It used to be, back in the grand, high-flying days before tuition payments and wisdom teeth removals, that I would sell my car for a spanking new one every five years. I loved the whole process of buying new, the elaborate ritual of form filling and key exchange, the paper on the floor mats, the mystery of the new blue lights and, of course, the perfume of perfection.
Five, it seemed, was long enough, especially after clocking 20-30,000 miles each year as a reporter. Plus, I lived in the North where salt and snow and rough back roads took its toll on an undercarriage. There was also the inside damage from spilled coffee and, when Anna and Sam were small, fermented squished apple slices and stickers, stickers, stickers.
At 100k, my cars usually took on a peculiar rotten milk odor and major work loomed on the horizon. Brakes and tie rods. That damned timing belt. I couldn't wait to trade in that sucker.
But now, after two years of belt tightening, five seems almost frivolous. My parents used to keep their cars seven years and it looks like I'm destined to do the same, and beyond.
Last week, after a summer of my daughter's occupation, I cleaned my car of her stuff - CDs and stray coffee cups, assorted underwear, swimsuits, magazines, wads of green gum and, ahem, a lighter - vacuumed every stray strand of Basset fur, wiped the leather, topped the fluids and admired the few rust spots.
I know I'm not alone in this new approach to car frugality despite recent upticks in auto sales. Most of my friends are running their cars into the ground, partly because they have teenagers. Not only do teenagers cost A LOT OF MONEY without a car, but with cars they can drive you bankrupt. Teenagers tend to forget to check the oil and sometimes run off the road while zipping off to ski. Not that I'm thinking of any daughter in particular.
Kids are hard on cars. Dents appear mysteriously. Tires flatten - but how? Plus, they don't listen to the squeaks and grinds that send the rest of us screaming to the mechanic.
I was no better. The car I learned to drive on was my father's Dodge Dart, his concession to the America First! steelworkers who had been known in our town of Bethlehem to set fire to the unfortunately parked VW. The thing about the Dart was that it stalled on lefthand turns. This didn't seem to bother my parents, though it left me in a panic in hilly Pennsylvania where lefthand turns were often at the tops of blind curves, forcing oncoming cars to come careening into your right side.
The night I got my license, I backed out of the garage with my best friend Lisa and immediately stopped moving. This might have been because the car was wedged into the wall. Ooops!
The next car I inherited was my mother's %^$@@ VW Dasher, a hideous brown contraption that, to make matters worse, was covered in my mother's bumper stickers. Nothing like trying to act cool in college with Live Long Enough to be a Problem to Your Children on the rear window and ERA NOW!
The Dasher was standard with a rough clutch and an even worse cooling system. Five minutes in an average traffic jam and steam billowed out its hood. This, too, didn't seem to bother my father who handed me a couple of quarts of oil and told me to turn on the heat if the needle started rising.
Off I went to my internship at Newsday on Long Island and, sure enough, I got stuck on the Long Island Expressway before I ever reported to work. There I was - nineteen, blonde, broken down by the side of the LIE in the midst of ghettos as tractor trailers whizzed by. It was a wonder I survived the week, not to mention the whole summer.
We often moan and groan about appliances not lasting as long as they used to. TVs, refrigerators and dishwashers seemed designed to fail. But I have to say, when it comes to cars, I think we've come a long way.
The Hondas I've had have lasted way beyond the Dart and Dasher's capabilities. They don't overheat and - crappy brakes, windshield wipers and torturous seats not withstanding - they last.
At least, that's what I hope. Because, as my friends and I like to say, sending a kid to college is like buying a Subaru every six months. Thanks to Bryn Mawr's financial aid, it's more like buying a Subaru once a year, but still.
I'm not looking to saunter into a new car lot until 2014. Dipstick crossed. But when I do, watch out.....
BTW: They just redid the Oval Office. Which do you think is better? (Politics not included.)