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Dumping the Stud

A man's best friend is his dog--unless he's gotta get in his car and drive

I wrote this story two years ago, before I bought my present car--the trouble-free and functional Geo Metro that it is. What I've learned since is that the truest of all bumper stickers is "Don't Laugh--It's Paid For." Car payments are ruinous, and the people who collect them are as bad as the IRS. Also, never buy a gas-guzzler in a time of cheap gas, because times of cheap gas never last. I've put up with a lot of bullying tailgaters and blind minivan drivers, but I still get 35 miles per gallon, and that's made all the difference.

--Richard von Busack

SOMETIME LATER this morning, I'm taking my 1983 Toyota Tercel for one last drive, straight to the gates of the wreckers. The car has 191,500 miles on it, almost the distance to the moon. When I leave it in the hands of the junkers, I'll be leaving a huge part of my life behind.

When I first bought it for $1,600 from a Vietnamese guy on Reed Street in San Jose in 1991, I never knew that there was anything emotional about the bond between a person and his car. Like so many other human emotions, I thought these were feelings augmented by a bunch of guys in a Hollywood studio somewhere. Now I know better.

I bought the Tercel with inheritance money I got after my mother died of cancer. My brothers and sister and I all seem to have felt that the money was cursed, and we spent it as fast as we could. The money they'll hand me at the wrecking yard today--$35--with the exchange rate is about the same amount Judas got. In essence, this will be the last money my mother ever gives me. Guess it's time to cut the apron strings.

I bought the Tercel in cash. It was the first car I looked at. I didn't know one car from another, didn't know how to smell the transmission fluid for a burning odor, didn't know to bounce on the hood to see how many times the suspension echoed the shock.

I'd read in Consumer Reports that Tercels were recommended compacts and that $1,700 was a fine price. I didn't know until I examined the title that the car was salvaged; it had been in an accident and rebuilt. Later on, I figured out that the seller had rightly spotted me as a pigeon.

And what better for a pigeon than a hawk? "Tercel" is an old word meaning "hawk" or "falcon." It's an extinct Toyota line. The reputation the company has built on small, unkillable cars has been parlayed into the chubby but slick Corolla, one of the easiest, safest choices for today's auto shopper. (And the most boring, according to a rival company's ad campaign.)

Idle Suggestions

WHEN THE TERCEL shed its hatchback in 1991, one used-car salesman told me, it started losing the sales it once had. But mid-'80s Tercels are everywhere; they're so omnipresent that nobody notices them. I'm convinced they'll be the VW Beetles of tomorrow.

Their stubby, homely profiles, like toolboxes on wheels, always catch my eye. Their back hatches open up to a cavelike space that you can fill and fill and fill, with groceries, bicycles and camping equipment. They still putter along over the abyss between the last century and this one--never fashionable, possibly unkillable.

The Tercel, my first car, bought at age 32, was good transportation. It broke down only a few times. It never stranded me with a flat tire, and it was driven in all conditions, through Pacific storms on the coast roads, on through the lonely parts of 280. It brought me home at 4am, my blood-alcohol far over the legal limit, when I was meat for any highway patrolman.

Shortly after I bought the car, it needed a $500 brake job for which I had to borrow money. But that repair was the most expensive of them all. I was lucky with mechanics; two I chose were so honest that they went straight out of business.

The car was an inspiration for me. Whenever I couldn't think of anything to write about, whenever I couldn't divine a fresh approach to the subject, all I had to do was clear my mind and go for a little spin. I'd see something out the window or hear some song on the car radio that'd give me the right idea for an approach.

Over the years, I started adding plastic figures to the dashboard and this finally got out of control. People would pull up next to me in traffic and give me plastic animals to add to my menagerie. I added battery-operated Christmas lights and the postage stamps honoring the cartoon character Krazy Kat.

It was delightful seeing the look of fury and distaste on muscle-car drivers. The plastic toys were there for a few reasons: Tercels are anonymous rolling boxes, and I wanted to be able to spot mine fast in a parking lot. But also I wanted to protect it from thieves and vandals by vandalizing it myself.

