My Kentucky-bred father tried to pass on his legacy, “buy a used car and drive it till it’s dead,” to me. He believed new automobiles were extravagant unbroken stallions and old cars were affordable conditioned mules. As if it were yesterday-and not the previous millennium-I remember him calling out from beneath the hood of our latest, most hideous used car, “Nancy! Git yer head under here!”
After a blast of heat thickened with acrid smoke melted my face, he said, “If you’re driving and the car breaks down, you need to know what to do.” Well, thank God for guardian angels like Dad. Many economic cars built in the 1960s and 1970s were unreliable rattletraps or went up in a blaze of fire-new or old.
Dad fiddled with the spark plugs, jiggled the carburetor butterfly valve-swore, stomped, and pounded. I had no problem remembering car parts because they all had the same name. No matter what corroded chunk of something Dad pointed to, he’d say, “That’s the son-of-a-b*tch.”
After a successful repair, or a temporary fix, or the perilous “it’s running,” Dad stressed, “It’s cheaper to fix ‘um than buy new.” Fortunately, God gave me guardian angels with wings, too.
Soon after becoming a licensed driver, I bought a neglected 1964 Chevy Nova for $250. Its faded color resembled dying vegetation so, to perk up its appearance, I painted fluorescent orange peace signs on the hub caps. I also covered its rust blight with putty blight and spent time under the hood handing Dad tools with the same name as the car parts.
The Nova sputtered, clattered, and rattled, but my carless friends never minded. If I had to brake at an intersection, they’d yell, “Go, go, go! Don’t stop!” Because, if I stopped, I had to leap out, raise the hood, and yank the linkage rod to shift gears again.
When the Nova floundered, Dad revived it with mostly junkyard parts. He converted its column shifter into a floor shifter and used a paintbrush to coat the entire car-including its flashy hubcaps and the new sheet metal floor-with a thick protective layer of black Rust-oleum enamel. It looked like a motorized chalkboard.
Dad also owned a 1964 Nova which he slathered with black enamel to suffocate corrosion. When his chalkboard Nova died, I gave him my chalkboard Nova. It finally broke down on the side of a highway one dark and rainy night. I drove to the breakdown site in my new/used American Motors Gremlin to help. Rivulets of water streamed down the Nova’s glistening brush mark canals. Dad had driven that Frankenstein car till every part in it died.
The Gremlin, a 1970 diabolical goblin, lived up to its impish name. It had a really good motor and a really bad everything else. I’d be jammed in the center of multi-lane highways crammed with rush hour commuters during sudden heavy snowfalls or hammering rainstorms, and its vacuum wipers would slow up-or stop!
So, in the foulest of weather when visibility disappeared, I hung my head out the side window to see. Other drivers would shout “Get off the road, you moron!” and accuse me of being a rectal region in a multitude of creative ways.
When the Gremlin sputtered up roads no steeper than an anthill, it shapeshifted into a shopping cart. Since I couldn’t push the car/cart up inclines, I’d zip down in reverse and circumnavigate.
Instead of a heater, the Gremlin had a blast furnace that piped in heat from the depths of hell. And, it wouldn’t turn off-even during the dog days of summer! Sweat would stream down my face taking my makeup and eyeballs with it. A creepy sewer clown had nothing on me.
Eventually, I exorcised the Gremlin from my life liberating the angels and saints I’d called upon for divine protection. I should’ve left the subcompact in the cart corral at the local grocery store. If I’d sold the Gremlin, my newspaper ad would’ve read, “Before starting, pray to cast out demons,” or “Clothes not necessary while driving.”
Instead, I traded the Gremlin to a Ford dealership for a sporty preowned Mustang II with a dinky four-cylinder engine. Even with a four-speed floor-mounted manual transmission, the Mustang couldn’t pass a turnip truck. This rear-wheel-drive igloo generated little heat and fishtailed through two bad winters. I traded the Mustang for a Jeep Cherokee (both circa 1974), a vehicle with more power and more problems.
The Jeep Cherokee had four-wheel drive in name only. If I filled the gas tank, it peed half of it all over the interstate. The rear floor panel, hidden by a carpet, tore on three sides and morphed into a trampoline. On bumpy roads, my large dog would bounce up and down, sometimes thumping his head on the roof.
So, I visited the same dealer to inquire about trading back the Cherokee for a front-wheel drive Volkswagen Dasher station wagon. Because four-wheel drives were in high demand at the time, pools of drool drained from the salesman’s mouth.
