Pride Of Ownership
by Doug Miller
May 2003

I have been making new car payments for the past seventeen years, without actually ever owning any of the vehicles outright. Last month, some $51,000 after making my first new car payment on a 1986 Chevrolet Chevette, I made the final payment on the sure-footed Plymouth Neon. I am now as successful as I was when I was nineteen, the last time I actually owned a car.

Does anyone ever forget the magic of owning their first car? Mine was a 1970 Buick Skylark. That car cost me $200, my entire life savings at the time. It was fifteen years old and, like me, had spent its entire life in Flint, Michigan. The front looked pretty good, but both rear quarter panels were entirely rusted away. Looking into the trunk you could see the ground in a number of places. Similar to Fred and Barney’s cars on The Flintstones, there were two gaping holes, well over 18 inches in diameter, in front of the rear seats where passengers would normally place their feet.

Yours Truly in 1985 with my 1970 Buick Skylark.
Yours Truly in 1985 with my 1970 Buick Skylark.

This was the kind of car you see advertised as “needs work” or “basic transportation” in the classified section of the newspaper. Whenever I turned the car off it would continue to run for anywhere from ten seconds to two minutes, depending on how embarrassing the situation was. The night I was pulled over at three in the morning because the taillights went out, for example, it ran for several minutes while one of Flint’s finest waited patiently while staring at the car with a look normally reserved for the birth of a two-headed cow. I was on my way home from work and only a block away from the room I rented. After ragging on my car with his partner for fifteen minutes he let me go with a warning.

The first time I went to put gas in it I spent five minutes wandering around before finding the gas cap concealed behind a pull-down license plate. I never had that problem again as the second time I put gas in it the license plate came off in my hand when I pulled it down. No problem, that’s what duct tape and rear windows are for. I told people I did it on purpose so it would be easier to spot in crowded parking lots.

It’s amusing how our attitudes change as we grow older. A coworker with a much more reliable car needed a ride. She was all set to go with me until someone asked if I figured out what was wrong with the brakes yet. When she found out that it lost about half of its brake fluid every two weeks and that I had to pump the brakes a few times to build up pressure whenever I wanted to stop she refused to ride with me. I remember saying to her, “You are SO uptight.” My dad found the source of this problem within ten seconds of my mentioning it to him. Whoever had worked on the brakes last had failed to tighten the bleeder screws while bleeding the air out of the brake lines. Every time I stepped on the brakes I was squirting the brake fluid out onto the tire. Two quick turns of a wrench and it was fixed.

In Michigan you can redeem beer and soda bottles for a dime. This was a frequent source of gas money for me and I usually had sacks of bottles piled up in the rear seat. Once while driving some friends home in rush hour traffic I heard the guys in the back giggling like idiots just before one of them said “Fire One!” while dropping a Coke bottle through the hole in the floor. At forty miles per hour Coke bottles don’t just shatter, they make this kind of *POP* sound and the glass flies everywhere. I slammed the accelerator down and got up to seventy, fleeing through the city streets so that the infuriated drivers of the cars swerving around behind us couldn’t catch up. They dropped three more before my reckless driving and screams that they were wasting my gas money convinced them to knock it off.

While Rich knows everything there is to know about cars and how they work, my knowledge is limited to knowing where the gas goes (most of the time). I learned about carburetors one afternoon as I pulled up to a friend’s house and turned the car off. After sputtering for thirty seconds or so it stopped. As my friend approached he stopped and a puzzled expression crossed his face. I quickly saw the source of his confusion was this perfect circle of paint on the hood of the Buick that was starting to sizzle and smoke. “I think your car’s on fire, dude, you better pop the hood.” Apparently the previous owner felt that air filters were for the weak since there wasn’t one sitting above the carburetor. Just as well since the flames were over half a foot high before we snuffed it out. Started up fine after that and never happened again.

My first flat tire was an adventure. I was in Jackson, about 90 minutes from Flint, visiting my girlfriend. The left rear tire blew out so I pulled into a gas station. It was, of course, late at night and the mechanics weren’t there. Fortunately there was a spare, something I had neglected to check on before. I removed the lug nuts, well four out of five anyway. The fifth was missing, along with the little bolt thingy that it screwed onto. The rim had rusted in place and no amount of pounding could get it to budge. A couple guys came over to help. They wrestled with it even more, causing the car to sway perilously on the jack. Then one grabbed a hammer and pounded on one of the little bolt thingies, causing it to pop into the wheel somewhere while the tire remained in place. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he said sheepishly. Forty-five minutes later we managed to pry it loose, slap on the spare, and bolt it in place with the three remaining lug nuts. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I told my girlfriend as I dropped her off and headed home. Of course I stressed out the entire drive, positive that the little bolt thingy was rattling around in the wheel somewhere, probably destroying the brakes that I had just got working again. I got home without incident.

The next morning I called a local garage and asked if they could replace the little bolt thingies. “Thingies?” he questioned in that oh-so-superior tone of voice mechanics adopt when talking to the mechanically inferior. “Yeah, you know, the uhh… lugs? The thingies the lug nuts bolt on to.” “You mean the studs?” What a show off. Anyway, he said that since there were only three left I probably shouldn’t risk driving the 6 blocks to the garage. The only problem was that he wanted $15 to replace the missing studs, which represented my current life savings, and an additional $35 to tow it. Not even I had that many Coke bottles. With the debonair assurance of someone who had already driven the car 90 miles under such conditions I told him all I had was $15 and would have to risk it. My confidence eroded somewhat when, before starting the car, I checked and found it only had two studs left. Oh well. I drove it in and they gathered around to laugh as the engine continued to run on after I got out of the car. As bad as the rim was to get off, the wheel drum was worse. He reamed and pounded and cursed at that thing for 45 minutes before it dropped to the floor with a resounding clang. It seemed like an awful lot of work for $15 and it turned out it was, he now wanted $40. After explaining for the third time that I had already told him that I only had $15 before he started we reached an agreement where he would keep my driver’s license until payday and I could keep the car since I couldn’t get to work otherwise. Another example of how our attitudes change as we grow older.

I drove the Buick for two years. When I went into the army I gave it to my best friend for free. He promptly sold it to a guy across the street for fifty bucks. The sure-footed Plymouth Neon is sexier, but man I loved that Buick.

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