Tag Archives: cars

Love Cars, Hate Buying

We have been looking at cars. Nancy’s beloved Audi wagon is 14 years and 210 thousand miles old, and it seems prudent to begin thinking about its replacement. We’ve had a lot of cars, it seems, but when one is meeting our needs, we hold onto it for a long time. We bought this one used, have had it ten years, and are responsible for more than three-quarters of those miles.

In many ways, it is still meeting our needs. Its seats are the only ones in which Nancy could sit for long periods without discomfort, and that includes other vehicles, sofas, and a long series of office chairs. The station wagon configuration has worked for us, too. The Audi routinely transports band instruments and gardening tools; frequently is pressed into service for the dog, bales of pine straw, and pots of perennials; did yeoman’s service when we emptied Mother’s house before selling it; and has on occasion hauled 300-pound rocks for Nancy’s ornamental garden.

But her hauling needs are growing. Nancy is playing mallets and miscellaneous percussion for two community bands, a community orchestra, and a church ensemble. She started small—one band and a borrowed set of student practice bells (glockenspiel). Then she bought a full-size set of orchestra bells, and started joining other groups. That means her 35-pound instrument has to be loaded into and out of the car six to ten times a week, along with its X-stand, a music stand, mallets, sheet music, and the hand cart we use to roll it to and from the car. But wait!—as the infomercials say—that’s not all. For one group, she also plays bass drum. For two others, xylophone. The drum and xylophone belong to their respective bands and normally reside at the practice sites. But, as concerts near, they, too, get carried around in Nancy’s car.

For now, the Audi wagon is just barely big enough, if we are content to be constantly reconfiguring: seats up, seats down; cargo mat in (for dirty gardening work), mat out (for musical instruments and other “clean” uses). But Nancy recently bought her own xylophone—a fine 100-year-old instrument. It needs some refurbishment, but once we get it fixed up, I suspect she will be taking it back and forth to practices and concerts. This one has resonators, and will require a more substantial stand than does the borrowed one. I am sure we could fit everything into the Audi, with a few more contortions. But the inconveniences are mounting.

So, there is our dilemma. We are looking for luxury car seats and utility van roominess. SUVs don’t quite do the trick. Nancy wants to sit down into a seat, not climb up to it. And the loading heights are fearsome. Remember that 35-pound set of bells? The xylophone with its resonators will be as heavy—and larger with a much larger stand. Utility vans and the boxes-on-wheels that have come out in recent years are, well, Spartan. Full-size wagons have mostly gone out of production, and would, in any case, not solve the space problem. Minivans come close, but the seats are somewhat higher than she finds comfortable, and surprisingly, do not offer passenger-side 8-way adjustability. With all the motors on modern minivans, for side doors and lift gates and so on, why not two more, so the front passenger could adjust the height and tilt of the seat bottom?

I have been wondering if one vehicle can do what Nancy needs. Should we consider two—a stripped down box for local hauls (music, gardening) and a conventional car for long trips and general transportation? I am not ready to give up the open bed of my pickup; we have too many needs for mulch and gravel. Half our carport is already taken with a 280-Z whose fix-up is on hold while our son works to get established in another town. So that would mean four vehicles sitting at a two-person household.


I have been reading online reviews, studying Consumer Reports, looking at ads. The starting point of all the advice assumes you at least know the type of vehicle you want—a small pickup, a mid-sized sedan, a large SUV. It is hard enough, from such a starting point, to choose the models and options and to decide whether to buy new or used. The latter is a hard choice. I have an unhappy history with cars purchased new. I have done that twice, and twice had financial reverses force me to trade down. I like the idea of buying a three or four year old car and letting someone else absorb the initial depreciation. That’s the only way we ended up in the Audi. Yet, the electronic safety features on today’s new cars seem too good to pass up, so we’ll at least consider taking the new car plunge again.

But first, we have to get to first base. We have to settle on a type of car.


We learned early on that if you want dimensions, you have to measure them yourself. The only thing the sales staff or literature know is volume. Nancy’s instruments have length, width, height—as do most things you put into a vehicle. I crack to a salesman that volume only matters if I am a party planner with a load of balloons.

We are, perhaps, not typical car shoppers. Waltzing in with tape measure and notepad in hand, we are not interested in a test drive or a list of features or the JD Power ratings.  “Do you want to look at the engine?” No, thanks. We assume it has one.

We ask how the rear seats can be collapsed or removed, then put them through their paces. Is there a way these tracks, these lugs, can be covered? How smooth and level is the resulting deck? Can we slide an instrument case in without catching on some hardware?

Mercifully, we draw salesmen who are intrigued and amused. Only one, out of more than a dozen, tries the high pressure tactics. He’s young, still has lots to learn.


