Monday, July 04, 2011

My Cars

My older brother introduced me to the British show "Top Gear" a couple months ago.  I've never been a big gearhead, but I have enjoyed Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May with their backhanded reviews of various vehicles, oddball challenges, and road tests by the enigmatic Stig as well as celebrities ("The Star in the Reasonably Priced Car").  I've also learned that, for the most part, American cars are garbage compared to European ones.  It's a far more entertaining and informative show than MPT's stodgy "MotorWeek" in which John Davis says the same thing in the same overblown cadence week after week.  By the way, check out the guys' visit to Reno a few years back.

So this got me thinking about my history of Cygmobiles, not that I can quite write about them in the style of Top Gear.  I'll do it in my style and supply photos where possible/applicable; unless otherwise mentioned, these are photos I gleaned off the web.

1976 Chevy Nova (actual image)

(A screencap from an old family home video, and note my neighbor's AMC Pacer in the background!)

This came from the era in which GM simply forgot how to make cars, especially with all the new emissions regulations of the mid-70s.  My folks bought this to replace the 1971 USS Chevy Impala; that thing was a battleship, with a black interior and exterior.  Nice and hot on summer days, and running the A/C only hurt the 10 MPG more.  But I digress, since I never even drove the Impala.

For a while, the two-door, split fold-down Nova was the only car our family had (remember when all families had only one car?).  Somehow, all eight of us fit in it a couple times, but that was when my brothers were quite small.  Then my dad eventually got a Ford Escort, so I wound up driving this one a lot, especially in college.  I more or less took it over as my own.  It was a straight-6 engine that had decent pickup.

I took it on several road trips, once to Old Rag Mountain on Skyline Drive in Virginia, and then to Ocean City a time or two.  One of those times, I drove the whole way and back with a busted leaf spring, and wondered what that grinding noise was.  My dad had to rig up some kludgy contraption involving four jacks to repair it; he says that was the most difficult vehicle fix he ever made.  Also, the handle to pull the driver's side door came off, so I had to jerry-rig part of a leather belt in its place to get it to close.

The most famous thing about this car was its lack of power anything . . . but especially steering.  You could get an upper body workout just trying to parallel park it.  The hood could also be opened from the outside, meaning one frigid night when I went to see Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke at the Meyerhoff in downtown Baltimore, I came out to find the battery stolen.  I had to wake up my dad and get him to pick me up.

Having written so much on the Nova, I guess it means a lot to me.

1970 Dodge Dart

My aforementioned older brother (no, he's not Racer X, or even The Stig) entrusted this car to me when we went into the Air Force in 1984.

Well, his trust was misplaced, as I forgot to check the oil every so often; I cared more about what was on the stereo.  The engine seized up and died a couple months after he left.  I wonder if he's ever forgiven me for it. One of the fenders was replaced and still had writing in paint on it.  A number of my relatives had Dodge Darts or Plymouth Valiants, pretty much the same thing.  I earned my driver's license on my aunt's Dart.

1972 Chevy Chevelle

I didn't own this car, but got to drive it a bit when my parents bought it inexpensively from a neighbor of my grandfather.  The hood was a bit rusted and the vinyl top dry-rotted, but the 307 V8 had gobs of power.  It was huge and fun to drive . . . except when the plug wires didn't work and the engine kept stalling.  Like the Impala, this was not a car to buy for its gas mileage, but if I had had the inkling/talent, it could have been worth restoring.

1986 Chevy Celebrity

This was the first car I bought for myself; it had been a company fleet car.  It only lasted me three years, however.  I took it on a few long trips, such as to my older brother's wedding in Maine (my sister had to drive or else she'd get carsick, and we argued about almost everything all the way up and back), a wedding in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the fateful vacation in Cape Hatteras where Ladycub and I first became an item.  It had a 4-cylinder 2.2 engine, and I found the oil rather difficult to change on it because of the engine being mounted sideways.  Under the hood was far more crammed with stuff than either the Nova or the Chevelle, whose engines were bigger.

Although it was a good-sized 4-door vehicle with wide seats, it really goes down as one of Chevy's poorest efforts.  It seemed they wanted to make either an oversized Citation (another loser for the Bow Tie) or an undersized Caprice, and came up with neither.  The beginning of the end came when it broke down on Route 30 near Lancaster, PA; I believe it ended up having head/valve problems.

1990 Plymouth Acclaim (actual photo)

"Happy the people who learn to Acclaim me."  The first car I bought from a dealer, and hence the first time I learned about the old salesman "Let me talk to my manager" ploy.  The Acclaim was a successor to the Reliant and other K-cars of the bailed-out Chrysler-Plymouth (history repeats itself).  It apparently had been a rental vehicle.

