Week Twenty: Cars I Have Known

Last weekend I got a new car. Okay, a new old car. Okay, a new old minivan. But it got me thinking about all the different cars I’ve owned. Of course, every one has a story. And I think that, somewhere, I have pictures of each of them — but I’ll never find them tonight. For illustrative purposes I’ll throw in some stock photography, then update this post as I locate and scan photos of my own cars.

1. 1981 Buick Skylark

Your first car should be special; I’m sure my Dad intended it to be. I was working at my first real full-time job and it was time for a dependable car of my own, not the 1981 Buick Skylark I was borrowing from my parents. I went to several dealerships with Dad and looked at several cars. I wasn’t impressed with any of them, but I did remember that he had me set the parking brake on one car, then he physically pushed it forward several feet. “Nope.” Finally we looked at a 1983 Buick Century. It was a four-door sedan and I hated it on sight. I didn’t like the color, the fit, the feel, or anything else about it. But Dad was in love, utterly smitten. “Maybe,” he finally said, “we could get this car for your mother and you could have the Skylark.”

“I’ll take the Skylark,” I said.

My Buick, parked at my Grove City apartment in a 1992 summer thunderstorm.

My Buick, parked at my Grove City apartment in a 1992 summer thunderstorm.

The transaction was sealed when Mom handed me the keys to the Skylark and said, “Pop the hood.” She then proceeded to show me how to properly apply Gum-Out.

I was happy with the Skylark for a while, but eventually I realized that it was starting to fall apart. I was spending as much each month on repair bills as I would have on a car payment. One day I was making the one-mile drive between work and home when green fluid started pouring into the cabin from somewhere on the other side of the dashboard. When I turned left towards the Shell service station instead of right for home, I had already decided that this car’s days were numbered.

2. 1990 Honda Civic EX

Not my car… but a twin!

The first car I actually bought was the car I should have been warned about, but I never blamed the car. I loved that little thing. But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back to when I was taking cars on test drives.

One finalist was the local mega-dealer. If you are now, or have ever been, from Columbus, Ohio, you know who I’m talking about already. I knew I wouldn’t actually buy a car from them, but I was curious about the process. It was even worse than I had expected. I wasn’t allowed to drive the car on their lot because of liability. I asked to see a manual-transmission car and was shown an automatic in shocking pink. The salesman, while driving, tried to sell the car to me based on the fact that the passenger visor had a mirror on it. When I was finally in the salesman’s cubicle and he asked, “What can I do to get you into this car today?” I could honestly say, “Nothing. I told you I was only looking, and you showed me nothing I wanted to see.” And I left.

Another finalist was the Saturn, which at that time was the new kid in town. There were only a couple of dealerships, so I drove north of Worthington to test one out. The people were very nice, and I liked the “no game playing” aspect of the Saturn experience, but the car itself didn’t impress me very much.

Honorable mention goes to a Subaru XT I drove. This is the car that doesn’t have a steering wheel — it has a yoke like you’d see in a fighter jet. A Google search is failing me now, but I think this is the car I drove. It was really unusual looking, and I remember thinking I’d never get used to that yoke instead of a wheel.

I ended up test driving the Honda Civic at a respectable Honda dealership on the north side, near Westerville. The staff members were very casual about the test drive process; they threw me the keys and said, “Bring it back whenever.” Nobody rode with me to do a hard sell. And I really liked the car. I traded in the Skylark, which probably showed up somewhere on the south side at a pay-to-own lot, and purchased my first car.

After I bought the car, its history gradually emerged. It was a dealer loaner, meaning that customers drove it when their cars were in the shop at the dealership. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when the transmission started giving me problems and they recommended replacing it, the service history of my car really started to emerge. Turns out there wasn’t much of one; even though the car had spent most of its two years right there on the lot, they hadn’t actually bothered to hit its service marks with much accuracy. And this was the second time the transmission had been replaced. Let me repeat: a two-year-old car was now on its third transmission!

