Car Talk

When I wrote a few months ago about the pleasure and strong memories evoked by long drives, several readers responded with memories of their first cars. (They were all male, I should note.)

What is it about a first car? Please tell me, because I’m having issues with mine. When I first started making a good salary, one of the first things I did was go out and buy my dream car: a 1989 Mustang convertible (see photo).

It’s now 22 years old and has 141,000 miles on it, at least 10 percent of which came in its first year. Over the years, I have replaced the top and the hydraulics that control the top; I’ve had it repainted, and essentially babied it so that it would last … well, forever. I only drive it in the spring and summer now, and refrain from taking it on long trips, but even on that limited basis, it’s a lot of fun.

But like me, the Mustang is showing its age. Every spring I take it to the dealer for its annual physical. The news was unpleasant this year.

The fuel gauge wasn’t working because of something in the gas tank itself. Cost to fix: $800.

There was a minor oil leak that, for reasons I didn’t quite understand, would require the removal of the engine. Cost to fix: $2200.

The oil pressure gauge stopped working but is no longer manufactured by Ford. No aftermarket manufacturer makes one that replicates the original. Cost to fix: $0. It’s broken forever.

How can I maintain what could someday be a classic car if the manufacturer stops making parts? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t. Ford wants me to buy a new car, preferably more frequently than every 22 years.

Whenever I read a story about someone selling a car they loved, he (and it was always a guy) always say they regretted it later. I didn’t want to be that guy. I also didn’t want to spend $3000 on a car that I don’t use that frequently. To help me decide what to do, I polled three of the most practical and rational people I know.

Their responses surprised me. The first two, one a doctor and one an entrepreneur, both said, essentially, “This is not a decision you make with your head. This is a decision you make with your heart.” Both of them suggested, unequivocally, fixing the car. Need I add that they were both guys?

The third practical person I polled was my wife. Now, this really wasn’t fair, because my wife is notoriously circumspect about opinions she knows I won’t like. We had been together ten years before she admitted to me that she hated convertibles. Her diagnosis: fix the gas gauge, ignore the minor oil leak, and live without an oil pressure gauge.

That seemed a good compromise, and that’s what I did. Perhaps this is why we’ve been married for almost 20 years, even with a convertible in the garage.

But all I’ve done is postpone the decision about how long I can nurse the Mustang along. Like me, the car isn’t going to zip along on sunny summer days forever. But I’m postponing thinking about that for a while too.


About middleagecranky

The Middle-Age Cranky blog is written by baby boomer Howard Baldwin, who finds the world, while occasionally wondrous, increasingly aggravating.
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11 Responses to Car Talk

  1. Judit Sarossy says:

    It is cute, but I believe as you mentioned it is a guy thing. I had to think hard what was my first car. πŸ™‚

  2. David Flack says:

    You might get another opinion from an independent mechanic. The largest reason Americans (and Consumer Reports, as I recall) give for not buy an “American” car is not the quality of the vehicle but the poor of the service. I have never heard of an oil leak requiring removal of an engine unless you did something like throw a connecting rod out the bottom of the oil pan. Then again the last American car I owned was a 1967 Oldsmobile Cutless. Come to think of it the dealer wanted to remove the engine to change the oil.

  3. Polly Traylor says:

    What I really like about old cars is that you are saving the earth. Instead of having your car sit in a junk pile somewhere, with parts can’t be used, you are still using it. It’s a good investment. We just plunked $3700 (hack, cough #%^$) into our beloved 2001 Subaru station wagon. We needed a new engine block. The guy at the shop told us it would run for at least a few more years in top shape. Weighing against having a car payment again, and then of course probably a down payment on a new car, I still feel good about the decision. When the Subey finally expires, my hope is that electric cars will be an affordable and viable reality!

  4. Danno says:

    Oh Howard, you’ve done it again, lot’s of emotion – It’s a guy thing, the combination of the absolute logic of the machine in motion to produce an emotional experience we seldom forget.

