Thursday, July 23, 2009

“Cars On The Cheap”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

“Hello, my name is Rod, and I’m a pedestrian…”

When I first came to Chardon in 1983, it was as a homeless passenger.

With two electric guitars, an armload of vinyl albums, and a stash of motorcycle magazines, my life did not include much beyond basic needs. It would be three months before I could afford wheeled transportation – a $750 coupe from Lawson Ford.

That sort of minimalism has seemed curiously far away for many years… until two weeks ago. Suddenly, it was the 1980s all over again!

Owing to circumstances in the household, I ended up without a car for the first time in twenty-six years. To compound my situation, our family budget offered little hope of affording anything beyond a well-used rustbucket. I had been on medical leave from work for several weeks. Spare change wasn’t plentiful.

Liz, my wife, was happy to share the use of her blue sedan. Yet my carless state brought psychological despair. I could focus on nothing but the lack of motorized mobility.

Soon, I had begun to write a song about my plight:


I’d run from the man
But I won’t get far
‘Cause I ain’t got a car

I’d go to the movies
Drink Kool-Aid from a jar
But I ain’t got a car

Ain’t too nice
Now I’m runnin’ on shoeleather
Rough by the roadside

I’d slide out of trouble
Ride a shooting star
But I ain’t got a car

I can’t go crusin’
To Eat ‘n’ Park
‘Cause I ain’t got a car

I ‘d run for the border
But I won’t get far
‘Cause I ain’t got a car

Lookin’ at
Wandering taillights
Reading ads
From morning to midnight

I’d burn rubber
Till the tires came apart
But I ain’t got a car

Eventually, I began to browse at low-buck car lots in the area. Then, this search broadened to include private sellers with a vehicle in their front yard. I scoured newspaper ads and Internet posts on eBay and Craigslist. And I asked friends and acquaintances about automobiles that they might have seen. Before long, I had compiled a short list of possible purchases:

1989 LINCOLN TOWN CAR - $899
134,415 miles / 5.0 liter V-8
Grade: A

This was Ford Motor Company’s final ‘square’ interpretation of the venerable Town Car. A rolling brick sculpture, oozing the grandeur of a lost era. Other than a bit of rust on the lower door panels, it seemed to have survived the past twenty years with confidence. I’d once owned an ’87 Crown Victoria with the same fuel-injected motor. So the vehicle tempted me with its durability and roominess.

136,000 miles / 4.3 liter V-6
Grade: C

Another relic from the traditional era. This was the budget version of GM’s full-size sedan. Big, thirsty and slow, but dependable. The car needed bodywork, paint, and a ticket to the 21st Century.

100,000 + miles / 3.2 liter V-6
Grade: F

One of the ‘downsized’ luxury automobiles created as Detroit switched to front-wheel-drive platforms. Admittedly, I didn’t have a good ‘feel’ for this car. The owner boldly admitted to having replaced its transmission at 30,000 miles. Then, wiring problems developed that made him park the beast out of frustration. Quietly, I wondered why it hadn’t already been towed to the junkyard. Still, it wore a newer set of Michelin tires. That might have been the most dependable part of this vehicle.

1997 BUICK LE SABRE - $599
170,000 miles / 3.8 liter V-6
Grade: D

I’ve read that the Buick marque is very popular in China. This highway veteran made me ponder that truism carefully. While solid enough, it had a cracked windshield and various mechanical issues. I decided to leave it for someone in Shanghai.

1995 VW GOLF - $998
172,335 miles / 2.0 liter I-4
Grade: C

Solid, if a bit ratty. My father owned two of these during the 1980’s. His diesel Golf would return 50 m.p.g. on the highway. This example was bound to miss that benchmark, yet still provide good fuel economy. But it was small, and generic. My head said ‘yes’ but my heart said ‘no.’

134,069 miles / 4.6 liter V-8
Grade: B

In days of yore, most American cars followed this design: Body-on-frame, front engine, rear-wheel drive. This workhorse looked a bit ragged around the edges. Its blue paint had faded into spots of off-white and gray. Rust had consumed a chunk of the driver’s-side front fender. But the aging mule still seemed confident, and ready for road duty.

106,418 miles / 3.0 liter V-6
Grade: C

I just couldn’t get excited about this vehicle. It was bland, but useful. A donkey for everyday chores. A bit chewed-up around the perimeter, yet basically intact. Four wheels, and a radio. Nothing more, nothing less.

200,000 miles / 4.5 liter V-8
Grade: B

A high-mileage cruiser. One of the new-age, ‘downsized’ vehicles from GM. Luxurious, yet strangely Chrysleresque – a ‘vibe’ that made me uneasy. This was in their transition period between the glory of yesteryear and the taut ‘hipness’ of today. I reckoned that nothing could soothe my carless soul like a bit of Cadillac magic…

1988 SATURN SL - $688
205,314 miles / 1.9 liter I-4
Grade: F

These cars helped revive GM’s brand image in the 1980s. They were sturdy, useful, and sold with a sense of ‘membership’ in the Saturn family. Unfortunately, a closer look at this vehicle yielded a caveat that made me turn away: MECHANIC’S SPECIAL.

55,513 miles / 2.8 liter V-6
Grade: B

Somehow, I couldn’t quite believe the claimed mileage for this Reagan-Era relic. 155,513 seemed to be a more likely figure. Still, the car looked clean, if well worn. A daily driver blessed with the no-frills design of yonder days.

93,368 miles / 7.7 liter V-8
Grade: A+

Out of my price range, but a huge slab of eye-candy that couldn’t be ignored. It was at the same dealership that had the 1989 Town Car for sale. A clean, and period-perfect chariot. In bygone days, these were known as ‘land yachts.’ Probably an insane choice for someone facing the prospect of rising gasoline prices. But one I’d gladly make…

With my roster of alternatives completed, I reviewed each choice carefully.

Meanwhile, there was no consensus in our family about this decision. My father, now eighty years old, seemed to favor the Town Car. My brother thought that the Crown Victoria was a proper choice. My niece thought that a fuel-efficient vehicle like the Volkswagen would be sensible.

Liz simply suggested that we share her sedan until our finances improved.

Finally, I relented.

My wallet was empty. So waiting wasn’t difficult.

“I’m a man with a plan. But a pedestrian, I am!”

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