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Author Peter Cheney's son Will with the family's Honda Civic, waiting for the tow truck that will haul it to the scrap yard after 14 years of duty as the family car. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)
Author Peter Cheney's son Will with the family's Honda Civic, waiting for the tow truck that will haul it to the scrap yard after 14 years of duty as the family car. (Peter Cheney for The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

You can have a nice car. Or kids. But not both Add to ...

You can have a perfect car. And you can have kids. But you can't have both.

This epiphany came to me as I examined our once-pristine Honda Accord, which now resembles a suit of armour worn by a soldier on the losing side at the Battle of Hastings.

I remembered a time when I used to wax the Honda by hand and anoint its perfect interior with Scotchgard and Armor All. But those days are now a distant memory. Our car is now like Keith Richards - track-marked, scarred, yet somehow still functioning, its story catalogued in a vast collection of scrapes, stains, and rust lesions.

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There's a new gouge in the bumper that looks like it was made with a tomahawk. I have no idea where that one came from, but when you have a teenager, all bets are off. Once upon a time, this gouge would have made me crazy. But now I don't really care. I have gone through the stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work: On Death And Dying, and am now on the final lap of my trashed-car journey: Acceptance.

The last immaculate car I remember owning was the Volkswagen Jetta my wife and I bought before our wedding in 1984. I tuned the Jetta myself, and changed the oil every 2,500 kilometres. I washed and polished it each weekend, using carnauba wax and fresh towels.

To me, a clean, well-maintained car was both an expression of self and a sign of social order. I liked machines and systems that worked, and people who knew how to make them that way. We weren't rich, but I did have mechanical knowledge - I once worked as a VW and Porsche mechanic - and my toolbox was filled with Snap-On wrenches (they cost a lot, but they were better for your car).

When our daughter arrived in 1986, I tried to maintain the same automotive standards as the pre-baby era. How hard could it be? I bought a set of seat covers, lined the trunk with a blanket so the stroller wouldn't scratch the metalwork, and kept up the weekend maintenance sessions. But as we tooled along on Highway 401 one day, our daughter projectile vomited what appeared to be the entire contents of her stomach, coating the interior of the Jetta with a thin coating of partially digested baby food.

Two days of interior disassembly and solvent-based cleaners returned the Jetta to near-showroom condition. But a week later, a friend's toddler pushed a stroller against the Jetta's fender, inflicting a long gouge that took most of a weekend to fill, paint and buff.

Looking back, I can see that I was in Stage Two - Denial. (In the Kubler-Ross model, this is synopsized as "this can't be happening, not to me.") Psychologically, this stage offers a temporary defence from the horror of what's actually happening - in my case, the steady ruination of my car.

Although I never liked obsessive car nuts, I had to confess that I was one. In my early 20s, I spent nearly a year rebuilding a 1967 Volkswagen. By the time I was finished, it was better than the day it emerged from the factory, with mass-balanced pistons that made the engine miraculously smooth, and a body so perfect that light reflected from it like a diamond.

Then my girlfriend ran the Volkswagen into a tree. She broke her arm, but that would heal. I knew that my car would never be the same. I'd prided myself on the fact that the Beetle had no body filler beneath the paint, and that the chassis was dimensionally perfect. After it came out of the repair shop, the hood and fenders had telltale ripples that a car connoisseur could spot instantly, and the steering geometry was slightly off thanks to the tweaked chassis. I sold the Beetle, broke up with my girlfriend, and began looking for a new project car.

I had entered Stage Three - Anger.

By my 30s, I had two kids and a fantastic wife. Despite her many strengths, which included brains, beauty and a great career, my wife was no automotive perfectionist. If she was eating a banana in the car, she might drop the peel on the floor, and she was saw nothing wrong with putting her feet up on the dash or setting a coffee cup on the freshly waxed hood. This created some friction, but I did my best to keep the car clean without haranguing her. But it was a lot of work. I installed two trash bins and kept a Zip-Loc bag filled with cleaning supplies in the trunk.

I had progressed to Stage Four - Bargaining.

We had sold the Jetta to make way for a four-door Civic that would be easier for the kids. Thanks to my meticulous maintenance, the Jetta fetched top dollar, and I was determined to keep up my standards with the Civic. But I could feel myself slipping. I went a couple of weekends without cleaning or waxing. The weeks turned into months, but what could I do? I was working all the time, and we were raising two small children. Our lives were like the blowing calendar pages in an old movie, a blurred montage of daycare pickups, ballet lessons, hockey games and school concerts.

My ban on eating in the car had long since been rescinded. Now the floors were covered with cracker crumbs, food wrappers and broken toys. The seats were a patchwork of stains - I'd given up on seat covers. And I didn't do my own oil changes or tune-ups any more. Instead, I just dropped off the car at the dealer.

You don't have to be a psychiatrist to realize that I was now in the Depression stage, where the dominant feeling is "what's the point?"

The Civic had the patina of a well-used shovel. When my son hit it with a street hockey puck I didn't even wince.

I was in car buff hell. So were most of my friends. Their cars were like rolling Chuck E. Cheese franchises, hammered and eroded by the relentless forces of childhood destruction. One bought home his brand-new minivan, only to have his daughter etch a dinosaur on the side of it with a piece of gravel.

I still had occasional flashbacks to my glory days of high-performance driving and beautiful cars. One afternoon, I found myself on the Forks of the Credit Road in my Civic. There were no kids in the back, no diapers to change, and no birthday party to prepare for. It was just me, the Civic and a twisting road. I dropped down two gears and accelerated, savouring a few minutes of corner carving…. but wait, what was that smell? I pulled over, rooted through the back seat, and found a decomposing McDonald's Happy Meal wedged into the cushions.

We've owned four more cars since then, and each has been sacrificed to the gods of child rearing. Our Civic was a four-wheeled Jesus, suffering for our sins. I didn't bat an eye at loading it up with lumber for a construction project and, if one of the kids spilled a milkshake, well, them's the breaks. After 14 years of faithful service, it was a rusted, brutalized relic that had to be hauled out of our alley by a tow truck.

The kids have turned out well. The cars haven't. And I'm okay with it. That's what happens when you reach Stage Five. I have accepted.

Or maybe I've been cured. I am Peter Cheney, and I was an automotive perfectionist. This was my story.

*****

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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