I’ve tried. I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly when I gained an appreciation for cars (and machines in general, but that’s another story).
As a teenager, I enjoyed the race-car video games more than any other. Heck, I still do.
TV shows? I sided with those that starred cars more than actors or stories. I still miss KITT.
As a younger kid, of course I had my collection of Matchbox cars.
Even then, though, the hook had already been set. When? Why? What caused this? Might it have been that first toy that I remember—the die-cast model of a 1910 Cadillac that my aunt gave me for my fifth birthday? I doubt it. Beautiful as it was, even at that age, I preferred later stuff. Late ’20s and newer styling, with a strong leaning to ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s cars. Even so, I did not forget that Caddy.
None of my family were car enthusiasts. Artists, for sure. So maybe it was simply aesthetic appreciation. I just don’t know.
When it came time to buy my first car, about 30 years ago, I bought an old one. A 1967 Volvo. I’d been saving up and, between my $3.35/hour job at Burger King and some savings from my 4-H chicken project, I’d gathered up a whopping $625.
Now, $625 was not enough to buy the BMW that I really wanted. But it was almost enough to afford the 20-year-old Volvo that came up for sale a couple of blocks away from home.
My folks approved of the old car because it had a freshly rebuilt engine. With a $75 loan, I bought the old Volvo for $700, condition being I had to reattach the front bumper before I was allowed to drive it. Safety first, you know.
That was fine. I had to pay the loan back first, and gather funds for registration and insurance anyhow. This allowed me time for the bumper repair.
The welded capture nuts inside the frame had broken loose, but some baling wire and a C-clamp held that bumper on good enough to make it look right. Safe? Maybe not so much. But good enough for my father to approve.
Eventually, I was legal and driving. And that 20-year-old car felt like just that: an old car. Still, I loved driving that cantankerous old car. The steering was sloppy, door and window gaskets leaked, making the heater ineffective in the winter. Lots of rattles. I repaired the steering issue first, and then I continually repaired things that wore out or stopped working as they failed.
I learned most of my mechanic skills with that car. The bumper kept falling off.
Now, 30 years and a bunch of old cars and trucks of various makes, models, and countries of origin later, my wife and I find ourselves driving old cars. A ’91 and a ’96. These current daily drivers are older than that old Volvo was when I first got it, and they have way more miles on them.
But to me, these cars that we drive now feel new.
They always start, they run as expected, they have good heaters, and nothing seems to break (knock on wood). Almost everything works. Heck, they even have air conditioning, ABS, airbags. I take care of routine maintenance, but nothing unexpected ever seems to crop up.
Cars and trucks have really come a long way. In 1967, Volvo advertised heavily on their cars lasting an average of 11 years in the rough climate and road conditions in Sweden. Nowadays, 11 years is a pittance. Any car that dies a natural death with fewer than 200k miles seems absurd.
The problem is, these newer 20-year-old cars are boring. Don’t get me wrong; I like reliability and convenience. But I prefer interesting styling, inside and out. And I enjoy anticipating small projects that, if only to me, make a huge difference. And old, of course, does not mean unreliable. It just means getting my hands dirty more often. .
Next project? A 1967 Volvo. Same year and model as my first car.
But it hasn’t been driven since 1977, so I figure, with just a little work, it should be good for another year. It was parked at the tender age of 10, and I’m sure the Volvo company will be glad to know that it lived up to its 11-year life expectancy.
And it will feel like an old car. Which is fine by me. At age 50, she’s earned that right. And she’d have felt like an old car in 1987, when she was only 20.
I don’t reckon I’ll ever figure out where my appreciation for old cars came from. But I’m glad for it.
I’m glad to have had, and continue to have, the opportunity to get to know, to fix, to learn from some truly wonderful machines that are all too often dragged away for scrap value.
I wish that hadn’t been the fate of my first car, but it was. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have known the cracks in the sheet metal were not structural, and did not need to be the car’s death knell. I’d probably still have it.