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I drive an old car. It turns heads. It’s not an antique or a special model but its boxy station-wagon shape and two-tone blue-grey paint make it stand out as a senior citizen on the roads.
People are genuinely nice to me when I drive this car. They wave me in to merge. They let me cut in rather than inching forward to freeze me out. They smile and wave back when I yield for them. Perhaps the car reminds them of a simpler automotive time.
The car is not perfect, of course. It’s very old for a car: 1991. My kid’s classroom teacher was born the same year it was made. The seatbelts are starting to fray and they don’t retract all the way when you unbuckle them. The seals around the doors are imperfect so there’s always a little whistle of air coming in. In the winter, the hatchback doesn’t stay up. You have to hold it up while filling the trunk with groceries or it will drop down on your head. In the summer it works fine; it just doesn’t like the cold. But the engine on our old Corolla likes the cold just fine. It starts every time.
Sometimes the doors stop working. Once, during a cold snap, the only door that would open was the hatchback so I crawled in through the trunk, over the back seats and into the driver’s seat. I’m proud of the car and embarrassed by the car at the same time. I’m proud that it works. I’m proud that I don’t need a fancier model. I’m embarrassed when I have to shake hands with my client and then walk past my car and wait until he leaves before I can circle back and crawl in through the trunk.
One summer, for about a week, the doors reversed themselves so that the only door that wouldn’t open was the hatchback. The kids and I were coming home from a camping trip and immediately repacking to go to a cottage. I had to flip the back seats down and load everything in and out (and in again and out again) over the back seat, planning carefully since nothing could be retrieved without taking the kids out and flattening their seats. Without explanation, all five doors now open and close perfectly.
The car is more than twice as old as my children, which means that most of their friends have never seen anything like it on the roads. When I drive their friends around they are entirely perplexed that I have to first unlock my own door, then get in, then lean across the seat to pull up the lock on their door before they can get in. They are used to lunging for a door handle the moment they hear the unlocking chirp from the key fob. “Can you please lower my window?” they ask innocently from the back seat. “Nope. I can’t. But you can do it yourself.” After a few uncertain moments, the friend leans over to my kid and whispers, “How?” My kid will point to the window crank and demonstrate. One time, a friend opened his door while I was driving (not fast). He was shocked, pulled it shut and looked terrified. He never dreamed that any of the levers or cranks on his door would actually respond to him. He’d spent his life in a child-locked backseat safety-bubble.
These days, cars assume all sorts of things. They sense the outdoor temperature and heat the windshield. They dim or brighten the headlights according to outside conditions. They feel the road, they see behind them, they take on all kinds of tasks that we used to assign to the driver.
My father’s newer car became very alarmed when I drove it down the narrow alley leading to my garage. It assumed I’d made a terrible mistake and yelped, “Approaching object!” while displaying an image of the car with ouch-marks projecting from the front right bumper. Our car drives silently and passively down the same alley routinely. If its right bumper were to graze the wall (which it doesn’t), it would do so without warning and without admonishing the driver. It would simply take the bump. It’s a bumper.
Our car assumes nothing. It responds, but it does nothing more. If you push the button for windshield-washer fluid, then windshield-washer fluid sprays up. That’s it. If you want windshield-washer fluid and you also want the windshield wipers to turn on and spread the fluid around, then you should have said so and turned the wipers on as well. If you want the dashboard lights on, you turn them on. Shifting gears, locking and unlocking doors, defogging the windshield, remembering to turn the lights off again; you do it all yourself. The car does not coddle.
Given its lack of internal comforts, the car is no longer pleasant to take on long trips. We decided recently to rent a car for a longer family trip. The rental was an absurd bright yellow cube-shaped thing but the inside was a cushioned pleasure. Doors that seal! We could all hear the audio book! Nothing rattled above 110 kilometres an hour. We zipped along, barely aware of our speed. As much as I enjoyed the smooth ride I felt a twinge of guilt for the old car back home. It was like bringing home a new puppy and then taking it out for a long walk while the old dog lies watching through the window.
The car is now 27 years old. Every time we take it in to have something checked or fixed, I hold my breath, wondering if the mechanic will tell me it’s time. But he has predicted its demise before and the car keeps going. If it lasts another few years, our kids can learn to drive it and acquire what I still think are essential driving skills. Perhaps they’ll never need them if self-driving cars are coming as quickly as they appear to be. But I like the idea of teaching them to drive a car that doesn’t think for itself; one that still needs its driver.
Leah Birnbaum lives in Toronto.