Stories Told

The ultimate car for the man who hates to spend money

My dad pinched his pennies so hard he had Lincoln thumbs. It had galled him deeply to borrow money to buy his 1983 Renault Alliance (read its story here). Knowing Dad, he paid off that note very early. He submitted to those payments only because Mom fell in love with the Renault on the test drive and insisted he buy it. She knew she could play that card only so often – like, once each decade. But the Renault was, to her, a slam dunk: attractive, comfortable, well equipped in top-line trim.

Then in 1987, when Dad was driving 50 miles round trip to work and the Renault piled up the miles, Mom fretted. “I don’t want you to be stranded on some back county road!” So Dad went car shopping – and didn’t take Mom along so he could get what he wanted. Dad returned to his first love, Ford, and found the biggest bargain on the lot: a leftover new 1986 Ford Escort as the 1988 models were about to be delivered to the showroom. He got it for a song and paid cash. He was so tickled by that deal that he talked about it for years.

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It wasn’t a bottom-of-the-line Pony, as the pictured Escort is. But it might as well have been: the same utility white color, manual transmission (though a five speed rather than the Pony’s standard four), steel wheels, AM radio. It had cloth seat surfaces where the Pony was all vinyl, but it had the same plain interior door panels with the most perfunctory armrests I’ve ever seen. It did have air conditioning; Mom told him not to come home in a car without it. But that was a mighty stripped-down car even for the late 80s. No wonder this pig had languished on the lot so long.

I drove Dad’s Escort a few times. It had good power for the time. I remember the shifter being vague and rubbery but the clutch being sure. I always turned off the radio with its tinny center-of-the-dash speaker as it would give me an instant headache. You could hear the gas sloshing around in the tank when you made a turn.

Dad drove that Escort until 1993. He’d have cheerfully kept driving it, but it had racked up the miles and Mom began to fret anew. So Dad returned to his Ford dealer and came home in a well-optioned Escort LX four-door hatchback. It was so much better a car than its forebear – more comfortable, more fuel efficient, more lively – that even Dad had to allow it was worth spending the money.

I originally shared this story on Curbside Classic, back in May. It’s a good memory of my dad and I wanted to share it with you, too.

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Life

I just sold my Ford Focus to my son, Garrett. It has now been owned by three generations of Grey men, as I bought it from my father in 2012.

This car took me, and sometimes my sons, on a whole bunch of great road trips. It was wonderful on the old roads, small and easy to maneuver. That was very important when I needed to get out of a dead-end abandoned alignment! It was also a blast to drive, with good power and fantastic handling.

Here it is at the Wagon Wheel Motel on Route 66 in Cuba, MO.

Wagon Wheel Motel

And here it is on an abandoned section of the old Dixie Highway near Martinsville, IN.

Abandoned bridge on Old SR 37

I’m experimenting with short posts, shared whenever I have something quick to say. Welcome to the first one!

Goodbye road warrior

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Stories Told

The safety to express our anxieties

I’ve written before about how my dad always needed to be in control in our relationship and how never really were able to relate to each other just as men.

There was one time when he did it, and it was through seeking my advice about whether to buy what turned out to be his last car.

Dad was a Ford man. He owned eight Fords in his lifetime, turning to other makes — Chevy, AMC, Renault — only during the ’70s and early ’80s when Ford’s build quality had taken a serious nosedive. When quality became Job One at Ford again in the mid ’80s, Dad went right back to his first automotive love.

Dad had driven his 2006 Ford Focus to about 70,000 miles. Being a product of his time, he thought this was a lot of miles and that the car was nearing the end of its useful life. But I knew that his Focus easily had 100,000 miles left in it, especially because he had taken very good care of it. I was ready for a new car myself, so we negotiated a price for his car. After he bought his next car, I’d write the check and drive the old Focus home.

Looking Over my Car

Dad soon found the car he thought he wanted, a one-year-old 2012 Ford Focus. I waited patiently at the dealer while he and Mom test drove it, in case it was “the one” and we’d complete the deal on his old Focus.

When he came back from the drive I asked how it went. He said it had good room, power, and handling. He wished it were a hatchback rather than a sedan. He also thought the car had high mileage for its age.

Then he looked straight at me and asked it: “Do you think I should buy this?”

The wavering tone of his voice, and the unsure look in his eye, and the very question itself all startled me. I noticed that he was fidgeting a little and sitting crooked in the chair. He had always seemed so sure about everything. He had never asked my opinion about a personal matter before.

He needed to be pushed off the fence, and it was clear that my word was going to do it. “Do you like the car?” I asked. “I mean, can you see you and Mom being comfortable and happy in it as you drive around town and on your trips downstate?” He didn’t hesitate in saying yes, but he still worried about the car’s mileage. “Oh Dad,” I assured him, “you put 5,000 miles a year on your cars, tops. That’s far less than most people. In a couple years the car will be at the right number of miles for its age. You’ll get lots of years out of it. And I’ve checked online: this car is priced fairly. If you negotiate a little, you should get it at a very good price. There’s no reason to hesitate.”

Dad loved a bargain. He stopped fidgeting and sat up straight. He bought the car.

Then I drove home in his old car. I drove it daily for five and a half years, commuting to work, taking road trips, and even driving my sons on a Route 66 vacation in it. It has been the most fun-to-drive little car I’ve ever owned. Despite a couple expensive repairs, I’m happy I bought it. It’s been a good car.

But now it has rolled to 150,000 miles. Little things had been going wrong and I was getting to know my mechanic a little too well. After a failure last winter that required a tow, I knew it was time to put this car out to pasture. The Focus is still in our fleet on light duty. One of my sons currently uses it to drive to his summer job.

