Although I’m not a gear-head, car care has long been a personal interest and probably will be in the future. There’s no “one thing” about cars that appeals. A vehicle’s engineering and styling are important, the history of the automobile company, how it performs, it’s safety, its aesthetics, and how easy it is for the consumer to service.
I grew up as the son of a self-defined shade-tree mechanic. Which is amusing, because dad made a point of never parking underneath trees–dripping sap is hard on paint finishes, and birds roost in trees.
Dad enjoyed tinkering with the family Buick many Saturday mornings. Adjusting one component or another, changing the oil, or the once per year tune-up. I learned the intricate art of the internal combustion engine tune-up by observing dad. I don’t need to perform tune-ups anymore because of computerized ignition and spark plugs that can work for 100,000 miles or more.
Maintaining the cars I’ve owned has hopefully lengthened the serviceable life of them. Each vehicle has its strengths and weaknesses. Even the worst car I’ve owned, a 1973 Chevy Vega had a bright side, if you want to call frequent breakdowns a bright side.
The Vega was a nightmare from the moment I picked it up with only one-mile on its odometer. It had the propensity to “diesel” or run-on after switching off the ignition key. I had to put it in gear and let out the clutch in order to stop the engine from running. The car had that fault up to the day I sold it for scrap for $50.
The good thing about the Vega is that it taught me a lot about car engines. It’s the only one I’ve torn down and performed major repairs on by myself. The car was so poorly made that I bought a broken-down second Vega as a “parts car” as a source for shade-tree mechanic repairs on the first one. By the time I got rid of both Vegas, I had acquired enough mechanical skills to fix any part of them.
I had no interest in having all of my weekends spent patching up a Chevrolet. There were much more important things in life to do, such as getting started in a career and having a life. Cars needed to take the “back seat” in my life, so I bought my first Japanese car–a Civic. That car was the opposite of the Vega because it barely required any maintenance at all. It only needed regular engine oil changes and one tune-up. The only major repair I had to give it was new brakes–a friend and I finished the job in one Saturday.
Although the 1974 Civic was very dependable, it was too small and too tall for my tastes. It didn’t handle well on rough, windy Nebraska highways and never quite felt safe. The Civic got traded off for a brand new Datsun 310 that was every bit as reliable as the Honda, but was safer.
A couple of cars later, I unknowingly bought another lemon and relearned some old mechanic’s skills. The 1987 VW Quantum Syncro was perhaps the most beautiful car I’ve owned and it was pure joy to drive when it ran properly. Its five-cylinder engine was its worst feature, it needed professional attention every year because its sophistication outstripped nearly all of my mechanical know-how. The car continued to be a money pit long after I paid its last mortgage installment. I finally traded it off after a $1,000 fuel injection part, that could only be acquired from the factory in Germany, was installed. I hated to get rid of the car, but its maintenance costs were unjustifiable.
The exotic VW was traded in for as generic of a car as I could find. The 1999 Toyota Camry has been the best value ever. The car is extremely dependable and has needed very few repairs in the many years it’s been a part of my life. Its professional maintenance has been two manufacturer-recommended cam belt and coolant pump replacements. The starter was replaced three years ago. Last winter, it received a brand new clutch. All other maintenance and upkeep has been owner-done. I still have complete confidence in the reliability and safety of the car.
Sometime this month, the ol’ Camry will need me to change its motor oil. This is also the month that I’ll wax and detail the car. Unless something unforeseeable happens, I plan on keeping the car at least another year.