A couple of friends of mine just split up. I’ve been his rock and driver for a month, since his wife got the car. My car is now at eight years and 130K miles, and new wheels cost a bundle. I ought to be thinking about a career, but two years of seven-day work weeks in a family business did me in. Now, a thousand miles from the crime scene in southeast Iowa, the frostbite, heat stroke, rust and unemployment capital of the world, I’m rediscovering life, and, as usual, sightseeing at local car stores.
My car lust inexplicably faded for a couple of years, but this second childhood is refueling it, American style. I’ve taken a real shine to Fordware. Kindly let me explain. When I was nine my grandfather bought a stunning ‘63 Continental, a timeless beauty, and I wrote my approval to Henry Ford II. He replied, and even sent the scale model I asked for. So, to pay homage at the 75th anniversary of Lincoln in Dearborn—and to curry some favor with the car gods—I was forced to lodge in a motel with mirrors on the ceiling and midnight phone calls from strange, very persistent women.
Edsel Ford had a time working for his old man, too, but, oh boy, the fringes: once a year he’d have the works build a one-off to his specs. This is all the health insurance I’d need.
But I had to quit window shopping on account of health problems. When my eyes met the bottom of the sticker, they became THIS BIG and my head wouldn’t stop shaking. “Hello, 911? No, not an ambulance. Just send out a new Mark VIII. An hour in the driver’s seat ought to do it.” This had been going on since early ‘92.
Maybe your car holds the same rank as your toothbrush. You’re safe. If it’s like the girlfriend you don’t have, or a few notches above the toothbrush, watch out. You might even be a practical guy. So you gave in when your wife wanted to make the garage into a den. You’ve just temporarily lost your place in the universe. But nature abhors a vacuum, and any time a car guy turns in his badge, a replacement enters the ranks. You might be next.
Never say never. It can happen anytime. There are a lot of wise eyes peering through some very sporty windshields. They don’t need those license plate frames that jokingly announce their fantasy ride, and neither do I.
My plate hangs in the vinyl forest on the tailgate of a midnight blue ‘87 Mercury Grand Marquis Colony Park LS. There’s no badge for the injected 5.0 or the power antenna, so I tell ‘em LS means leather seats, or lotsa seats. I counted eight the other day. People see the car, and look back at me with a puzzled face. Inevitably they ask, “Do you have a family?” I hate to tell them no. It just increases their confusion. The fuel costs are high; the price of maintenance is low. My pride, however is another matter entirely.
I was proud when I bought her, a grass roots car with no payments attached. Then dear old Ford crossed the big wagon off their menu, so I had to take desperate measures to buttress my self-respect. In the process I have created a monster, the definitive sleeper. I have given up asking what she’s worth in trade. No sensible joe would have sunk so much into a second-hand 70,000-mile eight-passenger station wagon. I think they all saw me coming.
So the heavens opened. First I had a sunroof installed so I wouldn’t miss my beautiful Fiat 124 Spider, or the X1/9, or the ‘69 Camaro SS convertible. Besides, everything inside the big wagon is funeral blue. Ah, light and air! Occasionally someone will remark on the oddity of a sunroof in a wagon. Ah, uniqueness! Then it vanishes. I’ve been sitting under it for five years, and it leaks in car washes.
Then to tip off the cognoscenti I stuck a discreet little Bilstein sticker on the tailgate glass, but it was a bit too discreet, so I added a flashier one on the windshield. Now I am an honest man, not given to posing, and I respect truth. There are four Bilstein shocks on duty, the kind of shocks found on cars of far greater rank. The kids at the sports car parts shop installed them. We went goofy on the test drive. She corners flatter than my ‘87 Golf GTI. Let ‘em laugh at the “RIDE ENGINEERED” badge on the dash. Her enormous rear end finally follows the front, and she’ll shake your fillings loose on washboard roads.
Later I added a CD player and four new speakers. Ford’s Premium Sound was never like this. I get a little misty-eyed when Alan Jackson sings “Mercury Blues”, but the custom-tailored sheepskins keep me snug and warm. The nice lady who took my order asked all the right questions. “Yes, it has dual armrests up front, and the power driver’s seat, with recliners on both sides.” Her voice was so sweetly reassuring.
She made me feel so good I let Manny, Moe, and Jack fix me up with a set of blackwall 215/65 Michelin MXV4s. They look almost mean on the spoked alloys. A sympathetic Mercury parts man ordered me the rear window airfoil so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed by Mustang GTs. It’s so nice to have support at a time like this.
The cruise control needed a new servo. So be it. We cruised most of the way from Iowa to Oklahoma. When I returned to Iowa, the cruise control maven said the amplifier had expired. Amen. But we didn’t cruise at all to Dearborn, and now he thinks it’s the vacuum pump. No dice. I know my limits. The body man at the Ford dealer dug the tan leather wheelskin, and everybody thinks I got a great deal on the new paint. Hmm…vanity plates are cheap in Iowa.
I tried cruising the town square, sunroof open, sound cranked up, Michelins wailing through the turns. The local kids didn’t blink. My little buddies love to ride ‘way in the back so they can hang out the tailgate. My uncle, an ex-IRS man, advised me to hang on to her. Among the Iowa rust buckets, she’s a standout. Just the other day someone noticed how clean she was. “There’s something to be said for big cars,” he offered.
He had a point, so I grabbed it. I don’t have a babe, a garage, or a job, and I think a 5-speed Mustang GT would solve a whole lot of problems. I found a solid black one the other day, but she was sold. I didn’t even get to tell her how deeply committed I was (and too poor to afford her). I’ve put too much into the old girl for us to split.
She’s not a ‘63 Continental convertible. But sometimes when I’m at the wheel, the moment fades. I see that Lincoln star, those chrome-edged fenders. It’s eighty degrees here at the beach, the top’s down, my stock portfolio could feed Portugal for a month, and the passenger’s seat is beautifully occupied.
Now—if I can only figure out a way to fill up all those seats…
© 1996 Russ Wollman