Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Clunkers, junkers, and beaters--oh my.

Last weekend Tom and I traveled to his parents' house near Newark, Ohio, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  In honor of the occasion, Tom's dad wanted to drive his restored 1953 Studebaker to the Granville Inn, where the celebratory dinner was being held, since it was the car that he drove to his wedding in 1960.  Or, at least, parts of it are the same car.  He also has a 1955 Studebaker he's been working on, so Tom's older brother George volunteered to drive it, too, especially since it was International Drive Your Studebaker Day.  A nice bit of karma, that.

Just the weekend before, Tom and his Dad drove the '53 and '55 cars to the 18th Annual Studebaker/Packard Show in Tallmadge, Ohio, and George drove his '63 Studebaker Lark down from Michigan.  It was a hot weekend, and needless to say, none of these cars have air-conditioning...or power steering...or a radio or comfortable seats.  When Tom got home on Sunday, the first thing he said when he walked in the door was that our 1997 Honda Accord drives like a dream compared to the '55 Studebaker.

Now, that's saying a lot, since the Honda is teetering on the brink of officially being a beater.  I'm not enough of a motorhead to describe the precise distinction between a "clunker," a "junker," and a "beater," but I'm fairly sure that of the three categories, what we have is a beater:  it's still in pretty good shape, both mechanically and cosmetically, but it's not the kind of car you want to put a whole lot of money into anymore.  It works, it makes some unhappy noises--though none that are alarming or that wake the neighbors--and no one is ever going to steal it.  Beater.

As the above photo of the dash indicates, it's got a lot of miles on it.  165, 295 to be exact.  When we bought it used in 1999 (a story in  itself, which I'll save for another time), it only had about 20,000 miles on it.  So we've racked up a lot in the eleven years we've owned it.

And as you can see, the check engine light is on.  The check engine light has probably been on more than off in the history of this car.  In fact, the '97 Accord was recalled a number of years ago for its problems with false "check engine" alerts, but whatever they did to it at the dealership didn't solve the problem.

As with the boy who cried wolf one too many times, we no longer pay the slightest attention to the check engine light.  Maybe it'll go out on its own eventually, maybe we'll take it to an auto parts store and have them reset it, maybe we'll just ignore it until one day we end up on the side of a lonely road as a plume of steam shoots heavenward from under the hood.  Like the aches and pains of middle age, the check engine light may mean nothing or everything.  Either way, it's not worth shelling out $80 to the local Honda dealership to get a diagnosis.

Tough love:  that's what you give a beater.  My brother Phillip, a Honda mechanic, is of the firm belief that you don't need to fix stuff until it's really broken.  (But he does preach the importance of routine maintenance, like oil changes, tire rotation, and belt replacements.)

Phillip also says that the greenest car is the one you keep on the road--that junking a perfectly serviceable, low-emission car for a brand-new hybrid is a zero-sum game in terms of the environment.  Sure, you may have taken a less fuel-efficient car off the road, but you've also just added to the landfill and acquired a new vehicle that presumably took a lot of energy to manufacture.

These were among my many thoughts as Tom and I drove behind the two Studebakers on Saturday afternoon.  Especially as we struggled to keep up with them.  Let me tell you, those two nearly sixty-year old cars, with their V8 engines, kicked our Honda's sad little @$$.

The poor Honda really struggles with steep hills these days, which is a hazard when you live in West Virginia.  Every time I'm chugging uphill with some giant SUV barreling up behind me, I'm torn between wanting to apologize and wishing I had one of those "Don't laugh--it's paid for!" bumper stickers.

And there's the sad proof that you're driving a beater:  when you actually understand why people put those bumper stickers on their cars.

But:  we haven't had a car payment in seven or eight years, and I don't relish the idea of having one and being out that three- or four-hundred dollars a month.  And we don't have a garage, so the idea of buying a brand-new car just to park it on the street full time seems a little ridiculous.

Nevertheless, I do feel a pang every time I see one of these babies tooling around town.  Someday the Honda will pass from "beater" to "junker," and when that day comes, Ms. Mini:  you will be mine, all mine.

With thanks to Jane for reminding me of those lyrics.


beth said...

I feel your pain. Last year I was in the same place, car wise, and finally bit the bullet and got a new (used) car. My old Toyota with 180K miles was still in fairly good shape save for one expensive repair that cost more than the value of the car.

Off it went to Trosa, a residential program for recovering drug addicts who learn trades (including car repair) and how to live sober. Tax write off for me, a fixed up car for a graduate. Well worth it.

Love the mini, and it would look GOOD in the Granville Inn parking lot!

Phillip said...

Lest I come off like a cheapskate let me say that not all older cars are good green solutions. It's just that the 96 Accord like most cars built after 1992 are good candidates to drive as long as you can. They lack little in terms of safety, power and fuel economy in comparison to new cars.

That being said, a Studebaker from the fifties or sixties pollutes about as much as a fleet of 100 nineties Accords and in a collision will kill or maim you about a hundred times faster. Lovely to look at though. I'm not bashing Studebaker, all cars of this vintage were like this. Even in your middle age dotage you are perhaps too young to remember the days when every car on the road left a rich plume of black hydrocarbons in it's wake. Even the new ones!

As for the power issue on 4 cylinder cars I think it is a bit overblown. I often wish that I had a brand new 1967 car for people to drive up Boulder canyon as a comparison. Even the cheapest modern transport is a jet by comparison. I have never felt a lack of power in my much larger 1995 Honda Odyssey even at our much higher altitude. Technology may have spoiled us that way.

True, I don't have to navigate WV two lanes with my car. If I did I probably would want something more powerful to blast by the coal trucks on the infrequent straight stretches! And at the moment we live in a time where most cars seem unnecessarily large and powerful to me. We need $4 a gallon gasoline to fix that and to get the focus on driving less in smaller, more efficient vehicles.

Nuff said. I should probably work on my own blog.

Pam said...

It may have been smog producing, polluting tank but I loved my 1947 Studebaker and I finally had to sell it when you moved to Colorado, Phillip, cause no one else was willing to keep it roadworthy (such as it was)

Christy said...

I don't have a car, and I've only ever owned one for 6 months of my life (a crappy Honda prelude rustbucket that burned so much oil I think I was declared a public nuisance), so all my vehicular nostalgia rests on other people's cars.

I often remember your spiffy orange sedan, Rose, that we'd hop into for a drive downtown to Halle's, or the Ohio Center, or some such. It had occasional trouble on Columbus's only hills: the inclines of downtown parking garages. We had some fun, didn't we? Thanks for bringing me back, even indirectly.