Car talk: luxury ride or lunar module?

Listen to this article

My oldest son is legally old enough to drive, but he doesn’t yet, except a little on our block.

My youngest son is more than 18 months away from being able to take his permit test, but he wants a job, now, so he can start saving for his vehicle of choice: a brand-new Ford F-150.

1993 Ford F-150 Lightening (Photo via Wikipedia)
1993 Ford F-150 Lightening
(Photo via Wikipedia)

This is his fantasy, not mine. A brand new truck for a barely licensed driver is not only not going to happen in my house, it never would have even dawned on me.

Consider this: I know a couple of carpenters. One has an impressive, huge rugged tool case, with pristine steel and chrome tools. The other has a faded Home Depot bucket full of hammers, screwdrivers, pliers and such that look like they’ve been handed down from generations of blacksmiths from the Civil War. Each of them considers this his tool set,and they work with them – and those tools work for them.

If I had a hammer, I’d … never mind.

I have known a couple of musicians in my day. Some carry their guitars in velvet-lined, hand-crafted cases; some sling them over their shoulders or toss them in the back seat of a car. They are the tools of their art, and they treat them as differently as artists often can be.

I’m leading up to this: For me, a car is an appliance, a necessary tool. I realize that some people actually care a lot about their cars — care about them as more than just a method of transportation. To some, they represent status and prestige, a member of the family, or even a work of art.

If you are one of those people that prefers to drive an expensive car, a prestige car … or even a more-often-than-not clean car, I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe I am. Or maybe we’re just different.

Ford Fairlane (Photo provided by Mike Brennan)
Ford Fairlane
(Photo provided by Mike Brennan)

Since I was the oldest of six kids and my dad sold advertising, brand new cars weren’t something I was very familiar with. I remember a white Ford Fairlane that may have been new, when I was seven or eight (and there were only 3 kids by then), but it probably wasn’t. I don’t really remember other family cars until I got to be about 15, and there were five of us.

We may have been in the Ford the whole time — you could fit a lot more kids in a car back then without all those pesky things like seatbelts and car seats — and cup holders.

Somewhere around then, when I realized I wasn’t too far from being able to drive, we were tooling around in a Chevy Bel Air Station Wagon, the kind with the third seat — the “way back” — facing out the back window. It was big and heavy and sturdy, really only a gun turret away from being officially recognized as a tank.

At some point, it was listed as “Navy” in color, but by the time I got my hands on it, it had earned the nickname I gave it: “The Black Beauty.” I washed it a few times, until I realized it was never going to be anything but flat tank black.

I’m sure it was used when we got it and by the time I got my hands on it, it was very well used. The New Jersey winters, complete with snow, and road salt for months at a time, had done a number on it — there were little bits of the floor of the back seat with tiny “vents” — holes that showed right through to the road below. That didn’t bother me — as a good Catholic boy, I spent very little time in the back seat.

And with a bench seat up front, I didn’t really need to.

That tank was a beast riding up and down the road, but at 55 cents a gallon for leaded gas, who cared? There was nothing to do but roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

Saab 96 (Photo provided by Mike Brennan)
Saab 96
(Photo provided by Mike Brennan)

The last car I drove in New Jersey, before we moved to Florida, was a used 2-door Saab 96, also the family’s car — a foreign car, when that was a big deal.

It was white with multi-colored indicator lights on the dash, a clutch and “three on the tree,” that is, a gear shifter on the steering column. It was like driving a really cool jet plane. That is until somebody — maybe me — sideswiped a tree, making the driver’s door permanently closed. Then it became more like a lunar module — kind of tough to crawl in and out of.

Quick story: On the last day before we moved, I had the job of taking the family cat to the vet, so he could be drugged and flown to Florida, while the rest of us: Mom, Dad, 5 kids ages 7-17, plus a 6-month-old, were making the 24-hour drive there — don’t even get me started — in a new wood-paneled station wagon. (Someone — maybe me — had driven the Black Beauty too long without adding oil and it died a tragic death on the side of the New York Thruway. Lesson learned — but back to the story.)

