Essay, Old Cars

Buy a fun car while you’re young

1968 Chevrolet El Camino b

When I was a kid, my dad wanted a Chevy El Camino. I mean, really really wanted. He imagined himself driving in carlike comfort while being able to haul lumber and other large items with ease in its bed. He was so hot to own one that he tried to convince my mom that our family of four would fit just fine shoulder to shoulder across the front seat. 

Mom wasn’t having it. Thank goodness, because the four of us shoulder-tight on that bench seat did not sound like fun to me. But I feel bad for my dad that he never got his El Camino.

As Dad aged, that spark for fun motoring left him. I think that’s natural for anyone who didn’t get to sow those oats when they were younger — he never knew the joy of the fun car and so those synapses never formed in his brain. By his middle age he declared that his cars were meant only to get him from A to B.

BMW 3-series coupe

I’m in the middle of making the same mistake. When I was young I wanted a 3-series BMW coupe. Really really wanted one. But I never felt like I should extend myself financially to buy even a well-used one. I could have, but I always played it safe with my money.

I regret it. While it’s important to be good stewards of our finances, it’s also important to seek good, fun experiences in life.

I’ve already told my wife that after the kids are done with college I’d like to buy a fun car. I’ve lost my BMW lust in middle age, so I don’t know yet what that car will be except that it’ll be older and will not be my daily driver. Whatever I choose, it’ll be our road-trip car and we will make memories together in it.

This one’s for my dad, who would have been 78 today.

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Old Cars

Carspotting 2018

I photograph old cars wherever I find them parked. I found a decent lot of them in 2018: 17 to share with you. My two rules: the car has to be parked, and it has to be at least 20 years old. Here now the cars (and trucks).

1952-53 GMC truck

1952-53 GMC Truck. What a great old truck to start with. I found this on a photo walk on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis.

1967 Plymouth Fury II

1967 Plymouth Fury. It’s got to be 25 years since I’ve seen one of these on the road. During my 1970s kidhood, these were as common as pennies and usually driven by prim, proper older ladies. Found parked on the square in Crown Point, Indiana.

1968-72 GMC truck

1968-72 GMC truck. I wish GMC had changed trim details sometimes, as Chevrolet did, to make it easier to narrow down the year of these trucks. Spotted at the Rusty Bucket bar on Indianapolis’s Far Northside.

1973 VW Bus

1973-79 VW Bus. Another find on the square in Crown Point, I love how this bus was restored to basic specifications.

1974 VW Beetle

1974 VW Beetle. Margaret and I came upon this little guy while strolling through Madison, Indiana. Those aftermarket wheels have got to go.

1974 VW Super Beetle

1974 VW Super Beetle. My son and I found this one in a lot on the Purdue campus. That is what VW wheels are supposed to look like.

1980 Chevrolet Citation

1980 Chevrolet Citation. Probably the best find of the year, this car is parked on a side street right here in Zionsville. I drive by it all the time. Since this photograph someone hit it, smashing in its rear passenger door. How very sad.

1981-87 Chevrolet truck

1981-87 Chevrolet truck. I liked the styling of the generations before and after these far better, but I still wouldn’t turn down the opportunity to own one. Found in the parking lot where my wife works.

1981-89 Lincoln Town Car

1981-89 Lincoln Town Car. My aunt Betty used to drive one of these, in this or a similar blue. Found in a strip mall in Fishers, Indiana.

1982-85 Chevrolet El Camino

1982-85 Chevrolet El Camino. An unrestored original. I think these are beautiful and I have always wanted one. Spotted in Crown Point, Indiana.

1984-92 Lincoln Mark VII

1984-92 Lincoln Mark VII. Someone drove this to get groceries one day. I found it at the Meijer in Whitestown, Indiana. I always thought these were very handsome.

1986 Ford Escort Pony

1986 Ford Escort Pony. The ultimate car for the mid-1980s skinflint. Spotted at the Walmart on Indy’s Southside.

1987-90 Ford Mustang

1987-90 Ford Mustang. This is the car I wanted when I graduated college, but it was just a few thousand dollars out of my reach. Spotted at the Kroger in Brownsburg, Indiana.

1987-93 Cadillac Coupe deVille

1987-93 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Our youngest son and I were breakfasting after seeing a heavy-metal show at the big outdoor music center in Tinley Park, Illinois, when we came upon this cruiser.

1989 Subaru Legacy

1989 Subaru Legacy. Even though this car didn’t change much through its run, I know it’s from 1989 because it has a “25th anniversay” sticker on its window. Spotted at the Zionsville Walgreens.

1989-92 Ford Ranger

1989-92 Ford Ranger. I love these little trucks. I’ve always jonesed for one. Found in the parking lot at Zionsville Community High School.

1997 BMW M3

1997 BMW M3. Not only have I spotted and shared this one before, I’ve driven this car. It’s owned by a partner in a firm I used to work for, and one day when he took me to lunch he handed me the keys. Such fun. I came upon it on Main Street in Zionsville.

Here are my Carspotting posts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and a special edition after I came back from Route 66.

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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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Personal

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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