Thursday, 20 March 2008

Goodbye, Old Pal

Yesterday, our car died. Spectacularly, and in the line of duty.

My husband and I were only a few miles from home, on our way to the big town for a clinic appointment and perhaps to do some shopping. An elderly Vauxhall we bought secondhand in 2001, our car has been showing signs of age and making a shrill, protesting whee whee whee sound in low gear that our kids can now imitate with eerie perfection. We were overjoyed and amazed when it passed its annual road test last year, but deep down inside we knew its demise was near; despite repeated trips to a mechanic, the engine light has flickered on and off for the past eight months.

Quite suddenly, the car began to make an entirely different sound: first a whap, whap, whap -- giving us hope that it might be something annoying but innocuous like a faulty fan belt -- then an ominous clunking junk-a-junk-a-junk as black smoke began to billow out of the tailpipe. Miraculously, we were within a few minutes of the car's doctor, a local mechanic. Heads turned as we limped along in second gear, our car's dying voice now an agitated thump-thumpa-thump. Everyone knew where we were headed.

We've been in denial over the possibility of our car giving out. Since New Years, we've been having rotten luck with machines: first, a computer exploded on us, then our audio system refused to produce the right sort of sound. Before Christmas, the seal broke on our washing machine, requiring the judicious placement of a dish towel to prevent leaks, and our oven, like the stove top, must now be lit manually, the person lighting it on all fours, one hand thrust into the bowels of the beast, the other stretched in the opposite direction, to simultaneously press and turn the gas knob. Our vacuum cleaner bit the dust ages back and only does its job with grudging inefficiency, and don't get me started on the blender.

I am a Luddite. I hate machines. I don't even want a computer, and I resent feeling as though I have to have things because everyone else does. The more energy things use or the trendier they are, the more I loathe them: I have never owned a tumble drier; I towel my hair dry, generally ignore my iron, and up to this point, have managed to resist buying a cell phone. But although I walk, cycle, and take the bus whenever possible, I have given in on the car. We have to have one. We don't have to use it for little trips all the time, but we do really need one just the same. And I'm not ashamed to say it: over the years, I fell in love with ours.

I'm not a car conscious person. I once had a boyfriend who drove a fancy sports car (if I could remember the name, I'm sure you'd be impressed), and I didn't even realize what a big deal it was until after we broke up. I've never cared one way or the other what sort of car others have; never even cared whether they had one. But this car, with its rattling doors, ugly grey upholstery, and dull-as-dust blue paint, this car has won my heart. Sure, the gears have always stuck a little, the acceleration is crap, and it has to be locked manually -- a real pain for arthritic old fingertips. It's the sort of car you see everywhere, so it's not even special. Notice how I'm using the present tense? Because I can't bear to think it's really gone.

That car has driven us all over the U.K., from Somerset straight up to the Highlands. It's taken us to France and back twice now, proudly sporting a UK sticker on its tail, waited patiently by the side of country lanes while we scrambled about looking for blackberries and collecting grasshoppers with the kids, had its wing mirrors and antennae savaged by the local youths, and been our little refuge from the elements on countless occasions.

"Dad, can we go back the pretty way?" a kid would murmur wistfully, and my husband would turn onto a side road and drive us carefully, respectfully through a forest of aging oaks. We would gasp as an owl suddenly fluttered overhead or a deer stepped quietly out of the mist. Our car was a warm, snug little coccoon. "I feel so happy and safe in this car," our youngest once said.

And now, here we were, listening to the mechanic tell us our car was nothing but a piece of junk. I stood there with my hand resting on its side, willing myself not to cry. I remembered stepping out of the car after passing my road test. How my husband, seeing my astonished, over-wrought expression, had given me a sympathetic smile, which quickly changed to an expression of astonishment as I gave him a triumphant thumbs-up. I remembered my first successful hill start; the first time I backed the car out of a muddy ditch; my recent trip with our eldest to Stirling and back.

That car was my very first car, and now it's gone. And I am convinced that it had, if not a soul, something like one.

Because it could have been so much worse. The car could have died the night I drove my daughter back from Edinburgh, in the midst of a sleet storm. We could have stood there freezing, shuddering as the road gritters sprayed gravel over the soon-to- freeze highway, waiting for help. It could have played out when we were on the motorway, passing one of those huge articulated lorries, or the day we rushed my youngest to the hospital for a broken arm. Instead, it picked a tame road on a sunny day, a convenient distance from its mechanic, when we were using it for no pressing errand.

