What Do You Drive?

I am no gearhead. Not by a long shot.

Even though I am a middle-aged man, I have had just a few vehicles in my life. I did not get my license until I was 21. I grew up in Cape May; there was no place to drive to let alone park there. I also attended a prep school that forbade students from having vehicles. Furthermore, my college forbade freshmen the same. As a male in New Jersey with fewer than three years driving experience and unmarried, I was in the absolute worst category of any driver who had never been in an accident. To pay the $1000 (even more now, I am certain) to drive sporadically during June, July, and August seemed nonsensical.

So it wasn’t until the waning days of 1986 that I procured my first car. My parents’ philosophy was as follows:

  • prepare children to fend for themselves be independent
  • provide them the best education they could afford
  • send them out into the world prepared

By providing us with a vehicle as a graduation gift, they thought we would go forth without any debt and not be burdened with a car loan. It turns out that from a tax strategy, it was in my parents’ best interest to purchase my graduation present before 1986 ended, which meant I got my present early. 😉

I was excited and knew exactly what I wanted: a Subaru. While I was getting a “free” car, there were limits on that gift. We looked at a dealership in Cape May Court House and found one that I liked. I watched my parents (Dad, mostly) haggle. In the course of negotiating, it was stated that we wanted a blue one. No problem, we were told, but that would need to wait until next week when a blue one was coming in. My folks said we would be back then.

We noticed about a week later that a blue one was on the lot, but no one had called to let us know. We called to inquire and magically the price of the vehicle rose $75. That is not a good way of doing business with my folks. They said they would not purchase the car at the new price. I was obviously quite upset as I saw my first car vanishing before my eyes. I was home for Christmas break and 1986 was coming to an end. If this deal fell through, I wasn’t going to get a car. My parents explained the situation. I understood, but was not happy.

I called the dealership and explained that over $75 they were going to lose the sale. They seemed hardly to care. I recall the manager stating that he didn’t think my parents were really going to purchase the car. Uh, yeah . . .

1986 Mazda 323 LX
Recognizing my disappointment, Dad took off work early on the 29th, I believe, and said, “Let’s go shopping.” We drove up to Maple Shade Mazda. My sister had gotten her graduation gift from there a few years before and had been happy with it. We looked and by the end of the night we had struck a deal.

We purchased a 1986 Mazda 323 LX. It had a manual sunroof and no radio, as I had it pulled to make room for a Blaupunkt stereo that I never purchased. Eventually, I purchased some no name thing with a custom fitted plate to fill the hole.

I lived in it during that last semester at college as I commuted between school, the shore, and the east coast tour of the Grateful Dead. My schedule was something like:

3:45 Yoga
7:00 some cross-curricular Philosophy, Science, and Political class

Tue and Wed full of classes

9:00 Ethics

Then I left campus for various activities. During March I toured with the Dead up and down the east coast, famously getting into an accident right outside Brendan Byrne Arena before a show. That accident put a dent in the driver’s side rear panel. I had that for many years.

I moved to Boston in that car. After a move six months later down the street with my mattress loosely tied to the roof (and me holding it on with my left hand), Steve and I went to Ali’s for some celebration. As I turned around, I ran into a fire plug. That pushed in the driver’s side trunk above the tail light. I drove the car like that for a few more years until I came back to New Jersey.

Somehow as I went to grad school and hardly worked, I afforded the body work on the car, fixed the air conditioner that had never worked properly, and had the car re-painted. After six years, the car was in excellent shape.

I traded the car in November 1995. It needed new brakes at that point. I had 175,000 miles on the car. The dealer was floored as the interior was spotless and the engine was in good shape.

1995 Mercury Tracer Trio
I was convinced I would purchase a $10,000 car. I went to Turnersville Mazda dealer. I liked my Mazda and thought I would buy another. The line was changing. The 323 was now the Protege. It was more like $15,000. I did not remain on the lot long as I was not prepared to spend that kind of money. I liked the car but didn’t think a 50% increase in nine years was worthwhile (and that was for the base model, which was below what I was driving).

I began poking around. In Vineland I looked at a Geo Metro. As the guy described the car, I opened the driver’s door to sit. Just as my butt hit the seat he stated it was three cylinders. I popped right up. Even though I am not a car guy, I explained that three cylinders does not make a car.

I procrastinated, but after a while I had to do something. The Mazda needed work. I dragged myself into Grand in Millville. It shares a lot with another dealer. I looked at the Mercury Tracer, which was the “upgrade” of the Ford Escort. Then I saw a Grand AM on the other lot. I kept going back and forth. Each dealer would lower his price and tell me not to tell the other dealer. I’d go over and tell the other dealer what the new deal was. I eventually got a price for the Tracer I liked.

I do recall the salesman was the brother of the lunch lady at my school. I also recall, having learned from my father, standing up and beginning to walk out when the papers were being prepared when they state floor mats were not included. I was indeed prepared to walk. I got the floor mats.

The Tracer served me well, although it did not last long. I found geocaching in 2001. That little car traversed the mighty Pine Barrens. On 22 July 2003, I exited Wharton after bopping near High Crossing, turned onto 322 and lost power. The transmission was shot with 105,000 on the car. I am certain the sugar sand of the Pines took its toll on the engine.