The EX model, too, was very “special.” Every time I took the car somewhere for a change or a part, I heard, “OH. You have the EX.” I once spent a whole work day driving across Columbus and back in a raging blizzard to find the proper set of tires for it, only to get stuck in the snow at the entrance to my condo community at the end of the day.

But I didn’t blame the car. It was surprisingly spacious inside — once I managed to fit four Windsor chairs and a king-size waterbed mattress in it. I bolted a roof rack on it and hauled a canoe all over central Ohio. This person had a similar experience with their (also blue) Civic EX.

Yes, the original photo was taken in black and white with a manually operated SLR. The location is actually Sunset Cemetery near Alton, Ohio.

Yes, the original photo was taken in black and white with a manually operated SLR. The location is actually Sunset Cemetery near Alton, Ohio.

When I got a job in Wisconsin, though, and it was time to move, I had the chance to accept a used Audi from my father-in-law, who was buying a brand new Jetta. I sold the Civic to my brother for a dollar, thinking he’d be able to fill it to the brim with band equipment. And as it went with many things I gave or loaned to my brother, I never inquired as to its final disposition.

3. 1988 Audi 80

Not my car, or my wheels. The rest is similar.

This car always had the biggest snob appeal for me. It was tiny and it was eleven years old, but it was cute. And it was an AUDI dammit. We took delivery of it somehow, and I packed it to the moon with everything I could get in it when we moved to Wisconsin — my newborn in the center. I’ll never forget driving on the Chicago Tollway at 65mph with one hand, using the other to position a baby bottle for a freeway feeding as we passed the O’Hare exit. Fast times!

It was a wonderful little car. Like the Civic, the Audi was also pressed into service as a canoe hauler… but only once or twice. Its only liability was that this shade of grey blended perfectly with things like, oh, asphalt. When it was on the road, it was almost invisible. People pulled out in front of me, or nearly did, countless times. For a while I contemplated having the car repainted Tornado Red just so someone might see it. But it wouldn’t have been right. It was a modest, unassuming car.

I had the car for three years, putting on miles via longer and longer trips, and one day on the expressway I heard a blood-chilling THUNK from somewhere below me. Transmission. Almost gone. I saved the car for only necessary trips and started taking the bus to work instead. When I moved to Indiana, we towed the car behind us. After I parked it in my new town, it never started again. When we moved back to Wisconsin three months later, my only option was to sell it for salvage.

I still have the key.

4. 1986 Ford Crown Victoria Wagon

I have a panoramic photo that does justice to my Crown Vic. Until I scan it in, this car from “Tremors” will have to do.

We were the third owners of this car, which we bought in about 2003 from an engineer in Wausau. He had installed air shocks in the back, which were worked by a rocker switch under the dash. It was in wonderful shape for its age, and when the air shocks were pumped up it had a terrific “stance” to it. It also featured a third seat that opened like a cellar door — the riders faced each other.

The Crown Vic was impressive enough, but one day we were getting some sort of service done, and when they ran the VIN the car was identified as a Mustang! What an engine that car had. Amazingly, nobody got a speeding ticket with it.

I often derive a nickname from my car's license plate, so we called this one "Flash" for a while.

I often derive a nickname from my car’s license plate, so we called this one “Flash” for a while.

Does this angle make my tailgate look big?

Does this angle make my tailgate look big?

I don’t remember what started going south on this car, and it could well be that with more kids in the family, we wanted to get a newer car that could handle contemporary child seats. The Crown Vic only had lap belts, and it took a lot of searching to find a Canadian-style booster seat for JC. (You’ve seen one if you’ve ever watched “Caillou.”) When it did come to the end of its service life it was sold for salvage, all 46 tons of it.

5. 2000 Chevy Venture

You’ve seen this van everywhere before.

This minivan puts the “us” in “ubiquitous.” When my oldest son was in second grade, and I drove him to an elementary school that housed only about three grades, this minivan was one of about SIX matching minivans. And I don’t mean that there were six Chevy Ventures. I mean that there were six Chevy Ventures in this exact same shade of red. Just at that small Catholic elementary school in a relatively small town in Wisconsin. The way we spotted ours was to note the broken left taillight casing. This vehicle was so common that the kids and I played a spy game with it, calling out “imposter!” when we spotted yet another twin. It had dual power doors, which eventually failed; other than that its two best features were the electronic compass and the “info” feature on the radio.