I can't believe I'm mourning a car, but I am, so there it is. Our Vauxhall did us proud, folks. May it drink deeply from the great petrol bowl in the sky.

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26 comments:

Carole said...

This is such a fun post. You make me want to like a vehicle. I'll try to be kinder to mine.

Seung said...

I know what you mean. I had a 1983 Mercury Capri in high school. Honestly, it was the biggest piece of junk in the world. The roof would leak when it rained, I couldn't see out the back with the rearview mirror, and it felt like it was going to blow up when I went faster than 40 mph, but I absolutely loved that car. When it finally broke down, my dad bought a brand new car and it was nice and all but it wasn't the same.

Danette Haworth said...

Wonderful ode to the car. I felt the same way once when I bought a spiffy, hardly used car and the salesman asked me for the keys to my old car. I wasn't ready to say goodbye! I felt sad as I watched some guy drive it away from me.

Mum'sTheWord said...

Wow, I've never felt remotely close to a car but I think I just fell in love with yours!

I have a bit of Luddite in me, too - my mother forced a mobile phone on me (as a birthday present! grrr) years after everyone else had bought one. As for the iron - what iron??

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I'm glad you thought this was a fun post. I felt pretty mournful as I wrote it, and I couldn't get over how dumb that was, but I couldn't get over feeling it just the same. Be good to your car, though, by all means! It won't last forever...

Seung -- Thank you for commenting on my blog! Your 1983 Mercury Capri sounds like a super car, and I am heartened to know that you understand how I feel! Whatever car we end up getting just won't replace our old one.

Danette -- I really had to steel myself not to cry. I kept thinking of all the times our car has driven triumphantly away from the garage, ready to burn rubber through another day. Only to arrive at the end of its road. Oh God, I'm doing it again...

Mum'sTheWord -- Thanks for coming to comment, and rest assured that I don't usually write schmaltzy posts about cars. I'm glad to know that you only got your mobile recently, and I have a lot of time for women who can't be bothered to iron. And come to think of it, I have a lot of time for men who can.

Kim Ayres said...

Any idea what next?

Charlie said...

I can't believe I'm mourning a car . . .

I believe it. I had a 1995 Ford Explorer that I loved and, in 2006, was still in mint condition. Until a woman on a cell phone (grrr) smashed into the back of me and broke the frame, "totaling" it in insurance-speak.

The insurance company paid me $6,000 (they probably made triple on the parts), but I cried the day the wrecker came and I handed the keys to the driver.

It's the only machine I've ever felt an attachment to, except for my automatic back scratcher.

Seung said...

haha I think it might be because I get all my good ideas in the morning and by the time my classes and work is over with, my brain has seen a lot more information. But then, I keep forgetting to carry a notepad with me so.. yeah I think I just have really bad memory.

Kanani said...

Well, I need a new car, too. In fact, the other day I had to call the tow truck, and while I was seething at the curb I tried it again. It worked.

As far as other appliances go, I'm not very sentimental about these. I go and buy one immediately, not wasting any time putting up with something that doesn't work. I've found second hand shops great for all the gadgetry, and I'm not above even taking a discarded sofa from the neighbor!

debra said...

First cars are kind of like first loves, aren't they. Mine was a Dodge Dart-----purple. They had a problem with the paint that year, and it peeled off the roof like a bad sunburn. Like you, I drove her until she wouldn't go any farther. When I asked the mechanic what he could do, he grinned and said, "Shoot it."
I cried.
Maybe Eryl could get you a van......

Kara said...

you'll love your next one to. really, it's hard not to love anything that carries you to where you most want to go.

The Quoibler said...

Greeting card companies really need to create the perfect line for this occasion:

******************

An oil change...
A fill-up...
A wiper replacement...

In your grief, remember the simple pleasures you had with your four-wheeled friend.

******************

Or something like that... Can you tell I don't write for Hallmark?

In all seriousness, I can understand your feelings toward the car. I have several machines around our house that are "handicapped", but I love them and am not ready to let them go.

Angelique

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- We've already had a spin in a W-reg Skoda, and we've heard from someone who's trying to flog a Y-reg Citroen. But they just aren't the saaaame!

