Car Talk

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My first car was a 1969 Buick LeSabre—metallic blue. It looked like a state police cruiser. Gas was 53 cents a gallon then, and Richard Nixon was still in the White House. It was 1974. My LeSabre was the sort of car that old ladies drove other old ladies to church in on Sundays. I was mortified. It was not the car I wanted. My friends were driving Saabs and Volvos and Jeeps—vehicles in which one could assuredly meet worldly women (not old ladies) and have other adventures. But my father, who was the underwriter of this purchase, was a practical man, and we had mechanics that worked for the family business. The mechanics, who were named Leo and Bunny (not sure why), pronounced that Buick LeSabre a good car. They were right.

I never met any worldly women while driving that car, but I did meet a high-spirited divorced nurse—an older woman who drove a Volkswagen Beetle. We rode around in her car. I did have a few adventures. Once, after an evening’s merriment, I drove my LeSabre off the road into a field and fell asleep. I distinctly recall the children of the farmer who owned said field waking me the following morning, excited to find me in the pasture. No harm was done, and the farmer (a more worldly fellow than I would have expected to find in Penobscot County, Maine) pulled my car out of his field with his tractor and sent me on my way with a bad hangover and a lesson learned.

The first car is every American’s birthright. It’s one of the Four Freedoms. No? It’s the Fifth Freedom. Mobility. Everyone has a good first car story. And all first car stories are, upon reflection, bad first car stories. Forget baseball and apple pie. Nothing is more American than buying that first car—and the troubles that often come with it. What you’re actually buying is someone else’s last car, or, as Leo and Bunny would call it, “somebody else’s problems.” Who among us does not have somewhere in the back lot of their memory a Rambler or a Cutlass or a Dodge Dart of highly dubious provenance in which they took to the highways searching for adventure?

My next car was a VW Rabbit—an eggshell blue hatchback. My father shook his head, but I was off the payroll and it was my decision. Leo and Bunny pronounced my Rabbit NOT a good car. They were right. But as Dr. Franklin told us, experience keeps a dear school but a fool will learn in no other.

The car changed American life. It certainly changed mine—and I’m sure it changed yours, too. With a car one can go places and do things (like meet divorced older nurses and have adventures).

Baltimore is most assuredly a town that was changed by the car. I suppose many of Baltimore’s woes might be blamed on Henry Ford. Before the car became common,  folks walked or rode the streetcar or the trolley. And they shopped near where they lived, and they lived in the city.  The glades and glyns of Glyndon and the garths and glens of Glen Burnie were a far country once upon a time. We tend not to remember that. The suburban sprawl that surrounds Baltimore, sucking the life out of the city, has a lot to do with the car (and race, but we’ll save that for another time)

Of course, these days the real adventure starts at the car dealership. No two buyers ever pay the same price for a car. The sticker price is meaningless. You can study Consumer Reports like a biblical scholar, but to what avail? Up is down on the showroom floor. I bought a car recently after wild and protracted negotiations with at least a half-dozen dealerships. It was exhausting.

In the end, I did what most American men would do. I bought the car my wife wanted. I don’t know if my late father or Leo or Bunny would pronounce it a good car. But I do know that I won’t be meeting any worldly women in it.

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