There were many excellent reasons to marry the woman who is now my wife. Her family’s taste in cars wasn’t one of them.
Our first date showed me what I was up against: in the driveway was her parent’s K-car, a powder-blue Dodge Reliant. Behind it were three more just like it. Everyone in the family appeared to have the same vehicle – a car that always made my personal list of the saddest, worst-built vehicles of all time.
The K-car was the polyester leisure suit of the car world, a tinny, badge-engineered knock-off that made a mockery of the once-great Chrysler corporation. Now I was starting a relationship with a woman whose family appeared to own an entire fleet.
For a dyed-in-the-wool sports car guy, this was test of faith – I felt like a Jesuit priest who had moved into a heathen encampment. I wasn’t really a car snob, but a K-car was pushing it. Oh well. Marian was awesome, and aside from the cars, I really liked her family. And that was easily changed – I’d help them buy something better. Or so I thought.
In fact, it would be 23 years before the last K-car was exorcised from the Beare family driveway. With Marian, I wasn’t just getting a wife – I was embarking on a lifelong lesson on brand loyalty, consumer psychology and family dynamics.
As I soon learned, the Beare family operated on tradition. They had attended the same Presbyterian church for three generations. Marian’s father, Ron, was an opera singer who believed that no music worthy of consideration had been composed since the 19th century. Her mother, Marjorie, went to the same hairdresser every week. And when the Beares bought a car, it was invariably a Chrysler, purchased from the same Halifax dealer they had dealt with since the Second World War.
“There are better cars,” I told Marjorie. “Maybe you should try something else.”
“We always get Chrysler,” she replied. And with that, the matter was closed – and when Marjorie closed a matter, it was irrevocably and stubbornly closed. (Her family lineage appeared to have more than a trace of mule in it.)
Marjorie’s loyalty to Chrysler was forged by her father, who had been driving the brand since the Great Depression. He told her that it was the best, and Marjorie was still adhering to that long-ago dictum, despite considerable evidence to the contrary (like failed head gaskets, leaking radiators and carburetors that gargled both gasoline and cleaning fluid like drunks).
When it was time for Ron and Marjorie to get a new car, I presented them with the latest statistics from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power – the K-car was at the bottom of their rankings. They looked at the pages with glazed eyes, then went down to the dealer and bought another K-car.
As I was learning, logic and research meant little to Marjorie.
Some of you may have read a previous story about the time she ordered me to move a used sofa into her basement, even though the measuring tape clearly showed that it wouldn’t fit. I tried to convince her that it was a bad idea, but her mule blood was up. So I tried anyway – and the sofa got wedged into the basement stairway in what reminded me of the furniture-moving equivalent of a breech birth. I spent two days ripping out and rebuilding the stairs and basement wall.
Although I cursed her at the time, I did have to admit that there was a certain genius to Marjorie’s plan. The mission wasn’t really about getting a used sofa – it was about seeing whether a prospective son-in-law could put up with the frustrations and imperfections that real life so often entails.
As a former VW-Porsche mechanic, I tended to have fairly fixed ideas about what would work, and what wouldn’t. I believed in measuring tapes, maintenance manuals and reliability surveys. But maybe there was something I wasn’t seeing yet. And Marjorie would show me something about measurements and K-cars.
A great marriage consolidates two houses and makes them stronger by offering offsetting strengths. And so it was with Marian and I – at least in theory.
The Cheneys had been tone deaf for generations, but were superb at dealing with machinery. The Beares had music in their souls, but were utterly inept when it came to mechanical matters (Ron could play a Chopin etude from memory, but needed instructions to screw in a light bulb).
And so when it came to choosing cars, facts and figures were meaningless to Marjorie and Ron, in the same way that a Bach score was meaningless to me. Their car buying decisions were guided by a process not unlike the one that ancient civilizations used to judge someone accused of witchcraft – they depended on the dictums of their ancestors, plus plenty of superstition.
And so the K-cars continued. After Ron died of a heart attack in 1991, Marjorie lived alone, and kept the last K-car they got together (powder blue, of course). When it was on its last legs, I tried to talk her into looking at something different, like a Honda Civic. But I could tell it went against her grain.
She grew up in the heyday of the American car, and she still clung to Detroit iron in general, and to Chrysler in particular. So she got yet another K-car. The wheel bearings failed, the radiator blew up, and the fabric headliner detached, giving the interior the look of a sagging tent – yet Marjorie remained convinced that it was the cream of the car crop. That’s what her father had told her, and it remained an article of faith.
Ten years later, Marjorie remarried in a full church wedding at the age of 76. Her second husband was a retired executive named Jack Bone who had grown up with Marjorie in Halifax. (They had crushes on each other back in grade school.) Jack was straight out of the Mad Men era, and drove a navy-blue Chevrolet Caprice Classic with a V-8 engine and a hood the size of a snooker table. Jack and Marjorie drove around in the Caprice, snuggled against each other like teenagers on the broad bench seat. (I think they climbed in the back sometimes, too, but I didn’t want to think about that.)
In the summer of 2002, Marjorie decided it was time for a new car. It had been almost 20 years since I met her, and I was now resigned to the fact that she’d automatically buy another Chrysler. But something had changed. She decided to look at a Chev. Then, throwing caution to the wind, she test drove a Toyota and a Honda.
When Marjorie bought the Honda, I couldn’t believe it. It was like learning that the Pope had decided to convert to Judaism. But there she was, in a green Accord. She drove it for the next five years, and she loved it. (Just as the Consumer Reports and J.D. Power statistics had predicted, nothing ever went wrong.)
Marjorie died in 2007 in a household fall. By then, we had become incredibly close. For 23 summers in a row, my wife and I drove to Nova Scotia with the kids to see her. We all made fun of her, but she took it with great humour, and even laughed herself. The K-cars had been a staple of the family roasts, and I actually missed them – a Honda Accord isn’t a great target of derision. Something was gone.
After Marjorie’s funeral, my wife and I bought her Honda from the estate and drove it back to Toronto. We still have it, and that worn green Accord is a constant reminder of how I finally changed Marjorie’s mind. But first, she changed me. I miss Marjorie. And I miss the K-cars, too.
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Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/