Charlie -- I really do sympathize. It's bad to lose a brand new car, but it's almost sadder to lose one that you've lovingly kept in good condition. And for what it's worth, I would NEVER use a cell phone while driving. Number one, I just don't have that kind of coordination. Number two, I don't have a cell phone.

Do you know, when I first read this, I thought 'Cool! An automatic backscratcher!' I really am too credulous for my own good.

Seung -- Having a bad memory is just a laugh when you're 18. Add a couple of decades to that and it's no laughing matter.

Kanani -- My sympathies. We need a car here, for sure, but in L.A., you REALLY need a car, and you can't afford to have one that stalls.

As for secondhand furniture, not only am I not above taking it, I'm not above bragging about it. Before the bubble burst, the Japanese used to throw out really great things. We happily carted home old chests and tea tables and are using them still.

Debra -- My first love didn't do half so much for me as that car did...

I am so glad to hear that I'm not the only one who has cried to lose her car! The mechanic yesterday kept glancing at me as though I was insane. I've already been dubbed the weird Yank; this isn't going to help matters much.

I love the sound of a car that sheds purple paint!

Kara -- I know I will. But it will take a long time to build that relationship, and I will never, ever forget the one that just died!

Angelique -- I love the idea of a Hallmark sympathy card for those who have lost cars! I would love to write that sort of copy, but I'm guessing there isn't much of a market for this. Not that there aren't a lot of sentimental slobs like me, but most people have the sense to hide this sort of thing.

Four-wheeled friend: I just love that!

The Anti-Wife said...

I name all my cars, but like most of my ex-boyfriends I grow tired of them and want a newer, better, faster model with more bells and whistles so I trade them in.

I've had my Honda CRV for 6 years now - a long time for me - and I love it, but when I took it in for service last month I swear a 2008 model winked at me. Hold me back!

A Paperback Writer said...

Just how old was this car? And is this brand not long-lasting? I drove a 1966 VW Beetle until 1993 and then a VW Fox (new in 1993) until 2006 when I decided it was in my best interest to stop repairing the old car an buy a new one.
My friend Max and I just made a long road trip in his 1970 Ford (which he also drove from CA to Utah when he bought the thing last summer).
So did the car really die, or was it just too expensive to fix anymore?
I hated it when I had to sell my 66 Beetle to a fellow who could continually repair the axel supports which kept rusting through. And he felt horrible when a lady ran a red light and totalled the car (fortunately, he had only minor inuries). It was much like having a pet die.
In fact, that car was imortalized among my students and my current car is named after the old one. The original was named Ringo (Beetle/Beatle get it? Hey, I was 16 in 1982 when I aquired the car.) and my current 2006 NewBeetle is Ringo Junior (Junior for short).
So, my sympathies on losing a pet car. I never felt connected to my Fox, but the Beetles are things I love...
Oh, one more car story: during my undergrad years, I had a friend named Jennifer who had a 1970 mud brown Pinto (you know, the kind that exploded into flame if rear-ended). It was so horrible that she called it the Anti-Christ. And we all agreed.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

I've read that, when a car gets really old, after it's said goodbye to its owners, it heads off on its own, squeaking the many, many miles to a secret place that only the cars know: the car graveyard. There they rub their fenders gently along the tires and engines of their long dead relatives, sigh, and lie down at last, to their eternal rest.

I sobbed and sobbed in the early 80s when we got rid of the old blue cortina we'd had since I was born, and treacherously traded it in for a brown sierra. I could never bring myself to like the sierra much until we had to trade that one in for a blue sierra.

I like to think they're all smiling down on me now.

Mary Witzl said...

Anti-wife -- From time to time, I too have noticed sleeker, ritzier models, but I have always turned my eye away from them. Part of me felt unfaithful to our car, and part of me knew they were out of our reach. Now I look at them and cannot imagine that I could ever own one. Gee, there is something eerily similar to spouses and cars, isn't there? Funny how I never noticed that before...

APW -- It was (sniff!) an R-reg. We bought the car used in 2001; before we had it, it belonged to someone who was disabled and I believe he had it for three years. But the car was more than just an age!

