If you ever listen to Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers on NPR's "Car Talk," you know they advise that the most cost-effective car you can buy is a used car. I've inadvertently followed that advice my whole life. I've never had a brand new car and I've driven almost all the cars I've owned into the proverbial ground.
Right now we have a 1985 Dodge van, which I refer to mentally as the "escape mobile," and an even tackier looking 1984 RX-7, which our friends jokingly referred to as a "rice rocket" when we bought it. Like the other Japanese cars I've been involved with, the RX-7's mechanicals work just fine, but little things, like the gas gauge, stop working, requiring us to use the trip meter to track our fuel.
On the other hand, the Wankel rotary still purrs and smoothly zips me away from the 35-mph zone on the west side of Chinook. It always amuses me to leave some diesel pick-up truck that tailgated me all through that speed trap about a quarter mile back in 60 seconds. The fact that the RX-7 is beginning to sprout rust in all sorts of places is a shame given the engine, brakes, tires and suspension are all in tip top shape.
We acquired this car in the early nineties because we'd decided we couldn't afford a Porsche. Although it was our heart's desire, a Porsche would have cost twice as much. When my husband and I met, I possessed a 911 Targa and drove him to the coast in it, much to his politically correct embarrassment. He got over it once he got behind the wheel and discovered it to be the best driving machine he'd ever encountered: fast, responsive and very comfortable. The 911 also got 30 mpg doing 80. Shucks, the RX-7 only gets 23.
The van, though, is really a gas hog, at 13 mpg. I love it anyway, in spite of my better intentions. I just try not to drive it frivolously - unless you count thousand mile trips to Death Valley for winter sun breaks as frivolous.
The van has all kinds of amenities if we ever have to evacuate for a tsunami. It's stocked with camping gear, a Coleman stove, solar oven, solar shower, firewood, bedding, non-perishable food and water. It has a small propane fridge and a solar electric panel to run lights, a radio and my laptop if we're in some remote spot with no power.
The van represents escape to a vacation - I just wish it got better gas mileage.
A lot of us are faced with this dilemma. Especially in a rural area, we're dependent on our cars. Because President Eisenhower wanted to be able to deploy troops anywhere in the country quickly, the United States chose back in the fifties to invest vast amounts in the interstate highway system instead of trains, the way other countries did. Suburban sprawl, car-dependence, and little subsidy for public transportation became almost inevitable side effects.
I think our love affair with the private car is also an offshoot of our pioneering migration westward, which required independent mobility.
When the continent was sparsely populated, if your transportation failed, you were in big trouble. This was not as much from the native people as from the killing heat, cold, and arid climate of the country's mid-section. Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" provides a sense of why we've come to love our cars with an emotion that almost passes understanding, me included.
But, I can love my car without loving the internal combustion engine and its traditional fuels. I'd just as soon have one of those new hybrids (still only made in Japan) that routinely get 60 mpg.
I wouldn't mind making short trips with a totally electric EV1, which is just being taken out of production by its American manufacturer. I could charge it with house power, which is mostly from hydro. At least hydro doesn't create air pollution, radioactive waste, strip mining or poking holes in the ground. We need to move toward alternatives to gasoline, if nothing else to keep our military at home.
In the meantime, I drive as little as possible. I walk for errands and take the bus to work in Astoria. At a dollar per round trip, I figure I save at least a buck each time, just on the gas.
Meanwhile, I eye those hybrids that run on both gas and self-generating electricity. Maybe I will buy a brand new car next time.
Victoria Stoppiello is a free lance writer from Ilwaco, where she can walk to the post office, stores, library and even a lake.