Interior of the Saab 96 (Photo provided by Mike Brennan)
Interior of the Saab 96
(Photo provided by Mike Brennan)

Friends had been coming by the house all day to say goodbye. When it came time to take the cat, there were three or four 16 and 17-year old girls all there to see me off. So of course, they all piled in with me, in the now 1-door Saab, along with the cat.

The whole situation was apparently a little too exciting for me, as I was soon pulled over for exceeding the speed limit. The cop came to the driver’s side … and I motioned him over to the passenger side. The girl in the front seat then handed the cat to the back seat, so that I could straddle her on my way out the passenger side. The cop watched the whole time, I imagine trying to stifle a laugh.

He looked at my license and asked if that was my current address. “For about 18 more hours,” I replied. He looked at me, looked at the 4 girls and the cat in the Saab, handed me the license and said “Don’t let me ever catch you speeding through here again.” Well, yes sir.

The next day, we moved to Florida. I began working and going to college and went through a succession of my own cars, all used. A VW Bug, an Opel Manta (look it up), a Dodge Dart, and two motorcycles — one I drove for a year, one for two days (see the earlier reference to the plate in my head). It wasn’t until I got out of school and got a job making big money writing for a newspaper (ha!) that I bought a new car: an economical Mazda.

I was, however, familiar with luxury cars. My mother’s father, a successful Southern gentleman and business owner, bought a new car it seemed every year — or as my mother used to say, every time the ashtrays got full. They were always nice, usually Cadillacs, and a treat to ride in, though he always seemed to have seat covers on the back seat, so it kind of felt like taking a ride in the formal living room.

Opel Manta (Photo provided by Mike Brennan)
Opel Manta
(Photo provided by Mike Brennan)

In my adult life, I’ve had a couple of sports cars, but never a luxury car. Two or three had my second favorite feature, a sunroof — including a Ford Probe — a fun car with a creepy name. But most important, every car I ever had either came with good sound, or I added it, first radio, then 8-Track, cassette, CD and now Bluetooth.

Its funny to think we’ve gone from wanting it to be so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves talk to a passenger in the car, to getting a good speaker phone so we can talk to someone who’s not in the car.

I have learned to take care of my cars mechanically (that is, I pay someone to do that) and to wash them, though I’m not as great as keeping the inside clean. But I am always determined to get as much out of each car as I can.

When I was a stand-up comic and was driving from state to state, I had a Dodge Colt hatchback that I put 230,000 miles on in just over 4 years. Then I sold it to a friend … and bought another Dodge Colt. I think I got about 200,000 on that one. Closing in on half-a-million miles on two cars, which admittedly were really more like locker rooms on wheels.

But of all those cars, the only one that ever got a name was Black Beauty.

I have a lady friend who has named her Toyota Tabitha, cared for her and kept her going for much longer than it would be expected to last — that impresses me. In many ways, more than the person who drives a flashy car. Or maybe I’m just jealous.

I have good friends who have a lot of money and nice cars; I have good friends who do not have a lot of money, but have nice cars; and I have good friends who have a lot of money who have average cars.

Before you can drive the car, you have to learn how to wash the car. (Photo provided by Mike Brennan)
Before you can drive the car, you have to learn how to wash the car.
(Photo provided by Mike Brennan)

For some, it’s what they grew up knowing, or wanting. For some, their business requires them to look successful in their car — real estate, sports agent, struggling actor. I guess it’s about your preference — or the preference of the person you’re trying to impress. And, how you feel about having to impress someone based on your car.

As for what my kids will drive? Well, for starters, I’m thinking it will be a used car: my car. When they’re making money and buying what they want, they can decide what matters to them.

In the meantime, they can wash my 4-year-old car every other week.