Do they ever die?
My friend Pat M., who lives in Chicago, spent the night in Ann Arbor last Sunday before flying out of Detroit Metro airport early Monday morning. (Don’t ask why he drove all the way from Chicago to fly out of Detroit; it’s too complicated.) Anyway, as it happened, I was scheduled to leave Detroit at the same time, on the first leg of my journey to Korea to drive the new, 2009 Hyundai Genesis. So I decided to ride to the airport with Pat.
This occasion gave me the opportunity to take stock of Pat’s well-worn 1996 Honda Civic sedan, a car he owns because I implored him to buy it, brand-new, twelve long years ago. You see, Pat is not a car guy. He is more of a shoes guy. An antiques guy. A dog guy, and a fluffy down comforters guy. A car, to him, is simply a means of getting from here to there, and he wants to do it as simply, as cheaply, and with as little fuss as possible. Considerations of style and performance are largely irrelevant. I’d already seen him burned by the purchase of an early-90s Pontiac LeMans, the rebadged Daewoo that was one of the worst vehicles GM has sold in the United States in the past quarter-century. Pat’s LeMans was no exception, giving him endless grief nearly from the moment he innocently rolled it off the Pontiac dealer’s lot. I don’t recall if he traded it in on the Honda or if it had already died by that point, but in any case I insisted that he spring for the Civic, as I knew he would drive his next car for many years.
Which is what he has done. The Civic has 170,000 miles on it, and nothing major has gone wrong. All Pat has ever done is replace tires, put in a new clutch, and conduct routine maintenance. And I suspect he hasn’t been particularly punctual about doing that. The car spent its first nine years on the mean streets of Detroit, never garaged, and now leads an equally hard life in Chicago.
I stepped outside my front door on Monday morning and climbed into the passenger’s seat. The interior has held up reasonably well, although the seat seemed kinda low. Some sort of aftermarket stereo face plate was buried deep inside the radio hole; I never ascertained if it works, but I don’t think Pat would go without a radio. The muffler was rattling and vibrating and was well beyond the point of needing to be replaced. “Yeah, I just haven’t gotten around to that,” Pat shrugged. “More important, I need to get my aftermarket security system taken out. It wouldn’t allow me to start the car one time recently, so I’m just going to get rid of the damn thing.”
As we headed east into the morning sun, Pat impatiently weaving in and out of rush hour traffic, I noticed that the windshield had thousands of tiny scratches in it. “Is this your original windshield?” I asked. “Yep,” replied Pat with a note of satisfaction. “And see the big crack toward the bottom? That happened within the first month after I got the car, and I never bothered to get it fixed!” I started to tell Pat that he ought to buy a new Mazda 3 hatchback, but he cut me off: “I’m gonna drive this car for another five years. Why not? There’s nothing wrong with it!”
I told Pat about another friend of mine, David L, a Classics professor in San Francisco, who bought a Civic upon my recommendation about a year before Pat bought his. David was replacing the beater 1984 Nissan Sentra that had carried him through graduate school and to the Bay Area. Like Pat, he wanted a car he could drive for years. He called me one day in 1994 or 1995 and expressed his desire to buy a Dodge Neon, a notion I found alarming. “You really ought to consider a Civic, David,” I said. “I know you will keep this car for a long time.” “I looked at them,” he replied, “but they’re too expensive. I still have student loans to pay off!” I implored him to squeeze enough money out of his beginning professor’s salary to cover a Civic. He hemmed and he hawed, but he finally relented and bought the most stripper Civic hatchback imaginable. It had no radio, no A/C, and nasty vinyl seats.
David, one of the most parsimonious people I have ever known, drove that damn car through the streets of San Francisco for the next twelve years. Every so often, I would ask him how it was doing, and invariably the reply was, “It’s been great. I never do anything to it.” Naturally, I would take the opportunity to say, “Aren’t you glad you listened to my advice? Don’t you want to thank me?!? Have you seen any eight-year-old Neons rattling around San Francisco? No? I didn’t think so.”
By last year, David was a fully tenured professor and chair of his department, so apparently he was feeling more entitled than usual. In a huge departure from his normal character, he went out and bought himself a fully loaded Lexus ES350. I about fell out of my chair when I heard the news. “Well, I put $20,000 down,” David admitted sheepishly, “so my payments are about what they’d be if I’d bought another Civic. That’s how I’m justifying it to myself.”
“What are you doing with your old Civic?” I asked. “Oh, I put an ad on CraigsList,” David said with amazement, “and I had dozens of calls. Some kid was at my door within an hour with $2500 in cash and happily drove it away.”