Car, don’t fail me now

Car trouble is never convenient. I’ve experienced unfortunately timed car trouble twice in my life.

The trauma of the episodes, though not life threatening, imprinted on me the lifelong commitment to only drive reliable transportation. When mileage or frequency of repairs begin to add up, I lose faith in my vehicle and must sell it or trade it in. I value reliability over style, trendiness or performance.

1978 light blue four-door Chevrolet Nova outside a mechanic's garage
This photo from a model cars enthusiasts forum is of a 1978 light blue, four-door Chevrolet Nova, exactly like the one that failed me when I was attempting my driver’s test in 1987.

My first car, a 1978 light blue, four-door Chevy Nova, was our family car that my dad had kept running through his mechanic’s skill. He handed it down to me in 1987 as the vehicle I would learn to drive and have until I bought my own. In many ways it was a great first car, but there were a few bumps along the way. The first and foremost occurred during my second attempt at passing my driver’s test.

I had not taken driver’s education at school and was largely a self-taught driver. My parents let me drive to school and church with them after I passed the written test and secured my learner’s permit, but I didn’t have the benefit of formal driver’s ed. If I had, I believe I would have passed the driver’s test the first time. Instead, when I was instructed to put the car in reverse and back down the street for a certain distance, I used my mirrors rather than turn my body, put the arm behind the front seat and look through the rear window to see where I was backing. That combined with a few other minor mistakes caused me to fail on my first attempt.

I was understandably a nervous wreck a month later when it came time for my second attempt. I felt the weight of my teenaged world on my shoulders when I took the Nova back to the DMV for my driver’s test, luckily with a different instructor. This time, I had brushed up on the driver’s handbook and redoubled my efforts to ingest the nuances of driving I had neglected before my first test. I believed I was prepared, but I was anxious about being the stereotypical honors student who was good academically but couldn’t function practically in the world. I couldn’t bear the thought of what shame I would endure if I failed the driver’s test a second time.

All was well through the first half of the test, and when it came to the parallel parking, the skill test most inexperienced drivers dreaded, everything went according to plan. I pulled past the space, turned my body appropriately and backed in the space and pulled forward. It was nearly perfect. But as the examiner made checkmarks on the form secured to his clipboard, the old Nova died. I put it in park, turned the key in the ignition again, restarted the engine and backed up a foot or so to make my exit from the space. When I cut the wheel, the engine shut off again. I restarted the car, was able to pull forward a few inches, and it died again. The Nova repeated this fainting spell six or seven times over the span of about 15 minutes, proving slower to restart each time. Finally, I was able to navigate out of the space, complete the course and return to the DMV office. I went inside where I was informed that I had failed the test because I exceeded the time limit. The Nova had cost me dearly, and I was devastated.

Apparently, the problem was only present when the tires were at an extreme angle. I honestly don’t remember the exact diagnosis, but after Dad did more repair work with me at his side holding the flashlight, the Nova got me through the driver’s test a third time, which proved to be the charm. But the damage had been done. I never fully trusted the Nova again. I had other notable breakdowns with the Nova before it finally reverted back to my parents who sold it, but none as traumatic as the day it failed me during my driver’s test.

The longest and most protracted car debacle of my life occurred in 1997. This time it was my car, purchased with my money, that failed me. When I was hired as a reporter at The Macon Telegraph in the summer after college in 1992, my dad took me down to West Palm Beach to see a dealer friend of his he believed we could trust. After several test drives, I settled on a teal green Oldsmobile Achieva. Teal was the color of the early ‘90s, and the Achieva was in essence a fancier version of the Chevrolet Cavalier. I was particularly interested in the two-door model, thinking it sportier and more appropriate for a young, single man beginning to make his way in the world. All of those initially attractive qualities faded over time.

Five years into my relationship with the Achieva, I had a newspaper assignment in Perry, Ga., on a Friday night. I planned to drive home to Lake Wales the next day for the celebration of my mother’s 50th birthday. It was a muggy August night as I drove the 30 miles or so back to Macon from Perry, and the inexplicable failure of the air conditioning was the first sign something was amiss. The second sign came early the next morning when the car was slow to turn over. After several attempts, it finally cranked, and I set off on what should have been a seven hour, straight shot down I-75. I should have been in Lake Wales a little after lunch, arriving in plenty of time for the party scheduled for that evening.

