Dispatches: Cars of constant sorrow

All I wanted was a car but all I got was a lemon.

That sounds like a Rick Springfield b-side that never quite made it to shelves of record stores. Last year I owned an automatic ’92 red Precidia with rounded edges and rear end spoiler for a brief period of time. I treated it much better than other cars I had, like the green ’94 Camry for example, the car I used to screech around city streets delivering pizzas; the same car that wore pizza toppings and cheese grease on the dashboard and passenger seats. It smelled like a combination of Pizza Hut and sea-breeze air freshener most of the week.


The Precidia though, was a car that caught my eye. It had a glorious sunroof, was a good shade of red and felt like a James Bond Sunday drive. I bought it for $1500 from a 65-year old golfing widow who used to wear her pink golf glove and New York Knicks baseball cap whenever we met. It was her way of letting me know she was the golfing type. In the ad online, she stated the sports car was in “mint condition” even though it was a 21-year old car. She also proclaimed she never drove it, apart from the odd weekend trip up the highway. “I’ve kept it in the underground car park,” she told me one day on the phone, proud of her achievement. “It has never rusted. And the car has never had any big issues.” I knew she was telling fibs. Anyone who says their 20-year old car has had zero hiccups while on the road is clearly telling fibs. But I had no way to prove it and like most of us, I wanted a car.

As a new car-owner, life becomes like that first bite of a beef cheese burger; juicy and celestial. We pick and chose where we go and are not bound by timetables, getting to destinations quicker. The conundrum of car ownership comes when cars break down and it costs you money to fix it. Then you start weighing up the financial aspect of car ownership. Cars then, are not cool. The other problem with cars is buying them. People (including golfing widows) who sell cars don’t tell you what you need to hear, they tell you what you want to hear. Sometimes we’re oblivious to any red flags.

Adding further unease to the conversation, the golf widow apologized for the fact the car did not come with a service logbook (although she did say it had regular check ups) at the time of my first test drive. Her condo car park was flanked by tennis courts, trees that made rustling noises when the wind picked up, and four-story apartments. We hopped inside the Precidia and made our way up the highway. The engine hummed and didn’t show any signs of peril. The golf widow was busy telling me how much she adored the car and was sad to part with it. Her parents had bought her a new car, filled with the latest high tech gadgets, something that pleased her greatly as she could now fit her overnight bag and golf bag all in the one car. I tried to open the automatic window. It didn’t go down. “Oh,sometimes it doesn’t work,” she said, eyeing my every move like a convenience store owner watching a teenage lurker. I left the window up. We drove on for another ten minutes, turned back headed toward her car park. The engine sounded good and it drove really well which for me are the two most important boxes to tick. It had only racked up 197,000 kilometres, too. I told her I’d take the car and we arranged several dates to meet for payment, which also allowed her time to give the Precidia an 11th hour road-worthiness check.

A typical family averages somewhere between six and ten cars owned over a lifetime. Looking through the list of cars my family had (14 in total), Dad chose reliability over flashy: mainly Toyotas and Fords. We use cars to transport difficult objects to and from far away destinations that would make life hell if we had to do it on public transport – or worse still, on foot. When I was six, Dad bought a Lazer hatchback for Mum because it was good for picking up groceries and compact for running errands. It was “honest” and “reliable” he said, and lasted a few years before our family bought the next upgrade. We make cut-throat decisions based on cars. If I was invited to a friends place across town without a car I might politely decline the offer and say “I’m not sure” because the trek would take me an hour by bus and buses are full of germs and rat men. But if I had a car I’d joyfully accept the invite, perhaps reply to my friend in song, because with a car I could get there in 20 minutes in complete, wonderful privacy. The clincher though is that cars offer comfort. How badly do you wish for a car when you are standing inside a crowded bus during winter witnessing a micro-coughing epidemic, knowing full well that once your journey ends you’ll be in bed for a week with the flu. The answer: so bad. Cars bring you silence from the outside world and revolutionary freedom.

Think about every road trip you’ve ever taken. Fun,right? Right: full car, silly songs blaring, yelling at each other so much because it’ so windy, because Steve prefers to drive with all four windows down. Good times. Cars not only serve a transportation need but they’re metal adventure mobiles. My first family car was a chocolate brown Torana, bought for $2000 in 1975 before I was born but was still running ’til I was three-years old. It was a column-shift, automatic car with a wind spoiler on the back. The spoiler was built-in and in theory, was meant to make the car go faster, but Dad, being the non-car enthusiast said it was probably built more for aesthetics. He also said it looked unnecessary. Dad said there was one time when he was returning from a 1300-km family road trip, one side of the single lane highway (not his) had miles and miles of hunting traffic 10-minutes from home. A woman pulled out from the traffic laden part of the highway  to get around a group of cars and was heading straight toward the chocolate brown Torana. Dad turned sharply and ended up in a ditch. Five metres away was a 300-metre drop into a valley, most likely full of vultures and crawling with indignant dogs. We got lucky.

Cars are something your parents saved for, looked after, then upgraded. Company cars also brought evolution and change among families. They brought heated debates between teenager and parent as to whether or not you’re allowed to borrow the company car for dates or to just drive around the ‘hood. In 1998 I took Dad’s blue commodore for a drive under the guidance of Mum the night before my driver’s exam. All was going well until I decided to practice a three-point turn across a quiet city street. There was no-one in sight. As I was backing up I heard a crunching sound. “That better not have been the car!,” mum shrieked. It was the car. I reversed into a light pole and smashed the tail light. With that, I handed the keys over to mum and sat in silence on the return trip back home, head slumped like I was traveling with my parole officer.

The passenger seat of a grotty pick up truck, with the red ‘92 Precidia in tow, was the last place I thought I’d ever be. I knew the car was on its deathbed. It was toast. It had been a summer to forget, oh red Precidia. I was on the highway and accelerated up a small incline and the car wouldn’t go. It just had nothing more to give, like one of those pro boxers deep into a round 12 heavyweight bout. In the tow truck I was a shell of a man. Then the recollections started to pour over me. Shortly after I gave the final payment to the golfing widow for the Precidia, I had to replace all four tires (the rear tire blew out and the rest were just as bald). Then the electronic window stopped working completely and I needed a new switch, which had to be ordered from the US. I arrived at the mechanics and he delivered the worst possible news: “you need an engine replacement”. Sometimes you can’t win with cars. Sometimes they let you down. But that’s when you pick yourself up and get a new one.


Dispatches will feature personal narratives from across Canada. If you are interested in contributing, please send an email to justinrobertson79@gmail.com