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When A Car Is More Than A Ride

When A Car Is More Than A Ride

She’s torturing me.

I’m talking about the woman who bought my VW Beetle convertible. She’s started parking it on my street where I can see its brand new top, its shiny paint job and the tiny alumni decal from my college that she either hasn’t noticed or is leaving in the window so I’ll know that yes, this used to be my car and now it’s been restored to mint condition. 

I loved that baby blue Bug. Bought it new in 2004 as a present for myself. I’d finally graduated from the autos of early motherhood. The dreary gray Isuzu Trooper that I tooled around in for years. The black Volvo box that I drove - or “steered,” since you never actually “drive” a car with an automatic transmission - after that.

"Might as well spray paint “Mommy” on the side,” I groused to myself every single time I opened the doors to either car.

Driving those symbols of four-wheel suburban practicality was depressing. Both were permanently encrusted with Cheerios, with large dents in the seats first from baby seats and later from boosters. 

Those vehicles got you from place to place. Period. 

OK, neither was as soul-crushing as a minivan. But they were mighty close.

Worst of all, they weren’t fun to drive.

My first car was definitely a delightful ride. A 1975 Fiat coupe. Navy blue with tan interior. Brand new. I bought it with the thousand dollars my father gave me when I graduated from college. A sporty little car with five on the floor. Handled like an Italian race car. 

I owned it for one whole day before I drove it to Miami and back. No air conditioning, but I didn’t care. Windows down, arm out the window, flying down I-95. In. My. Own. Car.

Unfortunately, it soon lived up to the FIAT acronym: Fix It Again Tony.

First the master cylinder failed, then the steering wheel snapped, finally the timing belt broke causing engine failure.

Fun while it lasted.

Ten-plus years later, in 1988, when I unexpectedly found myself pregnant with Baby No. 1, I was the proud owner of a cherry red convertible Suzuki Samurai. Not a fancy sports car, of course. But the perfect ride for someone who was not making much money but who was living just steps from the ocean and wanted a rag top with a stick shift.

I really liked that car. It had a black rubber stopper in the floor. If you forgot to put the top up in a rain storm - and clearly the manufacturer expected you to do that a time or two - you just pulled the plug, as you would a bathtub. A few hours in the sun and you were ready to roll again.

But right about the time my life changed forever, the newspapers were filled with stories about Samurais flipping in accidents. Not a car for a newborn, every single member of my family insisted.

And so I sold it. 

Bought the Trooper. As I chugged around town in that snooze of an SUV it occurred to me that it would be years - decades maybe - before I’d own another car that ignited joy whenever I turned the key.

People who don’t like to drive will never understand that delicious feeling of slipping behind the wheel of a peppy car that begs you to step on the accelerator and ignore the speedometer. A car that hugs the corners and purrs when you hit 80.

Years later, when the Trooper died, I inherited the Volvo box that my husband had driven when it had a new car smell and a functioning turbo feature that kept it from being completely awful. It had an automatic transmission. Sigh.

Finally, once my daughter was 16, and my son and the Volvo were 15, it was time to turn the keys of the Swedish car over to the teens and get something just for me.

I couldn’t afford the convertible I really wanted: A BMW. But the VW Beetle was a perfect beach car. Best of all, it was a stick shift, which meant neither of my kids could drive it.

 It was all mine.

“Gosh, you keep cars so long this may be your last,” my daughter snarked the day I drove the Bug home, with the top down, of course.

Well, she was wrong. After fighting for years with windows that periodically malfunctioned - it was assembled in Mexico where quality control didn’t seem to be a priority - the top began to leak. It needed body work. The glove box was broken.

When I added up the cost of what it would take to keep the Beetle on the road, and weighed it against its value, it was clear. Time to say adios.

On top of that, I had a baby again, a granddaughter. The only way to get an infant seat in the back of the Bug was to loosen the passenger seat from its moorings. That meant the person riding shotgun was effectively strapped into a rocking chair. Not safe.

Then, one day last summer on the Nextdoor app, a neighbor advertised a 12-year-old luxury car - one owner - with 35,000 miles on the odometer. The mileage was so low I thought it was a typo.

Bought it.

How did I go my whole life without realizing I was meant to drive a Mercedes? The engine hums, the doors are solid, the ride is sleek and silent. And when you turn it loose on the highway, well, you wish you were on the Autobahn.

Still, it isn’t a convertible. And it doesn’t have a manual transmission.

But I know a car that does. It’s parked a few houses away from mine.

Truth is, I don't miss it. 

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