Yes... that's a motorcycle.

Yes… that’s a motorcycle.

I have to admit that it was great for long road trips, and it could haul a lot. But it didn’t really have a distinct personality, being the member of the Clone Army that it surely was. It was sold to some local folks who probably fixed it up and flipped it. Every time I pass one I look for a broken left taillight. Maybe it’s having the time of its life in Mexico.

6. 1994 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon

Not my car, but it could be, down to the trim FAIL on the driver’s side.

Now we’re talking CAR! This car puts a smile on the face of everyone who sees it. I’ve lost count of how many times middle-aged men have approached me at the gas pumps to tell me about their memories of family vacations as seen from the third seat (a location we refer to as the “Wayback”). Sunroof. Cruise Control. Hydraglide. A tailgate that opens down… or to the side. And a Corvette engine.

The Really Wide Buick. Really!

The Really Wide Buick. Really!

7. 1997 VW Passat (“Helga”)

Wait a minute… Triforce Motors???

This is the car my husband Peter bought with the insurance settlement money after his beloved VW GTI was destroyed, along with his legs, in a car accident in which we were hit by a pickup truck. His quick reflexes saved both our lives, but broke both his legs. I sustained minor injuries, but he earned himself a free (?) helicopter ride to Grant Hospital and was in a wheelchair for weeks. After that trauma, he couldn’t bring himself to buy a little car again. When he was ready to get behind the wheel again, he chose a manual-transmission Passat sedan with a VR6 engine. He named this one “Helga the Barge.” (The GTI had been “Gertrudis.”) He gave me driving lessons in it in 1999, but I was still under the impression you couldn’t hold down the clutch and the accelerator at the same time, so I was striving for an almost impossible timing, and I never drove it after my lessons were over.

After he suddenly passed away in 2011, I asked to have it. It has some bodywork issues, but I’m gradually restoring it to its glory as a touring sedan and hope to make it my primary car within the next five years.

8. 1999 VW Jetta (“Trixie”)

As tested by Motor Trend magazine!

Peter’s father Clayton bought this Jetta in 1999 and passed along his Audi 80 to me. He passed away in 2009, and Peter made sure to drive it at least once a month and keep it in good condition. After Peter himself died, I asked for this car, too. It’s jointly titled to me and to my son James Clayton, Clayton’s only grandchild. When he’s old enough to own his own car, it’s his. Right now it makes a marvelous commuter car (and takes 87 octane!), but it’s a little small for my family of five unless it’s a short trip.

9. 2002 Dodge Caravan

Not my TARDIS… but almost.

The Roadmaster is now falling apart one piece at a time, and when I realized I shouldn’t try to take it on one more round trip to Ohio (and I have at least two such trips planned for this summer), I started searching online for my next car. I was looking more at Subarus (i.e. a vehicle that would hold all of us, but be short enough that I could get a canoe on the roof rack), but the kids begged, “Please, Mom. Get a minivan, and one made in this century.” I thought that was fine, but really hoped I could find a dark blue van that looked like a TARDIS.

One peek at Craigslist Madison, and there it was, in my price range. Hello sweetie! I’m not done geeking it up yet, but all the kids already refer to it as the TARDIS. (JC is still holding out to name it Eccleston, since it’s a TARDIS and my 9th car. Get it??? Well, if it had black leather seats I think it would be an easier sell. But it doesn’t.)


And it really does feel bigger on the inside.

And it really does feel bigger on the inside.

Published in: on May 16, 2013 at 3:03 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I’m with JC, Eccleston is a great name for the new old car! Or Chris. Fantastic! 🙂

    Trying to convince my husband that we should buy the ’74 Beetle I found in the Auto & RV magazine. He thinks I’m a bit mad, but really I just miss having a car whose innards I mostly understand and can tinker with!

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