It is done. Nancy’s new ride is a minivan. After more than a month of “maybe this, maybe that,” the choices and tradeoffs and preferences seemed all at once to pull us to a convergence. With end-of-season incentives, we could get a new car for the price of a two-year-old one. We did end up with the same color as the Audi.

Gone are those luxo Audi seats, the leather still supple and un-cracked after all the years and miles. Weighed against 210 thousand miles, the trade-in value of the whole car was not even close to four figures. We’d have given that much to transplant the seats to the new minivan. “It will void your warranty,” is the salesman’s dry response. As if I’d seriously considered taking a welder’s torch to a brand new car. (Nancy says her heart leapt when I mentioned the idea.)

The result is a compromise. Most of life is, I suppose. We gave up some creature comforts for hauling capacity. Even the “8-way” adjustability of the driver’s seat promises more than it delivers. The seat-height range is high-higher-highest. Nancy is a long-legged 5’ 7-1/2”, and is barely comfortable at the lowest setting. I read that the “average” adult female in the US is 5’ 4”.

On the plus side are modern cameras and safety systems and other “i-features.” On the plus side is all that room for hauling. On the plus side is the peace of mind that a long trip is not a risk. On the plus side is that new car smell.

Of Cars and Trucks

I like cars. I use the term generically, to include all the forms of four-wheeled, powered, personal transportation. I have owned nearly a score. None were especially expensive, powerful, or exotic. Each one was fun to drive. Every last one.

My first was a black 1962 Plymouth Valiant with a red vinyl interior, a slant-six engine, and push button transmission controls on the dash. The year was 1968. I was in college. It was a rather pedestrian (excuse the pun) entree into the world of car ownership, but then, I was a rather pedestrian college kid. I spent weekends exploring “gray roads,” those faint gray lines on maps that indicate “unpaved.” Among my college friends, the car had something of a low-rider reputation, as its semi-elliptic leaf springs had sagged into straight lines and the torsion bars on the front end were similarly exhausted.

In short order after college, I drove a VW Microbus and a Fiat 124 Sport Spider. Sitting over the front wheels of the Microbus and cranking that nearly horizontal steering wheel through the esses of a mountain road is an experience that stays with you. I can still feel the sway, still hear the pitch of that air-cooled four-banger in the back rise and fall as I accelerate out of one curve, then decelerate into the next.

And the Spider! Ah, the Spider! Mine was the color of lemon mousse. A curvy Italian beauty, with tan upholstery and (unusual for the day) a convertible top you could raise and lower without leaving the driver’s seat. I remember one fine summer day rounding a curve in Wilkes County, NC, and seeing a clear, sharp line in the road ahead, separating dry pavement from the thunderstorm I was about to drive into. I braked to a stop on the shoulder. The wet/dry line held its ground. I reached behind me, lifted the top and clamped it into place, cranked up the windows, and drove into the storm, snug and dry.

The Spider was also a great snow car. Snowfall is a big deal in Charlotte, NC, and leaving work with a surprise five inches on the ground makes for an interesting commute. I had to help push several cars out of my parking lot before getting my own turn. The little Fiat needed no help there nor on the hill near my house. I just had to wait for the other cars to slide off the road and give me driving room. Later that night, I double-dated in that car. The other couple were afraid to risk it in their big Buick.

During my graduate school years, I got bitten with the back-to-the-land bug. Attempting to grow a significant portion of our food led, as you might expect, to a pickup truck. My first was an early 60s beater with sprung hood hinges. As I drove, the rear of the hood would slowly rise until it crouched eight inches above the cowl and I could watch the engine in its labors. At the end of the trip, I pushed the hood back into place, ready for its next rising. To my chagrin, that truck also came equipped with a cracked block. It was a short-lived partnership. But that old truck set me on a different path, in which there are just two states of being: Either I have a truck, or I am between trucks.

It is possible to function between trucks. It helps if the gardening bug is in remission. I have hauled long boards on top of Nancy’s station wagon, and her birthday rock (a 300 pound boulder) inside. And, in all honesty, those “between trucks” vehicles each had their charms. The full size Dodge van was great for that two-week camping trip in the American Southwest. The mini-van was just what we needed for the cross country trip that followed Lewis and Clark west and the Oregon Trail coming back east. The Volvo turbo that almost got me ticketed for enjoying the switchbacks down to Leatherwood Ford in the Big South Fork was a blast. For a time, Jay and I shared a Nissan 240SX and, later, a Miata—happy reminders of my beloved Fiat Spider.

Nevertheless, I am no longer “between.” My current ride is a 14-year-old Ranger. It’s my fifth truck and our low-mileage vehicle—140,000 and counting. I rarely even sweep out the mulch and gravel anymore; the next load will not be long in coming.