Sunday, July 19, 2009

Love and Reason

"There's nothing better than being in love with your car." - Tom Magliozzi, Car Talk, Show Number 200929 (No foolin': you can download a podcast of this episode at

Mom and I spent the afternoon and early evening yesterday at one of our favorite family outposts (the genius of it is that, from the freeway, it looks like a gas station, a barn, and a trailer park stuck out in the middle of the desert, and yet, to my eyes, it is one of the most beloved sights in the world). On the way home Puck's antenna picked up NPR around Little America and found Tom and Ray accusing a caller of putting transmission oil in the wrong hole on their automotive talk show, Car Talk.

I stopped the station scanner.

I didn't pay much attention to the next caller, who was talking about breaking in brake pads, but the final caller amused me to no end. Sensible, rational caller Wendy is a self-described "proverbial suburban soccer mom" who drives a nearly-paid-off 1999 Toyota Sienna, and she has a problem. She took her two sons, 9 and 11, to a car show one day, just for fun, sat in a Jeep Liberty with a retractable roof -- "the opposite of a Smart Car!" she lamented -- and developed a severe and abiding Car Crush bordering on obsession. (Don't laugh. It could happen to you.) She called the show to have Tom and Ray talk her out of buying what she, having read Consumer Reports and Motor Trend, sees as as a less reliable, less sensible car than her current ride. They pretty much blew it.

Part of the conversation touched on the feverish cult that is Jeep Culture, the result of insanely clever advertising on Jeep's part but also the result of something much more insidious, something anybody who's driven a Jeep knows: they may handle like crap and they're noisy and not remotely fuel efficient, but they're FUN. Ray asked Wendy what the car said to her when she sat in it, and that was the first, very emphatic word out of her mouth. "Fun. It said fun." She asserted that maybe she is just having a midlife crisis, or, as her sons call it, a "midlife Chrysler." Tom and Ray suggested she rent a Liberty and drive it every day for a week to see if it would really fill her vehicular needs the way the minivan does, which I thought was good advice... but there was already no question. "I'm getting it, right?" asked Wendy. "Yeah, well, we know that." said Ray.

As she was about to hang up, after admitting to having already picked out an ingenious name for her Jeep (Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death."), Tom reassured her with the statement above, a sentiment I wholly subscribe to, and elaborated. "It's a wonderful thing to be in love with your car, because you'll take care of it, and you'll nurture it, and you'll pass it on to your kids, and it'll be more fun to drive because you'll have a connection with it. Wendy, most people hate their cars. They kick the doors closed, they have a disparaging name for the car." I've seen this, and it breaks my heart.

However, after 19 months and 21,800 miles together (even after a new bumper, fender, main shaft and clutch), I can still say that I'm one of those incredibly lucky people -- however rare we are -- who is truly in love with their car.

He's more than half paid off, but my heart still skips a beat when I see Puck across a parking lot, metallic paint glowing, sharp angles threatening. There are moments when, in the middle of an ordinary commute, I glance across the bright, expansive dash and I'm amazed that I called this marvelous machine into being. Because I requested something special, people I will never meet in a factory I will never see pulled together all these parts and pieces that might have gone into other, less unique cars of the same model, assembled these bits of metal and plastic and fabric together according to a generic formula but with a few specific ingredients. Someone who will never know me, someone who may or may not hate his job in an office in an expansive industrial complex in the chilly midwest, filled out a digital form and printed out a piece of paper that provided one of the most gratifying moments of my life.

The problem that resulted in the replacement of the main shaft was a very small thing, a broken plastic ring that has proven to be a common weakness in these cars (it could be much worse), and the clutch had to be replaced due to an excusable error in the installation of the new shaft, a forgotten seal that caused transmission fluid to leak out and soak the clutch lining. Covered by Dodge's lifetime powertrain warranty, the repairs cost me nothing but a month without my beloved car. Even though this hiccup occurred very early in Puck's useful life, I'm not worried that more problems will follow. And even if Puck turns out to be a total lemon before 50,000 miles, I'll stand by him. I'll do whatever it takes to keep him running until he will absolutely go no further simply because I love my car.

I love the way my Dodge Caliber drives and looks, but my deep emotional investment goes beyond engineering and cosmetics. Puck is "living" proof of my financial stability, of my independence and self-reliance. Puck is proof that I learned a hard lesson well. Dad, although he did it once or twice, was dead set against buying a brand new car. They lose value the instant you drive them off the lot! You're paying more than they're worth! "Think how much gas you could buy with that car payment!" he used to say. And he's right. But I can justify the purchase because I will drive Puck into the ground (very gently), I paid no interest, and it's my reward. This car is my gift to myself for having the discipline and endurance to dig myself out of a $30,000 hole in just a few years, and every time I see him I'm reminded that I can now handle money.

I hope Wendy does buy that Jeep Liberty, no matter how much cargo space and fuel efficiency and reliability she sacrifices. I hope when she's driving down the road -- on an ordinary day, with the retractable roof open and the sun shining in and the breezes of upstate New York blowing in her hair -- that she feels like I do when I drive Puck, because there really is nothing like being in love with your car. Because life is too short to make every decision based on cold common sense. I believe that most decisions based on heart and gut turn out just as well, and without them there would be no love stories at all.

Especially love stories about cars.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

I can't say I've ever loved a car.

July 20, 2009 at 4:58 PM  
Blogger A said...

I'd advise you to start shopping... but then, I'm not sure car love is for everybody. There's no way to really know the car loves you back.

July 20, 2009 at 5:04 PM  

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