Gregory Dennis: Ready or another automotive romance
I bought my first car 41 years ago at Weybridge Garage. It was a 1970 VW Bug with 90,000 miles and four years of Vermont road rust.
I had acquired just enough money from college graduation presents to buy a car. So I bought the first Bug I saw.
Owning a VW was virtually a generational requirement at the time. Plus my girlfriend and I needed wheels as we embarked on the trial-by-fire of living together.
Four decades and several cars later, it’s time to think about getting yet another new vehicle. Time to open yet another tiny chapter in the Great American Love Affair with the Car.
And as much as I’m trying to avoid the unflattering comparison between cars and romantic partners, not all the romance has gone out of the automobile.
Perhaps old cars, like old flames, have something to teach us.
Lesson No. 1: Never buy a four-year-old VW Bug with 90,000 miles on it. Especially if it’s been driven in Vermont before the word “rustproofing” has entered the English language.
I was making $100 a week at the time, so there was no money for repairs done by a mechanic. Facing one emergency fix after another, I fell under the spell of “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.”
I certainly qualified as a compleat idiot. Somehow I kept the car alive long enough to hit the highway two years later.
On that Great American Road Trip, I encountered flooded roads in Georgia that splashed water up through the rotted floor boards of the VW. Minnesota winds damn near blew me and the car off the interstate. I finally plowed the thing into a South Dakota cornfield.
There a friendly old mechanic was able to straighten the bent front axle, at least enough to make the car somewhat drivable. It finally gave up the ghost shortly after I hit the Arizona desert.
Lesson No. 2: Avoid buying a Datsun. Especially when the guy selling it admits the car “has a few small issues.”
Having thumbed my way to the California coast, I had scraped together enough cash to buy a Datsun 500 wagon. It was the perfect surfmobile for a San Diego summer — if only it had remained capable of forward motion.
Short story: I cracked the block and traded it in for $300 toward a new Honda Civic hatchback.
Lesson No. 3: Never leave a trusty Honda behind. Two years after I bought the Civic, I embarked for a year in Australia. I sold the Honda to a former girlfriend before I left. And when I returned, carless, I watched her drive that lovable, unstoppable little Civic around the neighborhood for years to come.
Lesson No. 4: “Rabbit” is a cute name for a car — way better than the Golf name it later acquired — but a cute name doesn’t mean the sunroof won’t leak.
Contrary to the song and current drought, it does sometimes rain in Southern California. In the Rabbit, there were mornings when I would drive to work with a towel in my lap, to soak up the rainwater leaking through the top.
When it came time to sell the Rabbit, a young woman and her mother answered the classified ad. They seemed like the perfect owners. Until, that is, they took the car for a test drive and returned three minutes later. On foot.
The Rabbit’s battery had died down the block. Wisely, mother and daughter chose not to make a purchase that day.
Nonetheless, I was determined to continue my inexplicable love affair with VWs. Some men will pick the same type of woman, no matter how many times it doesn’t work out.
The Rabbit ended up as part of a trade-in for a new Jetta. That red sedan had the virtues of a payment I could afford and a sunroof that didn’t leak. Over several years of Jetta ownership, however, I came to learn…
Lesson No. 5: Consumer Reports can be wrong.
The Jetta came with stellar recommendations from the car-buying bible. But several years and costly repairs later, it was obvious to me that the experts had blown it in their evaluation.
Even a beautiful woman can be an undesirable companion. And European cars, it turns out, are no more reliable overall than American vehicles. Which led me to…
Lesson No. 6: Buy a Japanese car.
For several years there, my then-wife and I were happy Honda drivers. Like millions of others, we struck up a lasting accord with an Accord. Two of them, in fact.
They were comfortable, they sipped gas, they had enough power to pass on the freeway, and — blessing of blessings — they needed no repair work until the timing chain needed to be replaced.
By that point we were 80,000 miles down the road. And those pesky little monthly payment coupons were a distant memory.
Lesson No. 7: Buy more Japanese cars.
By the time I finally came to my senses and moved back to Vermont some years ago, I had migrated to a Toyota Camry. We shipped it to Vermont, and all these years later that car is still rolling along.
I’ve had a couple other flings since then — with a used Audi wagon and a leased Ford hybrid that gets a glorious 40 miles per gallon. But I haven’t found anything with the rock-solid reliability of a Honda or Toyota.
So will my next car be a Japanese one?
Don’t bet on it. Some men never learn.