What’s the use?

It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

In the spring of 1989 I graduated college, got a job, and moved into an apartment. I kind of hoped Dad would forget I was still driving his old car, but after a few weeks he called and said, “Enough freeloading; I’m coming in two weeks to get my car back.”

I tried to buy a used car, but since I had no credit history nobody in town would write me a loan. Disappointed but undaunted, I turned to General Motors, which offered to lend me up to thirty thousand dollars to buy a new car. “You’ve achieved so much,” the form letter said, “with your recent graduation. We think that makes you a good risk, so we invite you to reward yourself with a fine new General Motors car.” I admired GM’s optimism about my ability to pay. Fortunately, I was more realistic than they were about my finances. I went to a Chevy dealer and spent far less than GM’s largesse allowed on a basic car, a maroon Beretta.

My first brand-new car

I’d never driven a new car. It cruised so smoothly! It passed without sounding like it would rattle apart! That stereo really rocked! Still, I was not enjoying the car payment. I knew I would want to keep this car long after it was paid off, which meant keeping my car in top shape so it would stay worth having. I followed the maintenance schedule religiously and had every funny noise checked out. I also washed and waxed my car about every week and kept the interior clean.

And then the troubles started.

After about a month, a dying tree hanging over the road decided to deposit a huge branch on my car’s roof as I drove under it. Just after I got the car back from the body shop, a flatbed Ford truck driving alongside me decided to change lanes without checking his mirrors.


The windshield wipers quit working, and it took the mechanic three tries to get the repair to last. Then the stereo died. I saved up and put a new one in myself. Then the power steering pump started making strange noises. It took the mechanic four tries to fix it right.

Later I hit a patch of ice and slid partway off the road. The car behind me did the same thing, right into my rear quarter. The body shop did a pretty good job of untwisting considerable damage to the car’s understructure, but forevermore there was spot in the front passenger footwell where a little light pressure could make it pop like the lid of a baby-food jar.

Then one day when I tried to turn the car off, something snapped and my key spun freely in the ignition. Turns out that a long aluminum rod connected to the starter solenoid broke in half. After the repair, the steering wheel was not aligned properly. In fixing that, they broke the steering column.

The headliner started coming down over the back seat passengers’ heads. I reattached it with neat rows of staples. The clear coat began chipping off both doors. And finally, one day as I leaned back to square my butt in the seat, a bracket that held the seat to the floor sheared in half, and I found myself suddenly staring at the neat rows of staples in the ceiling. Thankfully, I hadn’t started the car yet. I fixed that myself with a bracket from a junked Beretta.

Despite my best efforts, the car came to be in sad shape. As it deteriorated, so did my enthusiasm for its care. I thought I had wasted my effort, and I felt a lot of disappointment. What was the use when outside events and fate had conspired against my little car so much?

Cars fall apart, of course. It’s what they do. I was naive to think my Beretta would stay like new for so many years. Fortunately, in time I came to look at my Beretta differently.

I remember taking aimless drives in the country in my car at a time when life was tough.

I remember driving my car hard, as young men sometimes do. It was fun to drive – it held the road well and was fairly quick.

I remember long road trips I took in my car, including a sweep through Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hoboken by myself to see old friends, and a trip to the Kanawha Valley of West Virginia with my dad to see where he grew up and meet relatives I never knew I had.

I remember listening to mix tapes and tapes of old radio shows in my car as I drove. I often sang along, not much caring whether anybody else saw me.

I remember driving in my car to the old mill dam in Terre Haute with a girlfriend, where we’d sit and talk and maybe have a smooch.

I remember the woman I married getting me out of a speeding ticket  in my car.

I remember a frigid January day when I brought my first baby home in my car.

In other words, I remember enjoying my car as it took me places and helped me spend time with people I loved.

It’s easy to think that I feel better about the car now because time heals all wounds. But rather I think I was so focused on making the car last that I was often closed to enjoying the car. It was like I compulsively hoarded pennies in a jar for another day, checking my jar every day to see how many pennies I had, hoping that I could count on those pennies in the clutch. I wasn’t living in the present, enjoying what God has given me in that moment, trusting God to provide.

