan. But my wife wasn't. She saw it as a Faustian bargain – the storage space, air conditioning and video system would come at the price of our souls. I didn't care any more – I was ready to make a deal with the devil.
A few weeks later, we picked up a grey Honda Odyssey minivan. It even had a trailer hitch, so we could tow my ultralight plane.
A new world opened up. We took an epic journey across eastern North America, with our kids, one of their friends and my wife's mother – in the Odyssey, there was room for them all. Back in town, we ferried my son and his friends to hockey rinks, learning about the national game through the conversations of the boys.
We loaded the van with toboggans, building supplies and junk that needed to get hauled away. It carried my daughter and five friends to a concert, and it towed my ultralight to Georgia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia. I flew everywhere, assembling my little plane wherever I could find an airport or a decent field.
By the time we got back to Ontario, my wife had gone from minivan skeptic to evangelist, telling friends to forget about how they looked and think about function (the most authentic style of all).
I pulled into the office parking lot one day to find myself next to a friend who had a minivan identical to my own. We both laughed. I remembered when we had both hungered for sports cars. Now we were piloting matching symbols of our middle-aged status. I didn't care any more. My only regret was not buying the Odyssey five years before. I had learned to stop worrying and love the minivan.
And then things changed again, as they have a way of doing. My daughter was in university, and my son had his licence – he drove himself to hockey games now. For years, the back of the minivan had been packed with kids and in-laws. Now it had fallen silent. And I had nothing to tow any more – my ultralight had been sold to help pay down a house renovation.
I put the Odyssey in the classifieds. It sold to a guy who resembled a previous iteration of myself – he had a compact sedan, two young children and a wife who didn't want a minivan. She looked on with distaste as her husband wrote me a cheque.
And then the Odyssey rolled away for the last time. I've always hated parting with a car, but this one hurt more than most. Our minivan journey was over. And what a ride it was.