1998 Ford Escort ZX
I was married now and we decided to purchase a 2003 Ford Taurus SES. Unfortunately, that was not for me. Gert got the new car and I took over driving her 1998 Ford Escort ZX. This, by far, was the worse car I have had. The car was too small for me. While Escorts and Tracers are the same, the ZX body is the sport car in the line. The engine was peppy in this thing, but I never felt comfortable. Yes, I have a couple extra pounds, but that isn’t it. It is like wearing the slim line of clothes. Unless you are thin, it doesn’t work. Same thing here.

Being convinced the death knell of the Tracer was off-roading in the Pine Barrens, I decided to take it easy with the Escort. That lasted but a short time. Even so, the Escort rode even lower than the Tracer had so I was forced to be more cautious. I’ve never had a problem hiking so just adjusted my approach some.

All was well until 6 April 2004. On my way to work, about 750 feet from my house, I was hit hard on the driver’s side by an old truck. Both air bags deployed and I was shaken. For two days I could not sleep. The car was toast.

1996 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer
I had wanted a more robust vehicle for geocaching. Now that we were shopping again, one might think this was the perfect time to shop for a truck. But that wasn’t our thinking whatsoever. We weren’t prepared to purchase another vehicle right then and even though insurance money was in hand, we just didn’t really know what we should do. Gert was rather pregnant and this was falling to me.

In a stroke of serendipity, my next door neighbor put his Explorer on the curb. I asked and it looked like we could do business. I was apprehensive. I like my neighbor and I did not want to do business. We talked a little about that and agreed to just go through it once. We had both done our homework. While my number was a little lower than his, we were looking at the same set of numbers from the ‘Net. We quickly agreed to my number and I took possession of my first non-compact car. I loved it!

It was AWD, not 4×4, but that is good enough for around here. Since it already had 78,000 and eight years, I was not hesitant about taking it off-road. It wasn’t long before the Piney stripes were prominent.

Of course, as soon as I purchased this gas guzzler, gasoline prices skyrocketed. My first tank filled at $25. At the end I was pushing $80 to fill this thing.

It aged and I added two children to it. By the time this summer arrived, I had absolutely no dash lights. That’s right, at night I could not see the dashboard at all. Various other little things were breaking too. Yet, the engine was solid. Of course, the check engine light had been on for two years. I used to be concerned, but nothing ever seemed to be affected. A few people told me it was most likely a faulty censor, but that is expensive to change a low-cost item.

Inspection time came and I was surprised I failed. My mechanic cleared three of the four faults, but the last one was an emissions fault that required Ford equipment to repair. Ford needed $200 to diagnose it before they would commit to how much it would cost to repair. It looked like I was pushing $1000 to get through inspection. Had inspection not failed the vehicle, I would still be driving that vehicle.

With $1000 in repairs for something that was not a concern for me and other issues not being addressed, Gert and I talked things over. We agreed to purchase a new vehicle. She told me to get something I liked as this was my car.

I loathe shopping for cars. “Our friend” screwed us and that really deflated the experience for me. I poked around a few other places. Everyone was looking to bend me over with their games. I hated it. Eventually, someone Gert knows mentioned she had just purchased a Jag from a dealer a few towns away and thought they had been fair. I decided to drive over without any prep. I ended up spending the entire day there.

They have four lots in various towns. They were very indulgent with me. We drove all over and many different vehicles. One car Gert has heard me discuss for years is a Mercury Marquis. I test drove the Crown Vic they had. Had it any bells and whistles, I would probably be driving that now. Seriously. Gert shudders at the thought of an old man car.

By the end of the day, I finally found something I was pretty set on: 2006 Mercury Mountaineer loaded. Of course, they wanted me to put a couple bucks down to hold it and I refused. I said I would be back the following morning, most likely to purchase the Mountaineer, but I was going to look over their online itinerary.

At home Gert and I talked and we both looked through the inventory. She pointed out a Jeep Commander. I said I had seen it and it was gorgeous, but it was out of our price range. She protested. She knows I have always wanted a Jeep, albeit I always thought of a modified Wrangler. I said I would look at it the following day.

We prepared a list of four vehicles and the prices we were willing to pay. I had hoped to exclude a Montero immediately, but couldn’t as it was pristine. There was a second Mountaineer that I was pretty certain I was going to pass on. Then I drove the Commander. It was luxurious. Wow! It was the finest vehicle I had driven.

It took about six hours, but we got the deal done. I actually negotiated a better price than we had outlined the night before. So I am now driving a 2006 Jeep Commander 4×4. Go me!

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One thought on “What Do You Drive?”

  1. I really enjoyed the Jeep Commander. Over time it developed an odd leak that flooded the driver’s side floor when it rained. It would smell awful afterwards. Even so, I put up with it.

    My son wore out the automatic window in the back. It finally broke and all sorts of water got in. I began looking for a new car at that point. Ended up fixing the window and right afterward bought a new car.

    On Memorial Day Monday 2017 I purchased a 2014 Honda CR-V. Other than the color, I love it.

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