Torn Passions


Many things in life go through phases and the car-guy world is no different. Most people love a car when it’s new, like it when it’s running fine, and hate it when it begins to break down. At this point they usually sell or trade the car for another newer one, and the emotion cycle is rebooted.

The cycle is similar with car-guys but tends to be a bit more complex. The first problem we are always faced with is that we look at a car with its potential in mind. We tend to see the vision in our heads, or the image of how we would like the finished project to look. There are tell-tale signs of this state of clouded thought, especially when we say, “This one is nice,” or “This one is sweet, but it needs a few things.”

On the other hand, when the car sitting before our eyes is nearly perfect, the response leans more toward grunting sounds, wolf whistles, or the time honored wide eyed gasp of air. Once that’s out of the way, words or short phrases will then follow, such as, “Now THAT is hot!” or speaking to the machine itself in sultry tones, “You gorgeous, sexy beast!”

Tactile contact with such automotive creations tends to generate whimsical thoughts of what it would sound like under full throttle acceleration, and the requisite forces and vibrations that would excite your every nerve ending.

The sad and sobering fact is that cars of the former variety tend to be within your price range, while those of the latter are reserved for others with deeper pockets. This isn’t all bad since the former allows us the opportunity to place our signature touch of style on our newfound machine.

These additions or modifications can vary widely from wheels and tires, to exhaust systems, to body add-ons that give that performance flavor. All in an effort to mold that car in the driveway in the potent image that resides in our constantly churning brains.

My wife has defined this phenomenon with a certain female flare and coined a fitting phrase saying, “You have a need to decorate your car.”

While this does draw an analogy between cars and interior home remodeling, it also strikes a chord of reality that is true of both; not every “improvement” you make will raise resale value. Then again, unlike a house, its takes a long cycle for a car to appreciate in value, and most never will until antique status is reached.

The harsh reality is that the vast majority of cars will become a part of the recycling process, and for a car-guy it’s a sad occasion when a particular model they love is given to the crusher.

We in the gearhead community can easily recite a list of cars we would love to have parked in the garage (if indeed we even have a garage) and therein lies a division amongst our ranks.

Before I got married, I explained to my wife how I had been a car-guy almost all my life, and that the only mistress she would have to worry about was the one parked in the driveway. Just as some men cannot seem to control themselves around women, and therefore get into all manner of tangled infidelity webs, gearheads find themselves lusting after all manner of automotive art. The huge difference is that some can afford to indulge and collect as many cars they lay their eyes on; while others must sacrifice something they have in order to gain another. If Jay Leno were as fanciful with women as he is with cars he would be the world’s foremost slut, but thankfully it isn’t considered adultery to own more than one car, although there may some women who would argue the point.

The phenomenon of “car collecting” is more directly defined as an inability to let go, and the means to not be required to do so. You can ask almost any gearhead, and they can quickly remember a car from their youth that they long to own again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a car parked under the show lights with a proud middle-aged to elderly owner beaming, “I had one just like this when I was a kid.”

Most who begin collecting start with trying to recapture those golden memories from years gone by, and the rest of us don’t blame them a bit, because if circumstances were different we would probably do exactly the same.

On a personal level, the past decade has seen some milestones in my car-guy world. I attended the New York International Auto Show, which was the first time I had ever seen one of the shows put on by the major manufacturers. Exotic sports cars that I had only seen in magazines were on display in all of their radiant glory, as well as upscale marques that are rare sights where I live. This has now become an annual event on my calendar.

I have been though the whole process of providing cars for our kids, and attempting to pass on the banks of car knowledge that I have amassed over the years. I have traveled more as a result of visiting my wife’s family and our vacations than I ever did before, and those experiences have allowed me to see roads and locations that have been truly amazing. Through all of these things I have grown more attached to my cars than ever before. I still have fond memories of the cars of my youth, but those I have owned later in life have been far superior machines in many ways.

I never thought I would grow so fond of a four door sedan, but the Dodge Intrepid seems to have left an indelible mark on my soul. I have previously mentioned the first 1996 model I owned, and having to part with that one under tough financial times was soothed by the later purchase of my 1995 model. I’ve written quite often about the many miles “The Taxi” and I covered together, but oddly enough even that car reached a point where I felt torn between investing huge sums of money to make it fit my mental image or moving on to another vehicle.