My wife and I have two newer cars now, a 2013 VW Passat for me and a 2017 Kia Soul for her. I certainly felt my own anxiety over these two major purchases! Will we like it long term? What if it’s a lemon? Wow is that a lot of money to spend. It’s normal to feel this anxiety, and it can be helpful to talk it out with someone.

I wish my dad could always have felt safe in expressing his own anxieties. But at least this once he was willing to share his with me and let me offer a perspective.

Thanks to Paul Niedermeyer for this article over at Curbside Classic, a Father’s Day memory of the one time his dad took his carbuying advice, which reminded me of this story.

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Porsche

Porsche in partial focus
Canon AE-1 Program, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD
Agfa Vista 200 at EI 100
2018

I’m a reverse snob. There, I admitted it.

My favorite car at the show I recently attended was an old Pontiac Firebird with rust in the corners and Bondo in the fenders. The fellow who brought it spoke with me briefly. He was an everyday fellow of average means who, despite being embarrassed with its condition, was obviously happy to own it.

Also present at the show: young men in expensive clothes and precise haircuts basking in the wealth that allowed them to bring exotic cars. They hung out in a small pack, an exclusive club.

My longtime friend Steve had a Porsche for a few years. He invited me into the shotgun seat a time or two and those rides were just lovely. But there’s a humility about Steve, a lack of signaling status or virtue through his car. He is just a man who had always wanted a Porsche and had, in middle age, earned the means to buy one.

Bah, my blue-collar roots are showing.

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Film Photography

single frame: Porsche in partial focus

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Patina

Rusty Firebird
Canon AE-1 Program, 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD
Agfa Vista 200 (at EI 100)
2018

I’m still grooving on this Pontiac Firebird I saw at that recent car show. The owner came up while I was photographing his car and expressed some embarrassment over his car’s condition. I assured him that this was my favorite car of the show, and I liked it precisely because it isn’t a pampered trailer queen.

The fellow drives his Firebird daily to a construction job he holds.

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Film Photography, Old cars

single frame: Rusty Firebird

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography, Old cars

Operation Thin the Herd: Canon AE-1 Program

Chevelle nacelles

Who doesn’t like the Canon AE-1 Program? It’s universally praised, and with good reason. It’s a capable tool with good features. A photographer could make great images with it indefinitely.

Canon AE-1 Program

I mounted my 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens and loaded up some Agfa Vista 200, which I shot at EI 100. This is the lens I commonly use on this camera, as I did a few years ago on a photo walk Downtown when I had some Arista Premium 400 inside. That’s Circle Tower, a gorgeous building in the Art Deco style.

Circle Tower

Old buildings, old cars, and old roads — these are the things I photograph most. No old roads in this post, however, as I took the AE-1 Program to a “cars and coffee” gathering and shot two rolls there. It’s all old cars up in this joint for the rest of this post. I think my favorite car of the day was this late-70s Firebird because it was in rough, original condition. This is what all ’70s Firebirds looked like in the mid ’80s when I was in high school: rusty and rough. The school parking lot was full of them. This parking lot had just this one.

They're only original once

The AE-1 handled perfectly, as expected. Mine has developed that annoying squealing shutter that is common to this camera. But it doesn’t affect function, and it got quieter and quieter as I kept shooting. This Cadillac’s delightful tail was the first photo I made at the event. The shutter howled.

Cad fin

Color and light play make car shows a wonderful place to test gear, especially on color film.

Speedster

This Porsche Speedster was mobile during the event. I saw it in two or three different places, including coming out of the host’s garage.

Speedster on the move

People from all walks of life came to show and see the cars. Our shared interest created opportunity to talk to people we might not normally interact with. I bumped into one other fellow shooting film, someone whose clothes marked him as being in a much higher economic class than me. When he heard my AE-1 squeal, he whirled around and said, “I know that sound!” He then showed me the Canon T60 SLR he had picked up in the used section at our local camera store. We chatted for several minutes about the relative merits of Canon film gear.

Cop and camaro

What I concluded with that fellow is this: every Canon SLR I’ve ever shot has been competent enough, and the lenses are technically excellent. But the cameras never spark joy when they’re in my hands, and the images I get never give me “wow!” moments. In contrast I’ve swooned, and hard, over Nikon and Pentax SLRs and the images I’ve received from them.

Stang

I enjoyed my car-show morning with the AE-1. I got good results. But as I reviewed the photos, I felt certain that I would have gotten better color from the delightful 50mm f/2 lens I keep for my Pentax bodies. I know that my little Pentax ME would have felt better in my hands.

Celica GT

This, really, is what Operation Thin the Herd is all about. Now that I have built skill as a photographer and have experienced so much gear as a collector, which gear hits that sweet spot of feeling great in my hands and returning images that delight me? That’s the gear I want to keep.

Triumph tail

Yet the AE-1 Program handled everything I threw at it this sunny Saturday morning. I can’t really complain.

Lotus tail

If you’d like to see more photos from this camera, check out my Canon AE-1 Program gallery.

My heart beats for Pentax and my mind pines for Nikon. I own plenty of their gear, enough to keep me busy and happy for the rest of my life. Because my Canon gear just doesn’t grab me in the same way, because I’m unlikely to use it very often, I should probably let it go. Perhaps I’ll keep one body, maybe my mechanical TLb, and a couple of my older lenses. Perhaps not; this isn’t the day to decide. But this is the day to decide about the AE-1 Program, and I know it’s time to let it go.

Verdict: Goodbye

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