I’ve owned several cars since and they’ve all had troubles. Every visit to the shop and every ding in the paint still bring me down. But thanks to my Beretta memories, I bounce right back and relax. I count the good memories associated with my car, and look forward to those to come.

Originally posted 7/6/2007. Read the original here.

I’ve written about several other cars in my life: the Pinto, the Chevy van we named after a heavy-metal band, the boring family cars, and even my current ride.


14 responses to “What’s the use?”

  1. ryoko861 Avatar

    If it takes 4 tries to get your wipers fixed, it’s time for a new mechanic.

    I hear ya though, we get so attached to cars. I cried when my dad sold our ’56 Mercury. I was only 8, but I LOVED that car. How many cars can you get into and bounce up and down on the back seat? I mean the whole rear of that car was a big as my bedroom!

    I have a ’99 Sebring now. It’s got over 100K on it. My son tells me that once they reach 120K they crap out. It’s already a used car, has it’s little idiosyncrasies but drives like the wind. I LOVE this car! Like your Beretta, it’s babied. It’s really the only car we have that doesn’t give us a lot of problems. That’s not saying much for the Fords we have.

    It tough to let go, but you have to do it. Once you get that replacement car or new car, it’s always worth it. You’ll miss the old one, but you can’t keep them all (believe me, that’s our downfall here).

    1. Jim Avatar

      It was high irony that I posted this at 5 am, and at 6 am I backed my car out of my narrow garage, took it a little too wide, and broke the passenger-side mirror clean off the car.

      My current ride is a 2003 Toyota Matrix XRS. The broken mirror is just the latest in litany of body woes. And it leaks a little oil. But I think I’ve enjoyed driving this car more than any car I’ve ever owned. It’s got the engine from the Celica GT in it. Around town it drives like an economy car, but on the highway, when you put the hammer down it scoots like nobody’s business. I love passing in it.

  2. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Now even I love your Beretta. :)

    I’ve got one of the last of the Spectras. If I’d held out a year, I could have the Forte Kia swapped over to. But it’s my second Spectra and I really like the car. I really wish North American cars had the dependable rep Asian cars do, but I think the Big Three blew all that capital years ago. When they lost my dad, a four-time Oldsmobile man, I think the game was over.

    1. Jim Avatar

      My Beretta’s engine and drivetrain were very strong, but the cosmetics and the ancillary systems on the car weren’t. Overall my experience with the Beretta was good and made me willing to go domestic when I bought my next car, a Mercury. That car had major issues and so my next three cars have been Toyotas.

  3. zorgor Avatar

    Staples!! I can fix my sagging headliner with the staple gun I wasn’t sure why I just bought! Thanks Jim!

    Keeping things in perspective is great, but it does sound like you had more than the usual amount of car trouble with that one…

    My first car, a Ford Escort, was t-boned by a cab that ran a red light at 6 or 7 in the morning… Totaled in one fell swoop. West bound on 34th and Moller, I ended up pointing south east. But I was fine! :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Reminds me of the accident I had in 2009. I was T-boned and that was that for my little red car!

  4. Tori Nelson Avatar

    Ah the memories and breakdowns. Makes me think of my first car who I sometimes affectionately but most of the time angrily called Wanda The Honda :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      I used to name my cars. I forget what I called the Beretta though!

    2. zorgor Avatar

      That is an awesome name! Makes me think I should call my car ‘Yoda the Toyota’ :)

      1. Jim Avatar

        Did you know that the family that founded Toyota was actually named Toyoda? So it makes Yoda even more appropriate of a name for your car. It also rolls off the tongue easier than Ebola the Corolla.

        1. zorgor Avatar

          LOL! Definitely!

  5. mj monaghan Avatar

    My first car was a Toyota Corona Deluxe – way back in the 70’s. Loved that car till I totaled it by changing lanes across three lanes of traffic, and hit a car that happened to be a friend’s car. Woops.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Did the friendship survive?

      1. mj monaghan Avatar

        It did.

        Follow up to that story: He ran a red light, which is why I didn’t see him in my passenger mirror – haha! So I took the rap, and he ended up getting out of the deal with a fixed car and no ticket. For some reason, the cop didn’t give me a ticket either. He probably thought I had been through enough.

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