My Life in Cars
I’ve been getting some flak for the Mustang, and that’s just from the more outspoken and honest people in my life. It’s totally okay if you too have made silent judgments, maybe related to my espoused commitment to fight climate change, or about me encouraging John to get his Prius, or perhaps it was the timing of the acquisition (when John was away on a mission trip). Whatever your concern, it is valid. Fear not. As an obsessive over-thinker, I’ve got rationale.
To really understand the decision in question, we need to look at my vehicle history. Because, you see, all our history is embodied within us. Wherever we go, we bring all our experience. Just as those who lived through the Great Depression saved every rubber band and every twist tie and every cent long after they had achieved economic stability (and the vast majority of them did) along with entire drawers filled with twisties and rubber bands. We remember what we didn’t have. We have a vision of ourselves, and either consciously or unconsciously, we move toward it.
So, here is more than you ever wanted to know …
My Life in Cars, by a Mustang Apologist
I started exploring my terrain early on. In the 70’s we had unprecedented freedom, and I rode that banana seat bike many miles in all directions.
Later my best friend Lisa and I rode horses. Not initially sanctioned by the owner, we cared for and rode a mare and Sonny, her skittish stallion, mostly bareback. We learned to ride by doing it, and this classic girl obsession afforded some wonderful high energy moments had while galloping through fields, among other shenanigans.
When we were 16, Lisa and I took the driving test in Pennsylvania together. Off we went in the State Police vehicle with Officer Friendly. We each performed a real parallel parking job, and we both passed.
My dear old mom let me drive her AMC Gremlin. It was green, which allowed me to blend in with the background, minimizing my embarrassment. I got my first taste of True American Freedom in it. And even though it handled like a go-cart, namely the gas pedal had a on/off quality, it lent itself to my adventurous cause. And it planted the seeds of humility in my soul.
Nearing the end of high school, I needed wheels of my own though.
Yamaha Exciter Motorcycle 250cc
I worked and saved, and enlisted the help of my bio dad, a long-time motorcycle aficionado whose riding years were cut short by a bad highway accident leaving his arm partially paralyzed. He helped me get this cute bike though. The important thing here was that it was cheap.
Sounding like a mosquito on steroids, I whined up and down the East coast putting more than ten thousand miles on this Yamaha. What I did enjoy was the acceleration, and the fact that it started every single time. Although underpowered like the Gremlin, it made up for that in the 0-60 equation with its light weight. I was able to pick it up if it fell. This baby never let me down, (except when I forgot to turn the AUX fuel switch when fueling, causing it to run out of gas for real. A fuel gauge would have been nice.)
The bike provided lots of lifelong memories, ranging from magical moments of communion with nature, to a couple near-death experiences. Though grateful I didn’t die, I feel the longing every spring.
Winter, however was another story, and I needed to travel between Massachusetts and upstate New York. Again cheap was an important factor, but the ability to accelerate out of tight spots was something I appreciated.
A used VW Scirocco seemed cool, though in retrospect, it was disturbingly similar to the Gremlin in styling. It was nimble and handled well, which might have rescued me from dork-dom. Except it also had a bad habit of just dying while in the fast lane. I remember taking it to several mechanics who sometimes blamed the fuel injection system or the electrical system, but couldn’t FIX the mysterious engine cutting problem. I swore off VWs, acquired a growing respect for simple design.
The E train at Paaaak Street
There was a several year carless stint, when I used public transportation in Boston. I finished university and went to work in Kendall Square in Cambridge.
Riding the T provided some amazing memories of esprit de corps, as well as helping me to bank some solidly light carbon years.
Twenty-five years old, living alone, a working woman and engineer, it felt like a good time to grow up and stop fooling around. After the VW fiasco, reliability was key. A used Honda Accord also fit a bunch of friends. It had a manual transmission which made it fun, and it never had a problem. After several years, I sold it to my ex-boyfriend (I know, but it was that reliable.) and eventually heard that it met an untimely death when a tree fell on it. I favored Japanese cars at that point.
