Monday, June 4, 2012

Ode to a Car

In 2003 (or, maybe 2004?) Tabitha went with her father (this was B.R., before she became a Ray) to a Toyota dealership on Skyland Blvd in Tuscaloosa, Al (Tuscaloosa Toyota, as it happens), looking for a new solution for her automobile needs.

Tabitha had, in the preceding months, driven her mid-80s era white Pontiac Grand Am to the point that the poor creature literally tossed a push rod out of the bottom of it's engine, through the oil pan, flinging the abused piece of metal down I-20/59 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in a trail of brilliant orange sparks.  The car was as dead as one can be (though, incidentally, it was later resurrected by it's next owner who dropped a refurbished engine in; I wonder if it's still on the road somewhere, even now?)

As you can imagine, Tabitha's lack of a car was a problem.  So, the saga continued when Tabitha's father acquired a used late 80s BMW from a relative.  That would have been fine, but THAT poor beast needed a new controller computer for the electrical system.  Without warning (and with a knack for choosing in-opportune times), it's computer chip would overheat, causing the electrical system (and thus the engine, starter, and ... everything, really) to cease functioning.  The solution was to jump out, pop the hood, and take the positive terminal off the battery.  It would have been possible to repair the offending piece, but the drawback to owning a car, like a BMW, which tends to keep its value over the years, is that it's also prohibitively expensive to buy the parts and find someone with enough skill and expertise to work on it.  The second or third time Tabitha performed this operation in the middle of the road she'd had enough.  

So, when Tabitha and her father wandered over to the used car section at Tuscaloosa Toyota and found a model 2002 Toyota Sebring (light blue, no bells or whistles) she fell in love and within a day she'd settled with the dealership for a ten year loan (a loan that was paid off ahead of time). 

Let's face it, the venerable Chrysler name doesn't mean what it used to.  I haven't been able to keep track of who owns the Chrysler name these days, but back then Dodge owned it.  And if you put a 2002 Dodge Stratus next to a 2002 Chrysler Sebring you will have to squint REAL hard to determine which is which.  They are the same car with different maker emblems and a few nicer plastic components inside the Sebring.

That said, when the transmission broke into a pile of grinding gear teeth at around  the 60,000 mile mark, we actually weren't too surprised.  Tabitha's dad had had enough forethought (I think he would have preferred Tabitha get something else) to purchase a power train warranty from the dealership.  (Incidentally, when the repair man showed us the $1500 repair price tag he asked, weren't we glad we decided to buy the warranty.  One the one hand, yes, but of course, on the other, I'd already figured that over the lifetime of the warranty the transmission could have died in exactly the same fashion twice more before the dealership began to lose money.  Luckily(?) that didn't happen.)

Furthermore, when the timing belt broke on the Interstate near Morristown, Tn with Tabitha and I on our way to celebrate Christmas in Alabama three years ago we were extremely inconvenienced and put under a bit of a monetary strain, but we weren't terribly surprised when all was said and done.  (Incidentally, the Sebring has what's called an "interference engine" design, where the valve head and the piston head partially occupy the same space inside the engine as they slide back and forth.  Ideally, they never touch, but when the timing belt breaks going down the road at 70 mph, things start to get dicey.  By some stroke of luck, the life of the engine itself didn't die three years ago as it could have if the valve and piston had knocked in to one another).

So, with all of this, why am I calling this post an "ode" (ignoring the fact that there's not a lyrical verse to be found in the whole post)?  Because I've come to see that car as a a survivor.  I've been driving the old car full-time for almost two years now.  I've spilled battery acid in it's trunk, I barely ever wash the thing, it needs new tires ever more desperately.  It long ago lost, one by one, all four of it's fancy (plastic) Chrysler hub-caps and has steadfastly refused to wear any cheap replacements.  It's headlights are cloudy and it's paint is fading.  It leaks oil and leaks steering fluid, but it gets me reliably where I'm going.

This week, I've loaded it down repeatedly (probably ten times so far) to take our stuff to our new house.  It's living a third life as a work horse for us.

It's silly to personify machines.  Nevertheless, the other day I was thinking that, as it rolled off the assembly line and was slapped with the name Chrysler it never imagined it would have such a hard life.  Probably, all it's Chrysler buddies would make fun of it if they could see it now.  But, there is honor and reason for pride in working hard. 

The car may die tomorrow (personally I'm REALLY hoping it'll stay alive for another few years), but even if it does it can go to it's final rest knowing it's owners got their money's worth; for sure.  


  1. Sam the Grand-Am was a 90's model; the loan I took out was only for 7 years.

    I hate to correct you in public, buuuut...

    1. It could be worse. You could point out that there is no such thing as a "Toyota Sebring" (He did eventually correct that later in the post, however :P)

      Good post though!