He pushed me to close the deal, warning, “You’d be crazy to walk away from my offer!” So, I traded the trampoline for the Dasher. The next time the salesman saw me, he sheepishly said, “You got a great deal.”
After I married and had children, my husband and I bought affordable conditioned mules. We all drove them, maintained them, and abused them. When they flatlined, we unloaded them-but not necessarily for another car.
When my father-in-law relinquished his car keys, he gave us his nine-year-old 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Seven years later, when our firstborn learned to drive, the sedan had already spiraled into jalopyhood.
“Keep the pedal to the floor!” I’d yell to my son over the Oldsmobile’s revving engine and power steering squeal. “It’ll stall if the carburetor isn’t cleared!” After its final twitch, we sold it to a salvage yard for $75.
A 1991 Buick Century-an old new car only driven 32,000 miles-replaced the Cutlass. When our second-born began learning to drive, he hit a steel section marker by a narrow winding road through the local cemetery near my father’s grave. The marker remained unscathed, but the Buick’s bumper received a dent.
I could almost hear my father, who died before my children were born, say, “That ain’t nothin’ worth fixin’ on an old car.” And that’s what I told my son. That’s also what I told an inattentive young man who rear-ended the Buick not long after.
After we’d blown a cylinder, stripped first gear, and ruined whatever makes a car go, the Buick’s “H-O-O-O-N-K!” startled us awake one night. Battery acid leaked onto wires and activated the horn. We traded the Buick to a junkyard for a radio to replace a CD player a thief ripped out of our thirteen-year-old Ford Taurus station wagon. We also bartered our road-weary Chevy Corsica to a mechanic to give the Taurus a brake job.
When our third-born reached driving age, she practiced in the station wagon. The gaping hole in the dashboard dwarfed the replacement radio, dent damage disfigured the door where the thief probably used a crowbar, and it had rust issues.
“I’m not taking my driver’s test in that bumpkin mobile!” she insisted. She did and passed.
My husband drove two pickup workhorses for several years and briefly tolerated a little Chevy S10 pee-mail object. Dogs sniffed it, chased it, and mauled its tires before it chugged away. We sold the truck to a lot shyster who didn’t care if it functioned better as a fire hydrant.
Unlike the transient truck, we owned a 1994 Honda Accord for four years. It cost $250 and everyone used it. After hitting too many potholes, its axle broke-eviscerating the transmission-and it bled out. Higher scrap prices helped us fetch $396 for it. A new car quickly depreciates, but its value increased!
Some used cars I owned were inexhaustibly reliable, so buying them new wouldn’t have mattered. Others had obvious flaws peculiar to their make, so buying them new would’ve been a mistake. Best of all, I didn’t covet my neighbors’ cars, and my neighbors sure didn’t covet mine. If we’re envious, we’re not thankful for what we have-God’s bounty.
So, my dad’s legacy, “buy a used car and drive it till it’s dead,” hasn’t been totally lost on me. We currently have two 1999 Toyota Camrys and a 2007 Honda Pilot, each purchased when they were about ten years old. We plan to drive them until they’re as dead as the chalkboard Nova.
Proverbs 19:20, NAB
Listen to counsel and receive instruction, that you may eventually become wise.(Proverbs 19:20, NAB)
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7 thoughts on “Drive It Till It’s Dead”
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I nearly peed on my office chair while reading this one. LOVED it!!! More please!!!
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In hindsight, life experiences can be hysterically funny, but not necessarily when you’re going through them! Thank you for letting me know Drive It Till It’s Dead even made you laugh. That’s a great feeling.
“Bumpkin” that doesn’t sound like a word I’d use. Rhymes with one though. 😂😂😂
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Ha! Ha! When you were a teenager, you didn’t use colorful language in my presence.
Especially with the prices of new vehicles these days — more than I’ve paid for houses! — your dad’s advice is right on.
I owned an AMC Gremlin in the late 1970s. My Gremlin’s heater stopped working as I was driving all night from Houston, Texas, to Springfield, Missouri, during a winter storm with temperatures in the single digits. When I arrived at my dad’s house, I got out of my car and discovered that my feet were frozen solid!
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So, you’re another Gremlin casualty? I hope you didn’t get frostbite during that awful trip in that awful car. It wouldn’t surprise me if your windshield wipers didn’t work either. It definitely was a nightmare car.
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