Car Crazy

“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered. “ George Best “I know people think we drive around in these nice cars and we do whatever we want and our parents will pay our credit cards, but that’s not the case. Sure, my parents were generous; I got a nice car at 16, but at 18 I was cut off. I’ve worked really hard.” Kim Kardashian

“Men like cars, women like clothes. Women only like cars because they take them to clothes”

Rita Rudner

My friends and relatives tend to be one of two types: car geeks or individuals who do not know (or care) what make or model a car is.  I’m the former.  My first car was a 1952 Morris Minor, a small English car that a friend of my parents sold to me for $75.  I fixed it up, got it painted and drove it for about a year.  However, I noticed that my girlfriends were not very enthusiastic about riding with me.  Then I saw a customized ’52 Ford convertible outside the Chevrolet dealer’s store, for sale.  The owner, also a friend of the family, made me a deal.  It had everything I wanted….two-tone baby blue and white paint, shaved hood, fender skirts, loud mufflers, and for good measure, a continental kit on the back.  Girl problem solved. I had a number of wrecks in it, fortunately all rather small.  But I was hooked.

As to the wrecks, most all were not my fault.  Really!  For instance, shortly after I acquired the Ford convertible, our Methodist youth group was going to have a ‘river rat’ party, supposedly emulating a Parisian left bank subterranean party.  I was dressed in a black T and black pants, and my girlfriend (let’s call her Joey) was in a slinky, low cut black dress.  Being well-endowed, she was quite a picture.  On my way to the party, as I drove toward the city’s four-lane main street, I stepped on to the brakes.  My foot went to the floor.  At the last minute I pulled the emergency brake but that did little to slow me down.  I rolled into Main Street and hit an elderly man’s car on the side, not hard enough that anyone was hurt or even bruised.  I called my father from a pay phone (no cell phones in those days), but all he asked was whether anyone was hurt and where exactly I was.  When he and the policeman arrived, and they and the elderly man arrived and looked at Joey’s fulsome chest, they immediately assumed that the problem was a distracted driver.  In fact, my grandfather chewed me out for not watching the road. My protestations that I had no brakes went unheard.  Never did get to the river rat party, but the mechanic repairing my car found that the connection to the master brake cylinder had ruptured and all the brake fluid had run out.  Men, especially grandfathers, don’t apologize, but grandpa gave me a nice check that covered the brake repair and then some.

Fast forward to the 80’s for another expensive lesson.  As Pat and I became more financially secure, I lusted for some sort of car toy and found a 1952 MG TD locally at a good price.  It needed restoration, but I was able to make most repairs since the Brits had not changed the mechanics on the car since World War II.  I think that was the last car that had a wooden frame!  Anyway, one day I got in the MG to take it for a spin, and it was dead as a doornail.  I checked the battery and everything was in working order.  I then got a flashlight to look into the motor to see if there was a loose connection, only to find some stray wires under the chassis.  I crawled underneath the car and found that our precious two golden retrievers had been at work.  Goldens are smart but get bored easily, and we regularly put them in the garage on cold days when we were away, and apparently for amusement they ate every wire they could find under the car.  Not sure I know why MG put all the wires in an exposed position under the car…maybe for ease of access.  The entire car had to be re-wired, at a considerable expense.  Again, an ‘accident’ I surely was not at fault for.

And then there was the deer episode, just several years ago.  I had scheduled a business trip to Houston, and of course wife Pat wanted to make sure that she had a car available, especially her treasured 2006 Mustang GT convertible.  We were going into town for dinner, so I suggested taking the Mustang in to make sure it was running well.  On the way back, less than a mile from our house, a deer ran into the car, starting with the right front headlight, whipped around to dent the front fender, then scraped and dented the right door.  The deer bounced off the car and lay next to the road.  Against all good judgment, Pat bounded from the car to check on the deer.  The deer’s heart was still beating.  I surveyed the damage.