We too had a 1966 VW beetle, and it was wonderful. My father bought the car new, and my sister inherited it. She foolishly left it overnight in an iffy neighborhood once, and it got picked clean as a carcass in a desert. Poor little car; it would have kept going for ages, no doubt. There is something very endearing about the look of a VW bug, though I understand they aren't great cars to be in when you have a collision.

And yes, I remember those Pintos! I wouldn't have trusted one after some of the things I heard. Or at least not unless I'd managed to fall in love with it first...

Sam -- Yes, you understand! Though I like to picture them being gently and lovingly tended by a fellow in Bermuda shorts plying a hose, buffing them down afterwards with a soft chamois and rubbing Turtle Wax into their no-longer shiny paint jobs.

We just saw the third Harry Potter movie, and I picture your blue Cortina as something like the car that gets attacked by the whomping willow. Rusty and old, yes, but lovable and dependable in your time of need.

God, I can't believe I'm writing this. Worse still, I can't believe I'm believing it. But I swear, I have tears in my eyes...

Kappa no He said...

You've got that strange machine-breaking-disease too! If mine passed away, I don't know what I'd do...they're so expensive just to dispose of.

I agree whole-heartedly about the iron and tumble dryer!

ChristineEldin said...

I'm glad your family is safe. Because all those other scenarios could have happened.

We are very similar in some ways--(I air-dry my hair and Heh heh I rarely iron clothes!) I could forego many of the machines about the house (except the washing machine). But I do love cars. Nothing beats a good road trip.

I hope you find a suitable car soon. Sorry though....

-eve- said...

> Our car was a warm, snug little coccoon. "I feel so happy and safe in this car," our youngest once said. And now, here we were, listening to the mechanic tell us our car was nothing but a piece of junk. I stood there with my hand resting on its side, willing myself not to cry

Wow... it's like so many memories are tied up in that car that a part of you is left with it...

Kanani said...

Well, today I'm taking the MTA into Hollywood to see some friends. This way I don't have to wonder if my car will quit enroute.

The car is looking horrible. It has a crumpled left quarter panel --the kids dad drove it into a cement parking post --thank you very much. Have yet to fix it as I can't be without a car and don't want to rent one.

Anyway, happy easter and all that!

Christy said...

Only the most loyal of cars breaks down near the mechanics. RIP Vauxhall. And may your next car be as kind to you.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- I definitely have this, and I have it badly. I often think, though, that it is better to have this than the 'crash your car, buy another one' mentality. The world would be a better place if we lovingly tended our possessions instead of trashing and replacing them frequently.

Christine -- Yay, another person who doesn't use a hair drier! On my rare trips back to California, I'm always amazed to see people using tumble driers on the sunniest, windiest days. If they spent 10 minutes pegging out their laundry, it would be dry in less than an hour for a minimal investment of time and energy. Instead, they use a huge amount of energy, and the time savings is not all the great. But I am on my soap box again... I take my hat off to the people who do entirely without cars, but I dearly love a good road trip myself from time to time!

Eve -- It's true, though: I feel as though a whole chapter of our life has closed. Silly, isn't it -- to be attached to things?

Kanani -- A friend of mine once had a really good car (a Volvo) that he kept in not-so-great shape, body wise. He argued that this made the car a less attractive theft prospect. Think of yours that way! I always loved the part in Beverley Hills Cop where the Eddy Murphy character tells the snobby hotel doorman to park his beat-up car carefully because it got messed up the last time he parked it at their hotel. I would love to be able to do that some day: drive a thoroughly awful car to a fancy place and admonish the staff to treat it with respect.

Christy -- I agree, and I feel like crying whenever I think of that! know our poor little car waited until just the right moment before deciding to give up the ghost. All the truly dangerous times it could have conked out on us, and it chose that one...

Eryl Shields said...

My old Vauxhall eventually gave up the ghost too, I gave it to a friend who had an even older one so he could swap parts around. I now have a little VW Polo but it's not the same, it's too slow and there's no room in the boot. Still, it's beginning to smell right now. I really hate that showroom smell.

Good luck with finding a new one, it won't be the same but it will get you where you want to go.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Was your Vauxhall as dependable as ours? We really had very little trouble with it, so when the mechanic stood there saying mean things about our car's engine, etc., I felt almost ashamed of myself for not defending it more passionately. All I could do was pat our car and murmur, "She's been good to us."

Ironically, I like that rubbery new car smell. But I agree: the new one won't be the same.

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