An hour into the trip, the tell-tale signs I had ignored grew into a catastrophe. Just as I passed the exit for Cordele, the speedometer began to go haywire, and the tape player shut off. Had I connected these new symptoms with the air conditioning malfunction and the slow start, I would have pulled off right then and sought a mechanic. But I was inexperienced with car ownership and failed to recognize my car’s electrical system was failing.

A few minutes later, the engine shut off completely. Luckily, I was in the right lane and was able to coast safely to a stop on the interstate’s ample shoulder. I made several attempts to re-start the car but without success. No indicators were illuminated on the dash. The Achieva was undeniably dead. I remember passing the exit for Arabi just a minute or so earlier and decided hiking backward toward a known exit was better than risking an indeterminate distance ahead. This was in the days before the ubiquity of cell phones, or “car phones” as we called them, so I could only go on my memory.

I walked back up the interstate a mile or so to the exit and found a gas station with a garage and an on-duty mechanic. I went in, explained my troubles, described my location and waited for the mechanic to get a spare minute to take the tow truck out to fetch my car.

“Sounds like it could be an alternator,” he said.

I had no idea what the alternator did, but this was the first major failure of any component on my five-year-old car. He could have said “We’ll have to replace the engine,” and I would have been none-the-wiser.

It took about a half hour before he was able to break away, and I was still optimistic I could make it to Lake Wales in time for my mom’s birthday party. I rode shotgun in the tow truck to my car and watched as he efficiently attached the front wheels to the lift. In about 20 minutes from the time we left the gas station, we were back.

As I retreated to the waiting area, I realized the room was full. There were three or four people ahead of me in line to be serviced. Apparently, Arabi, Georgia, was a popular place to break down. I called my parents from a pay phone outside to update them on the situation but reassured them I would still make it in time for the party. Little did I suspect it would take more than an hour  for the mechanic on duty to confirm his failed alternator diagnosis, secure a replacement from an auto parts store in Cordele, have someone deliver it, and get it installed in my car. It was nearly lunchtime by the time I was headed south again. My arrival time would now be cutting it close.

Everything seemed to be running fine for several hours, but by the time I reached Lake City, Florida, the Achieva was rumbling in a way I had never heard before. The gages reverted to the erratic behavior that I recognized as an electrical problem, and I was forced to find another gas station garage with a mechanic. I was able to pull into a Mobil station before the car died this time, but unlike the set up in Arabi, there was only the mechanic on duty and no attendant. This meant he was interrupted in his efforts to solve my problem every five minutes by someone needing to pay for gas or buy a soda.

It turned out that the mechanic in Arabi had installed the alternator incorrectly, and the new alternator was now damaged. The mechanic, a pre-med student at Florida State working as a mechanic on weekends to pay for college, was an affable and knowledgeable guy who would have been a fascinating person to spend a few hours with under different circumstances. Instead, I couldn’t fully appreciate his quirky sense of humor and unusual combination of skills as the sun began to set, and I realized there was no way I was making the party.

My second stopover was about the same length of time but eminently more frustrating because of the constant interruptions. He probably could have had me back on the road in 20 minutes if he had been able to work continuously. I even offered to run the register for him if he could just focus on my car. He told me he wasn’t allowed to do that, and it would get him fired if the owners found out. The time at the Mobil station in Lake City exhausted my patience, and in defeat, I called Mom and updated her on my situation.

I pulled into the driveway at home about midnight. Exhausted, I wasn’t in a mood to celebrate, and I’m sure my car troubles worried Mom to the point of distracting her from her special day. On the bright side, I ended up extending my trip a day to get my car fixed at the dealership in Lake Wales where they replaced the alternator again and gave me a clean bill of health for the drive home on Tuesday. It was tough to trust the Achieva ever again.

Now that I have celebrated my own 50th birthday, that experience still looms large in my memory and taught me the profound lesson of leaving in plenty of time to make it to important events, even if it means leaving a day or two in advance. Cutting it close just isn’t worth it. And the most profound lesson from both experiences is that cars are just machines, not living beings. Machines break down without awareness of or concern for your schedule or convenience. Don’t fall in love with a machine.

One thought on “Car, don’t fail me now

  1. Well written. I preached in Arabi one time! I’ve had all the car troubles you mention. Imagine being a girl on the road alone and having these troubles. Not the same for boys!

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