“Well, we just can’t leave the poor thing laying here on the road.  You’re going to have to put it out of its misery,” Pat advised.

“How can I do that?” I inquired.  “I don’t have any guns to do something like that.”

“Let’s go home and you can call our neighbor, Marshall.  He has guns and will know what to do.”

We got home, I called Marshall even though it was near his bedtime, and he volunteered to dispatch the deer.  I picked him up and we went to the scene of the accident, and the deer was gone.  Must have been knocked unconscious, but I am sure he had some bruised to heal.  Meanwhile, here I was with a dented up Mustang.  It cost two thousand to get repaired, and of course I had a thousand deductible but knew that the insurance company would raise my rates to get their thousand back and then some.  I paid the entire thing.  Not my fault, but the only direction I could lay blame was on the damn deer.

The car bug had taught me finances, though.  When I was a teenager, my father paid for the insurance, in hindsight I understand to protect the family.  I had to pay everything else and did so by working as a gardener and lifeguard in the summers and on weekends.  One summer I even worked at the Chevy dealer that had sold me the Ford convertible in the first place. Great experience working with people. In those days the minimum wage was three dollars an hour, but gas was only 25 cents a gallon, so I could save up enough to pay for the cars and expenses and car repairs after my fender benders.  With all the accidents, by the time I went off to college I was a pretty good money manager.

But of course times have changed.  In the olden days someone like me could open the hood and tell you what every device under there was.  Most of the time I could fix any problems that arose.  For instance, if the battery was dead, all you had to do was get a friend to push you or glide downhill, pop the clutch and the motor would start.

No way today.  My wife and I just got a new Suburban, and when you open the hood, the motor compartment almost shouts out “Don’t touch a thing under here except maybe the battery, which is over there in the corner.”  I might also add that one has to be computer literate to operate the touch screen on the dashboard, offering all sorts of information and amusements.

I’m sure local, independent mechanics are as frustrated as I am by the complexity of the new generation of vehicles.  One has to be a computer geek to even understand what is to be done to figure out what’s wrong with the car, and I’m sure the garage mechanic’s equipment must cost a small fortune.

The other thing is cost.  Yes, new vehicles have much to add—heated seats, vibrating seats to tell you that you forgot to use your turn signal when changing lanes, GPS, and a host of other amenities.  Nonetheless, I’d like to see a comparison of the average vehicle cost in 1957 compared with 2017 models, stated in terms of how much of the average annual salary would be required to pay cash for the vehicle.  Certainly the new Suburban was right on target, especially with sales tax, to consume the entirety of the present national average salary.

I did learn about maintenance costs in spades after the MG episode.  The more exotic the auto, the higher the maintenance cost.  During the eighties I was with a small law firm of about twelve partners, and in those days the IRS let you deduct the costs of transportation if furnished by your employer.  So the twelve of us voted to have the firm buy us partners each a vehicle and then pay the upkeep costs.  While the first several cars were fairly reasonable (e.g. a 1970 Buick GS muscle car I wish I had kept, a three year old red Corvette), a client almost forced me to buy his Ferrari 308GTS with about 50,000 miles on it.  It was about the cost of a new upscale car, and it had front and rear radar.  Beautiful.  However, the maintenance costs were probably four times the amount the firm spent on any other firm car. Fortunately no one ever questioned the charges.  Special cars cost special amounts to keep up, as any Mercedes owner or diesel truck owner knows.

The point of all this leads to a moral:  If you can avoid getting hooked on cars—the fancy ones, the collectible ones, or the fast ones—you surely will have a fatter bank account when you retire.  But you won’t have had nearly the fun, thrills, and frustrations (not to mention speeding tickets) —and even education—that I’ve had.

P.S.  My 50th wedding anniversary present to wife Pat was a ’37 Plymouth hot rod, with a 350 cubic inch Chevy block engine, power steering and brakes, and air conditioning. Satisfies the addiction to cars…..for now anyway.

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