Clunker Remorse

Author: John Monczunski

Well, I got rid of my clunker the other day, and now I’m suffering buyer’s remorse. And I’ll tell you why.

Several weeks back, just as the Cash for Clunkers program kicked in, I bought a new (to me) car. It’s a hot little coupe with custom wheels and a sunroof. It truly is the sportiest, nicest fuel- efficient vehicle I have ever owned. It makes me smile just to sit in it. But I’m thinking now it was a mistake.

Sure, sure my new ride is smooth and dependable and looks great. It’s nothing like the old set of wheels during its last wheezing days when every trip was an adventure. This new car is way cool, but I have to admit there are times when I miss the old one.

Lately, I am filled with nostalgia for that shaky old vehicle. A lot of history went in that ’96 Honda station wagon. Over the course of 13 years of faithful (more or less) service, every one of the wagon’s 222,530.7 miles were put on by me or a member of my immediate family. Up until the last year it truly was a great car.

The last 12 months, however, was a long downward slide dominated by several unfortunate mechanical and cosmetic setbacks. A little dust-up crumpled the front fender, which a friend then bolted to the frame, saving a trip to the body shop. And yes, yes, the front door handle on the driver’s side was no longer operable, the windows leaked and half the knobs for the radio/tape deck were lost in action. And, to be painfully truthful, the upholstery was stained like a beverage rainbow.

All that being said, however, I now realize there are some cool things about driving a wreck — although most people won’t openly admit to that.

After you get past the shame, stop feeling the need to apologize and become accustomed to the gaping faces whipping around to catch a glimpse of you as you rumble by, there are a lot of advantages to clunker driving.

For one, you no longer care if your car gets scratched or dinged. In fact, you may start taking perverse pleasure in all those scars. You may begin to secretly believe they add flash and flair to your auto. Every ding has a story. You begin to understand that, like a champion hockey player’s missing teeth, the scrapes and gouges are signs of challenges forcefully met. They tell the world, I Do Not Back Down!

Not like today. Now that your car has that new-car smell, you park as far from others as possible. Yours is the one in the middle of the lot with a 360-degree car-free buffer zone around it. You are ruled by fear — again.

But drive a vintage, time-tested junker and whenever you find a good parking spot you’ll shoehorn yourself right in, scrape or no scrape. If you’re behind the wheel of a clunker, other drivers give wide berth, especially the Beemers, Benzes and Lexuses (Lexi?). You are respected. Okay, feared, and probably loathed. But no one gets in your way.

Another advantage: Once your car reaches clunkerhood it likely has developed that full-throated growl every male above age 3 yearns for. You know the sound. It’s the one that led you to clothespin baseball cards and balloons to the frame of your bike when you were a kid so the spokes would make that awesome fake Harley rumble grumble.

Now — too late — I have come to realize that driving a junker offers the ultimate freedom. Drive a heap and you no longer feel compelled to repair things, except maybe major mechanical and safety devices. Also, you suddenly feel free to plaster the back of your car with bumper stickers that give snappy voice to your views on a host of topics. You exercise your First Amendment rights without fear of permanently damaging your car’s finish. In fact, you discover that hey! the bumper stickers cover up the rust so you’re actually improving the finish.

Then, too, you have newfound freedom when it comes to maintaining the interior. Your heart no longer goes into cardiac arrest as it did when you drove off from the showroom and your first-born child spilled a Coke on the allegedly (Let’s test it and see!) Scotchguarded™ upholstery. (Yes, it worked).

But now, even as I write this, I am coming full circle. I am talking myself out of clunker remorse. I now see a major downside of sticking with the clunker. When my adult daughters, who no longer live in South Bend, have come to visit, they have been increasingly reluctant to be seen in the heap. Also, I am amazed that my wonderful friend Cheri has consented to continue riding with me in my disreputable car. I doubt this could have gone on much longer. So for the sake of family unity, friendship and the nation’s economic recovery, I guess maybe I did the right thing after all.

Anyhow, eventually, I’ll have another clunker.

Then I’ll be happy. You’ll see.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.