That Used Car Smell

I am not well acquainted with what many folks call ‘that new car smell.’ Having driven and purchased more used cars than I have new ones, a new car smell is simply not an aroma to which I’ve had much exposure.

This is neither a complaint nor a plea for sympathy. I’m well aware that there are folks who share my planet who have never driven a new car, and multitudes who have never owned a vehicle of any age, kind, class or color. I mention it purely for the sake of starting another of these wonderful one-way conversations I am privileged to write, and which others are kind enough to indulge me by reading.

Like most people we know, the choice of which car to buy has been, ahem, driven, by what we could afford or were willing to pay. Such was the case with our first car, a 1979 Zephyr, which we bought from my auntie in 1985. When she bit the dust in 1987 (the Zephyr, not my auntie) thanks to an unfortunate series of events involving the Jarhead, inertia, and an oncoming sedan, we had no collision coverage and limited funds with which to replace her. Thus, we were opted to buy used again, and purchased a 1972 Cougar.

Over the next eighteen years we moved to Europe and back, and from the east coast to the west and back again, which prompted the purchase and sale of several vehicles both new and used. Eventually we settled down near Philadelphia, where we acquired the beloved Pacifica which I eulogized two posts ago. I purchased her in 2005 when she had but 20,000 miles under her belt. She was beautiful, and offered all of the lovely bells and whistles a middle-class woman with no interest in fuel economy could want: Adjustable leather seats. Five CD changer with seven speaker sound system. All-wheel drive. Anti-lock brakes. Air bags. Butt warmers. I could go on, but you probably get the point.

Although she was only 2 years old, I bought that Pacifica for less than half of what the dealerships were asking for brand new ones. And I loved her. So much so that over the course of our relationship, I drove her more than all of the cars I have ever owned, borrowed or rented combined. And that metallic blue baby had the mileage to prove it. By the time she was taken from me that fateful day last December, she had 211,000 miles on her odometer.

While the Jarhead currently drives a new vehicle—by virtue of the fact that he was its first owner when he bought it 3 years ago—he has even more experience than I do with used cars. In fact, with the exception of his current vehicle, he has typically driven the oldest and/or ugliest used vehicle in our little fleet. The first of these was a 1977 LTD (as in Loud-ass Two Door) which we bought for $250 in 1990. The second was a 1978 Volvo Rustbucket that kept us safe from physical injury but, sadly, not from public ridicule.

After the Volvo came a 1993 Geo Metro that we bought from friends in 1999. Despite its name, the Geo was not suited for driving in a metropolis, or any other place where the bulk of one’s driving involved holding down the clutch with one’s left foot. We learned this after relocating to northern Virginia whereupon the Jarhead acquired a serious case of sciatica. This necessitated the purchase of a vehicle with more leg room and an automatic transmission. Not wanting to spend the money on something new and/or expensive in case it didn’t solve the problem, we opted for a 1993 Cougar.

The decision to purchase the Cougar proved quite timely for us since only a few weeks later, while the Jarhead was taking the now retired Geo out for its monthly excursion, the hinge on the hood suddenly rusted through. This, combined with some interesting wind dynamics, caused the hood to flip up in the air and block the Jarhead’s view of I-95. Although he managed to guide the vehicle to the shoulder, rip the hood from its remaining hinge, and toss it into the back end without being slaughtered in rush hour traffic, it nearly killed me to imagine him doing so. To this day I get short of breath thinking about how close he may have come to being exterminated that day.

It’s likely due to nostalgia that my favorite car was a light blue Pacifica since it resembles a station wagon and the first car I drove was my dad’s light blue station wagon that he’d bought at auction. It was previously owned by a county sheriff’s office, so it had a high performance engine and holes in the front seat backrests where metal bars once protected those in the front seat from the occupants in the rear, and featured badge shaped areas on both the driver and passenger side doors where the sheriff’s decal had protected the paint from fading over the years.

I now own a 2011 MKT, which—like the Pacifica—resembles a station wagon. Also like the Pacifica, I was able to buy it used for far less than dealerships are charging less-frugal people for new ones. It’s midnight black instead of light metallic blue, but it feels and handles much like the Pacifica only more smoothly and quietly.

In addition to being a different color and having a smoother ride, the MKT also has more bells and whistles than the Pacifica had. So far, my favorite feature is the stereo, which for reasons beyond my comprehension, allows me to store and listen to virtually any one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs over, and over, and over, and over again, and in any order. I’ve had the car a few weeks now and still haven’t scratched the surface in terms of all the things the stereo can do. But then, I don’t really need to, since I have Elvis.

My second favorite feature is the voice command system, which allows me to set the climate controls, make phone calls, and enjoy the sound system without using my hands. It also allows me to access the GPS—that is, when it understands what I’m saying. As much fun as it can be to drive somewhere you’ve never been without so much as a clue as to how to get there, trying to get a computer to recognize Wisconsin cities and streets with Native American and French names raises the excitement to a whole new level. And you haven’t lived until you’ve played a spirited game of “Hit and Miss” with a computer that has thousands of locations filed under hundreds of categories that seem to have been labeled and organized by someone with dyslexia or Attention Deficit Disorder. Consequently, I often find myself talking to it in ways that would convince observers that its owner has Tourette’s.

Despite these frustrations—and with apologies to my dear departed Pacifica, may she rest in peace—the new car and I are getting along very well. I can’t say yet if she’ll become my new favorite. I’ll have to see how I feel when I’ve broken her in and she no longer has that used car smell.


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