This sedan (or "saloon," as the Top Gear guys call it) was nothing spectacular, but it was still roomy.  And it was my first vehicle to have cruise control.  It lasted me about four years until the engine decided it had had enough.  Also, I had Loyola High tags on this and my next couple vehicles.

Here's a shot of me digging out the Acclaim after the January 1996 blizzard.  Speaking of which, I drove it up to Rochester, NY and back twice.  Once was in January 1994 between two blizzards.

1991 Dodge Spirit (actual photo, right, next to LC's long-lasting 1990 Geo Prizm)

Like the Dart and the Valiant, the Spirit was almost a carbon copy of the Acclaim.  I bought it from a fellow employee.  It had a little more mileage than the Acclaim, and lasted about the same amount of time, four years.  Guess I need a car every Presidential administration.  I still remember when it threw a rod in Annapolis, and I was barely able to limp back to the house.

1998 Chevy Malibu

I'm shocked I can't find my own picture of "the 'Bu."  It was the first and probably only car we've ever bought brand new, thanks to credits from a credit card.   We got it from Anderson Chevrolet with the help of a buying service,  There's something about that New Car Smell.  There's also something about the immediate depreciation once you drive it off the lot, and the gas mileage was so-so.

But it was a fun car to drive, with plenty of room, a great stereo, a smooth ride, and good power.  It felt more like a car you wanted to be seen in . . . which isn't why we bought it.  Sandy and I took turns driving it.  It lasted us nearly seven years, until it gave up the ghost on the side of I-70 as we were heading to (ironically enough) my uncle's funeral.

Only a week and a half after we took ownership of it, we nearly hit a deer on White Marsh Boulevard outside Baltimore.  Somehow, I managed to hit the brakes so that the 'Bu didn't spin out, and it stopped inches from the deer crossing in front of us.

1996 Saturn

This was a fortuitous purchase after the Spirit died.  I bought it from my next-door neighbor, who was trading up for another Saturn.  But his car was ultimately disappointing; it required a lot of work and died in 2003 after barely three years of use.  It was also smaller than anything else I'd driven, handled roughly, and wasn't that comfortable.  But I guess I got my money's worth out of it: when I first started working in radio in 2002, I put 20K miles on it in six months . . . not that that anything to do with its demise.

This may have been my last GM car ever.

2000 Ford Focus Wagon

This was one of my favorites, and so far has been the only vehicle I've had that has cracked the 200K odometer barrier.  That means we put 170K miles on it . . . in just five years, and 50K in just the 18 months prior to 200K.  That happens when the average commute to work is 100 miles round trip, between the two of us.

I never felt like I was driving a wagon, and being married, I no longer had to worry about whether it turned women off (a former roommate had a Cavalier wagon, and he figured that was his chick repellent).  It handled great (even in snow), got close to 30 MPG, and could carry all sorts of junk.  Not that we used it, but it also had a roof rack.

On the downside, we did have to put a good bit of work into it, figuring that was still cheaper than a car payment.  Do a search in this blog under "Cygmobile" for some of those stories.  It was still running when we left to move out West, but we opted not to take it with us, although we toyed with the idea of driving it across the country for the trip.

2001 Toyota Corolla (current, actual photo)

The Top Gear guys described the Corolla as "bulletproof," and I'm not going to argue.  I have a feeling this thing is also going to reach 200K miles.  This was my first purchase off Craigslist, and the character I bought it from was kind of shadowy.  But I knew a Corolla would be rugged.

I'm not all that sure why I like it.  It's not the most comfortable car I've ever driven.  If it weren't for power steering, nothing would be power in it (see the Nova above).  Speaking of power, it's a challenge to get up I-80 into the Sierra in it.  The ride is rough and loud, and the concrete interstates out here don't help things much.  And I really lament the fact it doesn't have cruise control; it makes the drive to the Bay Area painful for my right foot.

I have had to put some money into this car, but mainly for things that wear out after 100K miles, such as the timing belt, the serpentine belt (you do not want it to break on you in the wilds of Nevada), and the catalytic converter (That?  Was pricey).  And I did have to replace one of the headlight lenses and the two windshield washer fluid nozzles.

But I like the Corolla's reliability.  In nearly three years, I haven't had any breakdowns, and it gets 30 MPG or more.  And since most of my driving is right around town (I average maybe 10K miles a year), it's fine for that purpose.  It handles OK in the snow, although I haven't chained it up for a winter trip over the Sierra yet.

And unlike American cars, I like being in a vehicle that doesn't feel like it has to go to the shop every couple months.  It's not being held together with duct tape and superglue.  Nice to have some peace of mind about my ride.