The first thing that caught my eye was the car: a Chrysler K-car, early 1980s. Hard to pin down exactly; when they came on the market, they sold like the cheap hotcakes they were, reliable buckets that changed little, if at all, from year to year. They aimed low with the wow factor, but that platform played a huge role in saving Chrysler's butt at the time.
The next thing I noticed was the older guy wrapped around the steering wheel. Intent on watching the light, he'd pushed the plaid arms of his work shirt up; he was chewing gum, the deep recesses in the folds of his weathered face changing as he did. He pushed up bushy eyebrows several times to gaze at the light – it's a side street and it takes a while sometimes.
The car was burgundy red, the topcoat long since worn away. Outwardly, that was the only sign of age on the car. I could be wrong, but I knew he had bought that car and hung on to it all these years. Maybe that car had been his 50th birthday present to himself. He reminded me of my dad, and if my dad had been able to get 30 years out of a single car, he would have thought he'd won the lottery.
I love seeing original owners with their cars. I like stories of people wondering why you wouldn't take care of something so expensive – they do – and why you would get rid of something a little dated – they don't.
A friend recently had to give up a 1994 Intrepid. He didn't want to. Nearly everything on it had failed or was threatening to, but he believed, every time he got into it, that with a little coaxing and patience every trip would be the penultimate one. What if you surrendered it one trip too soon?
These people are the polar opposite of the must-haves – must have the latest, the fastest, the most expensive. Those people are good for the car industry; those people are, in fact, the lifeblood of the car industry. If you can sell a car to someone only once every three decades it means your ad campaigns are falling on deaf ears.
My old guy suited his K-car. They looked like they'd been together forever. I wondered what would happen to that car when he passed, and thought about friends who have inherited cars from late parents at various stages of their lives.
I've seen some driving cars they hate but it was too expensive to get out of the lease. Mom may have wanted that Saturn, and she may have loved it, but now you're driving it. I've said before: If you see someone younger than 40 driving a Buick, tell them you're sorry for their recent loss.
I've had people question why their father's perfectly maintained 15-year-old car isn't a collector's item, and worth a fortune. The fact is, it's special to you because Mom chose the colour and it may have been the first car she bought with air conditioning. But on a buyer's stat sheet, in most cases it's just a dated car.
We didn't have a second car until I was in high school. Then we had the good car and the old car. My father would drive the old car, no matter what. If I needed a ride after school somewhere, I'd pray it was Mom coming to get me or else Dad would be out front of the school in the '66 black Rambler. He frequently had the hood up, trying to get it started again. I'd pretend I didn't see him; he'd holler over. He'd bark that I was lucky I was getting a ride at all, and it was better than walking. We'd lurch along, my friends walking faster than we were driving. But he was getting one more trip out of old Betsy, dammit. And that's the way you keep a car.
He'd go to the cottage on his own, and say he was taking the old car. Mom would beg him to take the new one for safety, and we'd beg him to take the old one so we wouldn't have to drive in it. We were selfish children, but mom didn't understand that, for my dad, taking that Rambler there and back was a victory. Some people run marathons; some climb mountains; my father had an emotional connection to a metal box and believed he could will it into action.
My friend watched his Intrepid head off to its new home, with a mechanic who wanted a winter project. Regardless of the fact he's excited to have a new ride, I know he'll kick himself if he actually sees his old car driving around again.
My father took no such chances. When Betsy was officially retired, he cannibalized it down to the seat springs for his "workshop."
If he couldn't drive her, nobody could.
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