I have an emotional relationship with my car, a 2007 Honda Element, purchased used in 2009, with 30,000 miles on it. Paid $18,000 plus trade-in for my old Honda CRV. I love my car. Now it has 172,000 miles on it and I’m hoping to make it to 200,000. It’s a point of pride for me. I understand that younger people may be detaching from car culture, but I grew up in the rural Midwest where cars were freedom, power, and social status. I’ve had my own car for half a century. So last week when the engine light went on, I winced, and took it to my mechanic for a check-up.
I wore my gardening clothes and mucky shoes to the garage because I’ve been there before and I didn’t want to attract attention while I sat in the dusty waiting room, a 1970s time capsule where I started feeling nostalgic for the waning days of gas stations, grease monkeys and hot rods. Every town has one of these places with its funky chairs, fingerprints on the coffee pot, oil and rag fibers coating every surface, the scent of cheap air freshener and the faint odor of Texas oil wells. I wanted to pick the dead leaves off the plants and wipe down the big red plastic race car on the empty vending machine. But I sat and read on my phone while a tired old man with deep wrinkles and knobby hands leaned against the counter and drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
I bought the Element to be my farm ride. It can hold 8 bales of hay or half a cord of firewood or a big dog and enough worldly possessions to make a home. There have been times traveling cross-country when I felt like my car was my partner. I cared for it the way a cowgirl cares for her horse. We’re close. I decorated it with bumper stickers and dashboard ornaments. We eat and sleep together. I have fond memories of a road trip in 2017 when I spent the night sleeping my car in a Walmart parking lot in Michigan. My breath steamed the windows, and I had the feeling of deep grunge when I woke, but I was relaxed in a familiar place where I belonged, cozy. My car is a memory bridge.
I really don’t want another car, but when my mechanic identified the engine light problem, he warned me of the approaching end times with an ugly four-letter word. Rust. It’s a terminal diagnosis. He wanted me to know the finish line is near, and suggested I prepare my advanced directives for the disposition of the body. It’s a disturbing thought. I’m not ready to let go. I don’t want another car, but I’ll get one because I can’t imagine my life without the independence that comes with having my own vehicle parked in my own parking place. I enjoy driving. I drive to think. A road trip is my ideal vacation. I want to own a car. But cars are changing.
The future is being assembled in an antiseptic factory as the automotive industry makes computers on wheels, integrating hardware and software into a mobile digital assistant that hears your voice and replies like a servant. New cars are robots mechanized by electric pulses guided by artificial intelligence, with built-in satellite communications, automatic software updates and flatscreen dashboards. They come when you call them like dogs and offer entertainment like movies, audiobooks, and podcasts. Imagine going to get groceries in the Batmobile.
I’m going to miss the clunky metal hulks that line the highway in rush hour belching deadly emissions while drivers grumble about the traffic and sing along with Sirius. Of course, I want to end the pollution, the car accidents, and the noise. But cars are symbolic of my era. I remember my grandfather’s 1950s Buick sedan, my family’s Rambler Cross Country station wagon, my dad’s 1963 Corvette Stingray, and my own 1970s Volkswagen Beetle. One of the first TV shows I got hooked on was “Car 54 Where Are You?” Then “My Mother the Car.” “The Dukes of Hazzard.” And MTV’s groundbreaking reality show “Pimp My Ride.” The cars on these shows were written as characters because we so identify with our automobiles.
Today when my mechanic essentially told me I’m going to have to euthanize my Element because the rust is going to make it unsafe or at the very least prone to breakdown, it hit me by surprise. I’m still hoping to make it to 200,000 miles. But the risk is spooky. I’m an old lady with a big dog traveling mostly alone around town and along country roads. I don’t ever want to need roadside assistance. The mechanic, who could be my grandson, urged me to face up to reality. But I’m not ready for it. I still have the urge for the power surge of putting my pedal to the metal, peeling rubber, throwing up rooster tails, and doing donuts, spark plugs exploding, pistons pounding 80 miles an hour, windows open, music blasting, and my hair pulled back by the wind. No, I’m not done driving this car. So, honey, please pimp my ride.