When you get to pass a car on to someone you love, part of you is sad for letting go of a dream, but the other part feels a sense of pride that you’re turning the keys over to someone in need, and that they are getting something you have cared for dearly.

Some times we yearn for cars that just don’t work for us no matter how hard we try. After parting with the Intrepid, I reached back for part of my past as I searched in vain for a newer Firebird. The ‘Birds were pricey and not very practical, and as a result I wound up buying a Grand Prix GT coupe. The Grand Prix was everything the Firebird wasn’t; roomy, comfortable, ample trunk space and fun to drive power. While not roaring V8 power by any means, it was still respectable and it possessed something that is a nemesis to every car-guy’s bank account; generous aftermarket support.

The transformation of the Grand Prix over the years has certainly taken its share of my hard earned bucks, and my efforts to make it fulfill the empty space left not only by the Intrepid but by the Trans Am of yore have been valiant ones. Obviously the results have been good since I have now owned the Grand Prix longer than any other car in my history. I constantly get lookers and compliments, and the never ending references to the Batmobile, partly because of its black color and the rest from my license plate. I have often said this car was as close as I’ll ever come to owning the Batmobile, and my wife has often referred to it as my “superhero costume.”

While onlookers see the car at a glance, car-guys are most often their own worst enemy. We see every flaw and paint chip, hear every rattle, and feel every vibration. We seem to be unable to turn off the grinding brain cells that are dedicated to deciphering the source of every thing we see and hear, and as a result we constantly think about the cost involved to make things better than they were when we first bought the car. If there is any truth in the phrase, “Ignorance is Bliss,” then it does not reside in the gearhead DNA. Our never-ending quest to intimately know every nut, bolt and fastener on our cars can be an exercise in masochism.

In years gone by, upgrading your car with options it didn’t come with originally was a simple matter of nuts and bolts, and maybe a bit of basic wiring. The advent of electronics in modern cars has delegated such upgrades to professionals, or made them impractical from a money standpoint. Such is the crossroads I have reached with my long standing Grand Prix. He is now ten years old with 146k miles on the clock, and while he certainly isn’t ready to lie down, the task of reaching my mental image is becoming an expensive one. Many times I have gone online and browsed the various sites that could provide the pieces and parts I need for the rebuilding/ transformation into a streetable show car, and the total is starting to look like the cost of another car. In a manner of speaking it would be, but then again should it be is the greater question.

Recently my daughter’s car gave its swan song, and she was forced to purchase herself a new set of wheels. Somewhere in the back of my brain I had always thought she would eventually be the next heir of the Grand Prix, but circumstances have prevented that from taking place. While I have given much thought to what my next car might be, I also know I don’t want the Grand Prix to simply be tossed away. It seems that only car-guys can paint themselves into such mental corners.

If I was part of the aforementioned deep pockets club, I could restore the Grand Prix and simply add it to my collection, but when you lack that kind of monetary resource, harder choices must be made. When I purchased my convertible, I was questioned by my wife about how much “decoration” this car would require. She has obviously learned to read me quite well, and her proddings have been very beneficial since I now find myself mentally asking the same question when I look at an automobile.

“Just how much decorating will this one require?”

When you aren’t in the position to buy, it affords you the time to make more informed decisions. Looking at many of the brand new cars is pure window shopping since their prices have gotten truly insane (at least for my income) but when you find pristine examples of older cars that are downright affordable, the urge can hit you where it hurts. The feeling could be akin to seeing a huge diamond just over the edge of a cliff. You can almost touch it with your fingertips, but any further extension would mean plunging to your death. While the car situation is not that dire, there is nothing worse than being stuck with a car payment you don’t want or can’t afford.

Until I can afford to indulge like Jay Leno, and I fear that may be never, I will continue to maintain my small stable of four-wheeled comrades and mistresses. I’ve already blown automotive monogamy by getting a convertible, and my wife doesn’t like to ride in my Grand Prix due to its exhaust noise and buzzy vibration. Only time will tell what will land in the driveway next, a reborn Pontiac or a visceral descendant of the Intrepid?

○ T. August Green – 10-17-10



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