Mitsubishi Eclipse Turbo
Working in the tech industry, I became aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle sexist treatment I was experiencing. In my growing up, no one had bothered to try to put limits on me. A late blooming feminist was born. I wanted power in my first new car. And purely for educational purposes (theirs), I scared the sales guys in the test drives (toe-heel anyone?), and negotiated hard with multiple dealers.
The first Eclipse on the market had 198 horsepower, sweet bulbous styling, and Japanese reliability. People would ask me about it at stop lights. It was a blast. It was during this time, I met John at the engineering firm AOA, got married, quit my job, went back to graduate school.
The ideas of finite oil and climate change began to emerge as issues. And thanks to my courses in Systems Dynamics among others at MIT, solutions to complex problems also began to emerge. The fact that I drove a fast car and ate meat helped me to pry oil executives from their entrenched views for real conversations.
Back to work doing consulting, and then pregnant(!), but still working. We needed a backseat accessible without contortions, but I still wanted a power car. A used Nissan Maxima it was. Super-reliable and fast, the size made it blow around a bit at high speeds.
Pregnant again? Yes, oh yes. Then, going for the full catastrophe, we got Chloe, a flatcoat retriever. So that’s two car seats, a dog, and golf clubs on long road trips. Safety was the driving factor. Enter a used Windstar, plenty of power, it handled like the Hindenburg. My first taste of the invisibility shield when driving a minivan was simultaneously liberating and demoralizing.
At least the kids were safe and couldn’t poke each others’ eyes out in our living room on wheels. What’s a little sacrifice for the next generation? At least until our friendly local mechanic told me to unload it ASAP, as that little noise was the death knell for the Windstar’s engine.
2008 Honda Odyssey
Another friend, James set us up with a new Honda Odyssey. Odysseys are pretty cool, in a minivan way. They have major horsies (240 hp), and the invisibility cloaking device. Very techie, and totally reliable, I had to let it almost run out of gas to meet my excitement needs. John loved that. (Not really.)
We adopted our third child, so safety and cargo space remained important. Our tradition of taking the whole show on road trips to Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and Virginia was like clockwork. So we got two Odysseys back to back.
Which brings us to the pony. Living in the burbs, there are four drivers in the family, all of whom need to get to work, school, sometimes meetings or the airport. Just so you know, where we live is really the chink in our ‘fighting climate change’ armor. That, and our air travel.
That summer, my husband John knew I was scanning auto.com for a good, local deal. It was unfortunate that the right car presented itself, and it all went down while he was away. And I admit, race red is a little much. Who knew that insurance is more for red cars?
As for me ‘making’ John buy the Prius, if he were to write his Life in Cars, it would feature 1) MPG and 2) reliability as the two driving factors. I knew he would love the Prius after he got over the pain of change. And he does love it. Also, let’s be clear, nobody makes John McNeill do something that he doesn’t want to do. I encouraged him. Not because there is a double standard, but because I was convinced it was a great car for him. For us.
The feminist in me needs to point out a couple of things.
- John and I are unique individuals. We’ve been married 25 years, but that hasn’t made us lose our individual identities.
- When we met, I drove a sports car. I bring excitement to this party.
- I drove a minivan for 18 years. Do not even start with me. 18 years. Did I mention that I drove a minivan for 18 years?
We do analyses when making sizable decisions, and think about vehicles as a portfolio. As in life, many factors are relevant. The earth’s resources, safety, cargo space, driver experience, and need for fun are all considered. Whoever is traveling the greater distance usually takes the Prius.
In 2 years, the Mustang has accumulated just over 5000 miles. Not a lot of emissions. I’m enjoy driving American-made for once. The wind in my hair is reminiscent of the joy I had when I was young, riding horses and motorcycles, even my banana seat bicycle with streamers. It helps to recharge my batteries, and we all need that.
I love seeing childhood pictures of adults I know. There is an essence that often does not change, that is if we are lucky, our life experiences don’t crush it out of us. I hope each of you will discover the simple things that can still make you happy.
I would love to hear your comments. Really.