In turning the car into a sort of amateur parade float, I was also trying to show passersby that I was not to be feared. Parking lots are considered very dangerous places, where murderous strangers are lurking. I'm 300 pounds and 6-foot-2. And if I'm trying to compose an article, I might be muttering to myself. So, by decking the car out, I wanted other people in the parking lot to see that I was eccentric but harmless.

By adding more and more toys and decals to the car, I was also trying to protest the idea of a man being what he drives. I was never looking for status in the car. In fact, I hated the idea so much that I did the opposite. I was protesting the kind of car that leads young girls to ask boys flirtatiously, "What kind of car do you drive?" (The real question is, "Can we have a doomed relationship?")

Metro News

YESTERDAY, I WENT down to the Auto Mall. The artificial lighting, flamboyant architecture and air of hushed anxiety were so startlingly like a hospital that I was surprised I couldn't smell disinfectant in the air.

After signing some very long forms, I've got the car that makes girls who ask questions like "What kind of car do you drive?" remember that they had an appointment elsewhere. It's a '96 Geo Metro. It's not mine, as I was reminded by a loan officer, but the credit union's, and it would behoove me to not use a silicon adhesive and bizarre toys to customize it. To purchase it, I had to swear to be as serious with it as I was frivolous with the Tercel.

The engine is weird. It's sideways. The fan belt faces the right wheel, and the engine is slanted and low, and I don't know if you can change the oil in it without a grease pit or a hydraulic lift. This Geo doesn't really have a dashboard. Instead it has a swell of plastic like the side of a swimming pool.

I don't think it will be even as limited a chick magnet as the old car was. It's just as well. One of the fond memories I'm leaving behind when I junk the Toyota is having the really first long, serious kiss in it with the woman I married.

There isn't anything I didn't do in "Studs" Tercel; I ate in it, slept in it, made out in it. I left it stranded near bars for the night, when I was too sloshed to drive, and came back hungover and on foot to retrieve it. I wish I'd had a chance to do what the farmers do with their model-Ts: I wish I could have jacked it up and used the wheels to run a generator.

One time, I moved everything but my bed in it from one San Jose house to the next. I delivered tons of newspapers in it. I packed it with seven people once, to drive a half-mile to the Cracker show at the San Jose State University auditorium. The interior got torn and greasy. The back seat was filled with junk-food wrappers and soda cans.

The engine got even filthier, thanks to a time I stupidly forgot to replace the oil cap after I changed the oil, and 30-weight belched up like Old Faithful all over the engine block. I sealed the head gasket with sloppy blue chunks of putty and replaced the fan belt and radiator hoses. My housemate, Warren, busted his knuckles replacing the starter motor. Last year, the steering column got stuck. Like an angry chimp, I broke the case with a crescent wrench trying to figure out what was wrong with it.

Our worst times were our last winter, when "Studs" Tercel developed a chronic habit of stalling in the rain. Two expensive tune-ups didn't make the habit go away. I had just moved to San Francisco, and I had to physically push the car up the slope of McAllister Street to dodge the vicious meter maids until I could afford to get it repaired. The suspension swayed so badly that my wife, who has a slipped disk, finally refused to ride in it anymore. On Dec. 16, it was due for a smog check that it would never pass. And now the front wheel is wobbling, ready to pop right off.

Actually, I'm not certain it will make it to the junkyard. It's gone as far as it will, but the engine is still strong. Maybe if I had the money for real folly, I could fix it up, keep it for city driving, leave it around to get more wonderfully decrepit as the years go by. I wish I had a pasture to strand it in, to let blackberry swallow it, to stay there rusting peacefully, a curiosity when the age of automobiles is over.

I suppose what I hate most about junking the Tercel is that it reveals a ruthless streak. One of the luxuries of adolescence is feeling that the whole world is in conspiracy against you and that you're the one pure soul who can make a difference. As you get older, though, you realize that you are the whole world. You're just as capable of nastiness and betrayal as anyone else. The worst part of the aging process is realizing that you're not a nice guy. Loyalty and sentiment aside, when someone or something you love starts to be too high maintenance--that's it, they're gone.

If love alone could have kept this car running, I'd keep it forever. But I'm more practical now. It's time to chisel off a few mementos, sign away the rainbow-colored title slip and walk away.

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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