Monday, November 19, 2012
Goodbye to All That
I've only owned two cars that were purely mine. The second one was purchased on election day. This is about the first, mostly.
In the summer of 1989 there occurred a unique confluence of three forces that led me to buy the car I'd wanted all my life. The first was that the old family car I'd been driving to work, a Mazda 626, was getting old and shabby. It was safe and reliable, but there were too many things that needed fixing. The second was that I had some money, thanks to my one and only big consulting job. It took six months of nights, weekends and whatever time my contract with Georgia Tech allowed, but I had a five-figure fee after taxes. The third was that Mazda introduced the Miata. It was the car I'd doodled in eigth grade when I should have been studying algebra. It was the closest thing to a motorcycle you could drive and not get wet in the rain. It was all the fun and spirit of the MGs, Triumphs, Lotuses and Fiats without the constant roadside repairs.
In August I took a test drive, found to the salesman's surprise that I fit, just barely, and made a deal for October delivery. It saved me the summer feeding-frenzy surcharge and not coincidentally arrived on the twenty year anniversary of my CB750. That seemed fitting. It was just the basic car, white, with power steering and brakes, the standard radio and roll-up windows, but I had to add a limited slip differential. Performance is worth extra. There was room for two and a couple of duffel bags. Exactly right.
I loved it. It was like a well-trained border collie, agile, eager to please, happy without being silly. Quick and responsive rather than fast. I told people that you could drive over a dime and tell if it was heads or tails. I could shift up or down with my fingertips.
It wasn't stock long. The first addition was a seriously loud horn, because Atlanta's idiot drivers can't be bothered with mirrors. Next ,100 watt high beams. Gotta see. Then a variety of strut and frame braces, to help it turn. A trick intake and aftermarket exhaust, for a few extra horsepower. Koni shocks, naturally, then some really nice Panasport 15" wheels.
All of this took time, many years during which I was divorced, remarried, bought another house, had various successes and crises. Like the 750, the Miata was a constant. Finally, after 15 years and 170,000 miles, the engine was just tired.
I'd been planning for that. A new crate motor sat in the garage, along with a supercharger, racing clutch and boxes of other parts accumulated over time. Over a week when we were out of town my friends at Rspeed built me, finally, my perfect car. Just enough power, just enough brakes, just enough of everything.
Well, except that it was still 15 years old, and as the next eight passed it needed more frequent attention. There was A/C renovation, then a radiator, an alternator, more A/C issues, and then about a month ago there was white smoke from the exhaust. Head gasket, we supposed, but no. Cracked block. No explanation for it.
I could have replaced the engine; the transmission needed replacement as well because after 255,000 miles it was notchy and sometimes balky going into gear. But then there was everything else that would need attention. It could all be fixed---they last forever if you keep
replacing parts, remember--but then it would be a hobby, not a car. A car, you can depend on. A hobby is leisure time amusement.
So I sold it to my friends, who'll rebuild my Miata well. Someone will buy it to drive weekends and enjoy the vintage experience. I didn't buy a new Miata, because while they're faster and more sophisticated they don't have the spirit of the original. I got a Subaru WRX, not the ultra STI but the more restrained (and $10K cheaper) base model. It's vastly different from my Miata, more an obedient, trustworthy pit bull than a border collie. It comes with lots of electronic magic to make the windows go up and down, lock and unlock the doors, change channels, bands and volume on the radio. It has a compass in the rear-view mirror, an electronic one that can be calibrated via an arcane ceremony. I could plug in my iPod and control it remotely, if I had an iPod. Ditto my cell phone, if I had a Bluetooth model rather than the equivalent of a tin can with a very long string. It has traction control, ABS, all-wheel drive and 17" wheels with sticky tires so you can skate on the edge of the laws of physics. It makes (with the factory exhaust I couldn't help but buy) 280 turbocharged horsepower, 130 more than my blower-boosted Miata.It has lots more room, so I don't have to play Tetris every time there's more than a briefcase to load. It also weighs a thousand pounds more. Nothing's free.
It doesn't look like the cars I drew in 1958. It looks like the space fighters in my sci-fi magazines. Futuristic. Serious. A car for the 21st century. As I write this there are 750 miles on the odometer. In 250 more it'll be broken in, and we'll see what 280 horsepower and more computer tricks than the Space Shuttle feels like. It's a fine car, honestly. It's just that I can't help wishing that there was room in the 21st century for something simple and lighthearted.
I'm guessing it won't be that kind of century.