Friday, June 22, 2012

Were the Mid 1990s the Final Era of Quality Car Construction?

Today I bought a car, and tomorrow I am petrified of going all the way to the Registry of Motor Vehicles and being told of some past infraction I wasn’t aware of. Government offices kick my paranoia nerve into overdrive. I just realized that the address on my driver’s license has been out of date for years…maybe they’ve been trying to contact me with some important announcement (or punishment) and I missed it!

The gears of the world are sharper these days, and there are more of them. To put it another way: there is more than enough rope out there for all of us to hang ourselves. And we need to be careful to know where all our important papers are, at all times. I would like to scan all of mine and put them on a digital device--perhaps the new Windows Tablet!--and have the thing short out from a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. Everything gone. And when the goons come knocking, tell them I’ve got nothing left. I went and shredded the originals, to save room in my office. Now what are you going to do, lock me up? You have free health care in prison, right?”

And all the while they’re laughing inside, because the NSA has copies of my documents and has had them for years. But they don’t need to tell me that. The real infraction is not knowing where my own copies are.


A Honda Accord, 16 years old, old enough to drive itself. We test-drove four cars before that, including a 2003 Civic hybrid and a 2002 Volvo Station Wagon. None of them felt as snappy and responsive as this old beater. If it continues to drive as well for the next several years as it did today, I'll be a happy man, even without a CD player or air conditioning. It was the first car we looked at all day that didn't have a check engine light flashing or a dead battery, and it cost a third of the others. 

I'll be grateful for the low price again tomorrow, when we pay the sales tax. 

I've already ordered the Haynes service manual, thinking maybe this will be my tinker car. I always wanted to learn more about the Honda Civic I used to drive; maybe if I'd been more proactive with it I could have learned to switch out the engine myself, instead of selling it to a ruffian.      

Seems a little weird to be stepping into an even older car, but the mileage is low: 145,000, compared to the 190,000+ of everything else we tested. Despite some rust on the muffler, it's amazingly quiet--so quiet that at idle, we thought it had stalled. 

The modern cars I've been in lately always feel tinny and cheap. The Chevy Malibu we took to Maine was comfortable, but always felt it was one bump away from rust and ruin. The Nissan Versa I rented for a drive into the city sounded like an asthmatic wheezing into a tin can, and it got pushed around the road by the slightest gusts. As I white-knuckled it home, I thought, at least I'll get some good mileage from this lightweight. Then I filled up the tank and did the math: 22 mpg. Might as well have taken an SUV! My co-worker's big Ford gets better mileage than that. But it, too, has an engine that sounds like it's wheezing away at RPMs inappropriate for its speed. 

Is that just the way of it, now? Little tinny motors in all size cars being pushed towards the red-line to make up for their diminutive size? Each time we test drove another car we went back to our disintegrating Volvo and thought, gosh, this still feels nicer

And then we found the Accord, with its welded aftermarket gearshift handle and its AM/FM radio, and it just felt healthy.

I don't know, maybe it's because I'm used to ancient cars, so that anything post millennium feels off (lightweight, chintzy, plastic, disposable) to me. The Wife describes the feeling these new cars provide as "sitting in a marshmallow." Overstuffed upholstery envelops you and holds you in place; meanwhile a tidal wave of plastic in the dashboard, center console, and side-panels encroaches on your legs, and overwhelms you with childish buttons and needless distraction. And when you actually drive these things, they twitch and judder, hesitating and then surging with each switch of the automatic transmission. It’s style over substance. And what makes it worse is that the style is so tacky.

It seems strange to me that the nineties should be the last bastion of decent car-quality. But even one of the dealers told us, "Yeah, we'll give you something on trade for your old Volvo. People are always looking for parts for those, because they don't want to let them go." 

In the end we decided to keep it.


  1. Oh boy, did you ever nail it. We have a 10 year old Yukon and with luck it will last another ten or more. It does NOT have that damn center console that bisects the front seat. Even so, the leg room is marginal. I'm bigger than many NFL linemen, and a lot older. Finding a new or recent car or even a bloody truck that has enough leg and head room is almost impossible. I don't need to sink into cloud-soft upholstery or be enveloped(swallowed?) by consoles and gadgets. I just want to be able to drive without cramping my legs or pressing into the roof with my head. An AM/FM radio would be sufficient.

    If we ever need a second vehicle or to replace the current one, I plan to find an old car with a decent, roomy body. Then I'll have a new/rebuilt engine and transmission installed. It would fit me and the cost would be a third or less of a new car. Or I may just find a 1974 VW Superbeetle. It has enough room and I can do simple repairs on the engine.

    Thanks for letting me rant.

    Jeff The Bear

  2. Rant away, Jeff! Rant away!

    Do you have any experience with car modifications/repairs/rebuilds? Or are you planning to just jump in and figure it out as you go along like I am? Any advice for someone planning to fake it for the first time?

  3. Unfortunately, I can't do the work myself. In decades past I could change the oil, replace a gasket, or do a simple tune-up. A complete rebuild or installation is beyond me, so it would have to be hired out. That's OK as long as I'm not held hostage to computer diagnostics and an esoteric priesthood of mechanics to do the simplest maintenence.

    It's silly, but one thing I really miss is the little triangular windows that pivot in for ventilation. They always seemed so practical and effective.

    Sorry I can't offer any advice.

    Jeff The Bear

  4. Jeff, I totally forgot about those little triangular windows! Now I remember riding around in pickup trucks in the summer heat as a kid with my step-dad, and how you turned those backwards so they blew the air straight on your face. Thanks for that.

    That was back when a kid could ride in the front seat and feel important and special. Now we have to lock them in the back and wrap them in child safety seats (marshmallows within marshmallows) until they're practically through puberty!