The Worst Cars Are the Best Cars
There are no bad cars, there are only cars that cost more than they should. My first car was a Plymouth Volare. It did not cost me more than it should; it cost me $600, and it was worth every penny. The Volare is the kind of car that comes up in search results when you type in things like “worst car ever made,” or “National Lampoon's Vacation car inspiration,” or “I hit a speed bump and my fenders fell off.” That was the first of many cars to teach me what I call “The Chrysler Compromise,” which is an agreement between any Chrysler product and its owner that says “I will break all the time, but I will never leave you totally stranded.”
My Volare held up its end of the bargain, on both counts, even when I was being wildly imbecilic. Like the time my friends and I went to an empty road to see how fast it would go in reverse. It got to something like 25 before it started fish-heading (the reverse form of fish-tailing, new word as of right now) wildly and smacked a curb hard enough to bend the center link. I drove three miles to a friend’s house with my front tires pointing 30° apart. There I cranked the tie-rods until the tires were relatively straight, and drove it like that until I could make it to the pick-a-part and get the center link that Chrysler used on every car from 1966 until 2008.
Don’t get me wrong; I hated that car. But I loved that car. I had countless adventures that were the direct result of the fact that it barely qualified as an automobile. My friends would get into arguments about whether it was brown or red, and it did that dieseling thing, where you turn the ignition off and the engine would sputter on for at least another minute, sounding like a broken washing machine that also had asthma. I would pull up to a girl’s house at the end of the night and say “I had a really good time tonight,” and she would say, “What… Is… Is your car supposed to be doing that?” It had that generic 70’s car look, so once a week some gas station attendant would say, “Oh, is that a Ford Galaxy?” or some other car that it was not, and I would pretend that it was and listen to their story about the one that their brother owned in hopes that it would distract them enough that they would forget to ID me for the six pack of beer I was trying to buy from them.
It was followed by other loved and hated adventurous vehicles: a manual transmission 2WD Ford Explorer, a ‘91 Civic that topped out at 65, and a Ford F100 that self-immolated in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I used to call these cars shitboxes, but now I call them adventureboxes, as in, “You remember that rattling noise coming from underneath my car? Yea, well that turned out to be… an adventure.”
Currently, I have a 2015 4Runner that is great in pretty much every way. It has four wheel drive with selectable 4-low and ATRAC, which is this great thing you can activate on some really sketchy and slippery ground and just mash the throttle. The ABS pump goes crazy grabbing whichever wheel is spinning, and the whole vehicle just crawls over whatever obstacle is in your way.
My 4Runner was preceded by a 20-year-old minivan with a huge dent in the door and a mattress in the back (I like to party). It has this thing called “not giving a shit” where you just mash on the throttle and it crawls over whatever obstacle is in your way.
The 4Runner will never leave me in a predicament, partly because it is capable and reliable, but partly because I’m afraid to take it anywhere really gnarly. If a trail is too narrow it’ll scratch the paint, if the water is too deep it’ll ruin the carpets. I didn’t care about that stuff in the Minivan, even less so in the Volare. Actually, most days, I was actively trying to damage the Volare. The worst cars are the best cars because they get in the way of life in interesting ways instead of boring ways. I’ll go down that dirt road, and maybe I high-center it on a tree stump, but I bet I get it out with a borrowed tow strap and a couple of new friends. The predictability of a late model, low-mileage Toyota is as exciting as watching its resale value plummet. I want some automotive excitement. I want some adventure. My next car won’t be a new car; it’ll be an interesting car.
But a reliable one. A reliable, interesting car. And a safe one. With air conditioning. And good gas mileage. A safe, reliable car with AC and good gas mileage.
And a sunroof. And maybe some miles left on the warranty.
You know, maybe I’ll just get two cars.
My midlife crisis car is a 1987 Mercury Colony Park wagon bought barely running for $500. I am really enjoying having an interesting car that is beat enough it will never be perfect again, so I can pretty much do whatever I want with zero guilt.
I’m looking forward to the first proper snow so I can hunt down and empty parking lot and do snow donuts, something I haven’t done in almost 20 years.