The Death of a Car

My 1989 Ford Escort Pony (i.e., the low-end variation of the low-end model of Ford’s line-up) has 150,150 miles on it and has chosen this auspicious mileage number to pretty much die upon. Its death has been anticipated for weeks if not months, but today was the day it signaled that the end is near, primarily by stalling out as I started the engine, stalling out as I backed out of the garage, stalling out as I reached the end of the driveway and then stalling out at the end of the road I live on. It was at this time I realized that actually trying to drive the poor thing any further would be cruel, so I gently turned it back around and put it back into the garage, where it stalled the minute I put on the brake. I don’t imagine I’ll try to drive it again any appreciable distance, “appreciable” being defined as “the distance down my driveway or greater.”

I want it to be known here and now that I have absolutely nothing bad to say about this car. I’ve had the car now for twelve years, and in those twelve years it has served me remarkably well. I got the car in 1991, actually in this very same week in September, when I came to California to start my job at the Fresno Bee newspaper. I had no car, and I needed one; the only money I had was a few thousand dollars I had as an inheritance from my grandfather. The Escort, with 28,000 miles on it, was $4,000. I drove it around the block to make sure it ran and then bought it. The purchase was so sudden that the salesman was actually unprepared; I think he expected to try to ease me into a more stylish and expensive car model. Unfortunately for him, I’m one of those very few guys who honestly doesn’t give a crap about having a really bitchin’ car; I want a car to run and cause me no problems and get me from point A to point B. That’s all I want from a car.

And that’s all the Escort gave me. In the course of a dozen years, it broke down on me exactly twice — both times because a timing belt snapped. Each time, the repair cost was minimal and I was back on the road in a couple of hours. I did minimal maintenance on the car, and I mean minimal — I do believe there were entire years where I didn’t change the oil — but the car never stopped running.

Indeed, it was something of a profit center at times: For the first few years I had the car, I would use it to zoom up to San Francisco or Sacramento to see movies (per my job with the Bee) and zoom back in the same night. The Bee paid me 26 cents a mile every time I used my own car for company business, so that was $100 every trip. Two trips a month, and I made my car payment. Considering what the Bee was paying me at the time (read: diddly), that was not insignificant. During this time the car has seen various indignities, ranging from a damaged passenger door, when someone gouged out the lock for mysterious reasons (considering there was a laptop in the car at the time that was still there after the door damage), to the day my sister borrowed the car and returned it minus three hubcaps and no good explanation for their disappearance.

In the last couple of years, our use of the car has slowed tremendously. We bought another car six years ago which is the “primary” car for the family, and I work at home and have very little need to get out of the house, so its been used comparatively little except for this last summer, when it would make the round trip to Athena’s day care and back (round trip: 29 miles almost exactly). This light use probably prolonged its life by that very same number of years. Recently I looked down at the odometer and noted it was crawling up on 150,000 miles; I figured if it made it to that figure, I couldn’t rightly complain if the car up and died. Well, it made it, just barely. Fair is fair.

Friends who have seen me drive up in my Escort who also have a vague inkling of my annual income have asked me why the hell I continued to drive around in such a piece of crap car when I could clearly afford a better car. My answer was always the same: It runs. I’m a firm believer of the idea that any time you buy something, you buy the best you can afford to buy, and then, having bought the item, you use it until it dies on you. You use that item down to its very bones, and then you suck out the marrow and then and only then should you go out and replace it. It’s an extremely practical outlook for someone such as myself whose income fluctuates wildly from month to month, since it keeps down one’s debt load (we have no debt at the moment except for our mortgages) and it also keeps you focused on the idea — occasionally glossed over in our consumer society — the the point of owning things is to use them rather than to have them. I used that Escort. I used it right into the ground.

The question now becomes what car do I buy to replace it. I am still very practically-oriented about cars; I admire a nice sports car but I can’t imagine ever actually wanting one, and Krissy, bless her heart, gets the hives at the idea of spending more than $20K on an automobile of any sort (she drives around a Suzuki Sidekick we bought six years ago for $13,000 and she got a little twitchy about the price even then). A while ago I had talked about the idea of getting a Honda Element, which is both practical for my life (wife, kid, large dog) and sort of cool-looking. But recently I’ve also been thinking about the 2004 Toyota Prius, not because I’m a crunchy environmentalist sort of guy (I am an environmentalist when it’s convenient and slightly guilty when it’s not), but because the things very nearly gets 60 miles a gallon, which will save me hundreds of dollars a year on costs.

The early Priuses (Prii?) were dinky little things, but the 2004 model is larger, has more horsepower and still costs in the $20K range. Right now it’s the top contender — if I can actually find one in Ohio. We’ll have to see. And of course, it’s a fine time to be looking at used cars, too — new cars are selling for so low that used cars have to be driven even cheaper to move off the car lots.

Whatever we buy, I’ll be letting Krissy handle the haggling — in one of those nice stereotypical role reversals, she’s extremely tight with the pennies when it comes to cars and woe be unto the car salesman who tries to slip a hidden charge into the negotiations. Back when we got the Sidekick, the finance guy tried to slide in an extra $800 charge into the financing, and Krissy sniffed it out, fixed the guy with a gaze that would have frozen lava, and pretty much told him that if the charge wasn’t excised right that second, we’d walk. The guy actually cringed. My wife rocks.

Dunno what we’ll do with the Escort. Kelley Blue Book tells me that the trade-in value for my car is $170, which is kind of mind-boggling; a PlayStation has more value than my automobile. You can’t say I didn’t get my money’s worth out of it. It was a good car. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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