    My first & second cars were what I could afford saving money from newspaper sales. A very used up 1960 Ford Falcon that I ran into the ground and replaced it with a 1964 Dodge 4 door automatic. After a couple of wrecks and repairs I couldn’t afford, I got a good job and you guessed it I got the dream car of my life and suddenly everything about my life in 1968 came alive. What kind of car you ask? 2 door, black bucket seats, 4 speed Hearst, vinyl top, 389 with 3 deuces, all perfectly assembled into one of the greatest muscle cars Detroit has ever produced – The 1966 Pontiac GTO. Loved that car which I had for 4 years.

    Regarding your dilemma, hanging onto the machine associated with the memories will not reproduce them or cause today’s experiences to be like them. Create a new dream, create a new goal and go for it! I know you, cranky or not you can do it AND your bride will support you!

  5. Virginia says:

    Oh, I’ll never forget my first car! It was the cutest little Dodge Colt, with a wacky 2×4 manual transmission, so that it effectively had eight speeds. The first week I owned it, it died outside Truckee at 2 a.m. because the dealer hadn’t put any oil in the transmission. The a/c never worked at all, and it was totaled two years after I bought it when I was rear-ended by a Beetle. But I loved that car!

  6. Bob Eicholz says:

    Howard, Howard, Howard,

    You need to network on the Internet! Almost every car has a website with a devoted following of people who share parts, memories, amusing stories, how to fix stuff without spending a fortune, and…most importantly…lists of good mechanics.

    The prices you quoted are ripoffs!

    As you know, I have the “car bug” myself…with the car of my dreams…a 1972 Red / Black Karmann Ghia Convertible…exactly like the one I had in the 70’s. I also have a 1976 Ford Pinto.

    By networking, I have found a mechanic and lots of friends who share my passion. When something goes wrong, I post on the forum. I get immediate responses, and offers to sell or give me parts. As an example, my Pinto fuel gauge broke. Cost with labor: $75.

    For me, these cars SAVE money! How? They eliminate my passion for a REALLY expensive car, which would cost me $15,000 a year in depreciation alone. Instead of a Mercedes 550, I drive a modest but comfortable Subaru. I get as much attention (yes, I admit I crave it) in my Ghia or Pinto as any exec driving a $100,000 car. These cars take me back to a time before cars became supercomputers, allowing me to re-experience the man-machine instinct that allowed me to be successful in my career.

    I also meet lots of interesting folks.

    So…keep your dream car, but be smart about it. You’ll have fun and save money!

    • Just so everyone doesn’t think I’m an idiot for taking the Mustang to a dealer, I should note that I used to go to a little repair shop that specialized in Fords. That guy was great, but he reportedly moved to Sydney and the subsequent owner didn’t find it necessary to return phone calls. I don’t know how he stays in business.

  7. GingerR says:

    A broken fuel gauge and an oil leak aren’t things that necessarily require fixing.

    We had a Subaru with both and drove it quite a long time. In fact, we gave it to our son who drove it quite awhile after that.

    I’d guess you have a good idea what kind of mileage your baby gets. So you set the trip odometer (or write the mileage down in a notebook you keep in the glove compartment) every time you fill up. When you get to as many miles as you estimate 3/4 a tank is then you fill up again. It’s a little complicated – as a testament to the poor math skills they teach kids these days my son ran out of gas once- but we baby boomers who suffered through old-style teaching of mathmatics, can usually get it worked out.

    I think your wife is right about just living with the other two issues. Unless the car is belching black oily smoke just check the oil and fill it up when it needs more oil.

  8. Kim says:

    My first car, a ’66 Mustang, is safely and soundly garaged in the woods in the care of my dad. It’s in good company with a couple of other classics that represent different kinds of nostalgia for each of us. I’m the writer, he’s the engineer. Mine is the nostalgia of the escapes and freedoms discovered with my own four wheels and all of the places they took me, mapped or metaphoric. His is the nostalgia for the craftsmanship of old V8s and doors that shut with an authoritative clomp vs. a ping or a polite click.

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