Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Car that Died (And Wouldn't Stay Dead)

Yes, I have cars on the brain. The imminent demise of our Bonneville is weighing on my mind. Back before we purchased Bonne's predecessor, the Intrepid, we suffered through a string of falling-apart cars that left me on a first-name basis with most of the AAA towing companies serving my end of the county.

It all started when I wrecked the Firebird as I mentioned in a prior post. We'd paid that loan off early and were looking to replace The Oracle's '83 Dodge 600 (a boxy-looking thing, but probably the most comfy car I ever drove), but we needed to replace the Firebird instead. I liked driving the 600, but its third transmission was on its way out, and The Oracle knew replacing it again wasn't worth the price of the car.

We bought the Caprice to replace the wrecked Firebird, and the 600 had the nerve to up and die for good shortly afterward. Being broke newlyweds with a year-old mortgage and a shiny-new car payment, my mom gave us her '72 Duster on permanent loan. The Duster (or "The Ruster," as I called it) was my very first ride, and I drove it the minute I got my license until The Oracle and I married, with only a brief period of driving the Firebird after my sister died and before the Oracle's purchase of it.

Ruster was once an attractive chocolate brown, but time and sun dulled and faded her paint to a bit of a poo color. When I tried waxing what was left of her finish, I finally understood the saying, "You can't polish a turd." Ruster had her nitpicky problems (condensation buildup in her engine the worst, brake lights that wouldn't shut off without holding up the pedal the least), but she always started. Keeping her going is what got iffy.

One evening, my mother called me in excitement one evening to hurry over to her house. She asked me to drive the Ruster over. Odd, I thought. When I arrived, I found this impossibly huge car sitting in the driveway and my mom jingling its keys at me. Said car was a '76 Cadillac Coupe Deville that Mom proudly purchased from an elderly neighbor who purchased it new sixteen years before. Mom was so proud. The car had only one owner, and knowing how the neighbor took care of everything else she owned, she just knew the car was an excellent buy.

Cadi was a funky faded orangey color with a white leather interior and white landau roof. It was an absolute monster, and I knew The Oracle would love it immediately. I happily took it home and a few days later Mom gave Ruster to a coworker who wanted to restore it. Within hours, I wanted Ruster back, but I shut my mouth thinking Cadi deserved a chance.

The Oracle and I took Cadi for a test drive that very night, and she crapped out a mere five minutes into our drive, leaving us stranded in the left-turn lane of a very busy intersection. We spent the next few hours waiting for and dealing with two AAA tow trucks, the first of which couldn't handle the weight of the Cadi, popping its hydraulic belts when the car was only six inches off the ground. Too low to tow and too high to push off, we were stranded there until the second truck arrived and until the first tower managed to figure out how to lower the car back down to earth so the second guy could step in.

Eventually the second truck was able to take over, using the old-fashioned tow sling to lift Cadi's bulk. Cadi creaked and groaned like an old ship in a pirate movie, her tailpipe spitting sparks as it dragged along the highway.

That night started a long, pitiful time in our ownership of the Cadi. The car was awesomely huge on the interior, and the trunk probably had a four-corpse capacity. When she was new, she was equipped with every fancy bell and whistle available at the time. What we didn't learn until later was that very few of the bells worked because years of mechanics cutting corners to save a little old lady a few bucks left Cadi's electrical system in a perpetual state of "lost cause." Still, when Cadi ran, driving her was fun. By the time I learned how little she would run, my Ruster was signed over to her new owner and gone forever.

I discovered Cadi's dysfunctional gas gauge when she stalled out at the quarter tank mark and I had to push her off the highway into a parking lot. Thank God it was downhill. Thank God I was still skinny and quick enough to hop inside and stand on the brakes before the optometrist's office stopped the car for me.

On one occasion, The Oracle's friend absently locked the Caprice while the engine was running. Some police departments will pop your car locks for you, but the PD where this happened wouldn't. I had to drive the spare set over. It took me forever. I was afraid of taking the interstate to the nice big bridge over the river because I didn't trust Cadi. If she stalled on the interstate, I was as good as dead. I wisely took the stop-and-go route, crossing over the river at a mega-skinny two-lane bridge. Cadi was so wide I could only crawl over that bridge at maybe fifteen miles an hour, my progress marked by the serenade of curses and angry, blaring horns behind me.

Around this time, The Oracle saw the writing on the wall and bought me a Nokia bag phone as an early Christmas present. (Packrat that I am, I still have the phone.) I was thankful for that and felt a little more confident until Cadi decided to short out her entire electrical system as I cruised along the highway at 45 miles an hour, which meant that I couldn't call for a tow from the comfort of my disabled car. NooOOoo. I had to cross the busy highway (over the guard rail) to the convenience store on the other side.

Winter struck, and -- drat! -- we discovered that the heat and defrosters didn't work. Along my drive to work I'd have to scrape my frozen exhalations off the inside of the windshield with a credit card at every traffic light. Hey, at least my maxed-out credit card maintained some form of usefulness.

I really started resenting Cadi, and couldn't wait until we got another car. The car sensed my dislike.

The following summer, I correctly assumed the A/C wouldn't work since the compressor couldn't defrost my windshield. I could live with that, but now it seemed like the heat I didn't have in winter now ran nonstop. Heat from the engine blew through the floor vents and burned the tops of my feet. I couldn't turn off the blower or redirect the vents. I'd get out of the car and my right foot would be flaming red to the ankle and sensitive to touch, much like a sunburn. I'd drive with my left foot when the right got too painful.

I began to openly pray for Cadi's excessive engine heat to engulf her in a fiery death because it was the only way The Oracle would agree to taking on another car payment before the Caprice's four-year-loan was paid up.

Cadi must've heard me, because she started ditching me in nearly every parking lot we visited. It was then that I really became acquainted with the area towing companies and their individual drivers. During this season, we got our money's worth out of our AAA membership. Sometimes AAA could get me going, and sometimes they'd have to tow it to the garage.

Once, on my way home from work, I passed a very long tailpipe and rusty muffler on the side of the road. I recognized the road-chewed end of the tail pipe and shamefully realized it was mine. More shameful still is that I left it there.

That car tortured my soul for nearly four years. Near the end, I didn't dare remove Cadi from the township unless it was absolutely necessary. By this time, The Oracle worked midway along my work commute, so I'd drive the Caprice and drop him off and pick him up on the way to and from. He'd take me to work during my weekend shifts. Cadi stayed in the driveway unless we encountered a true two-car need. It bought just enough time for us to pay off the Caprice, save a few pennies, and buy the Intrepid.

Not a tear was shed when Cadi left the driveway. Well, okay. I do miss the trunk space.

5 comments:

Nikki said...

Well written article.

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