Thursday, November 21, 2019

Cars Are More Reliable These Days

The other day I was driving to a meeting in Norwalk, and it dawned on me that my car is extremely reliable. There was no fear that my trusty Chevy Equinox would break down and cause me to miss the meeting. That wasn’t always the case with automobiles, at least the ones I owned when I was a young man.

Throughout my entire 20s and early 30s, for each car that I drove, I was at least the third or fourth owner. That means the vehicle was sold brand new to someone, who drove it for a few years and then traded it in to a dealership when they bought a new car. Then the dealership sold it as a used car. (This was before the term “preowned car” was employed, which allows the dealer to add 25-percent to the sale price.)

Then that owner drove it for another few years before putting it up for sale in the newspaper classifieds. (This was before the Internet took over the used car business, so instead of buying a lemon from some guy on the other side of town, we now can buy a lemon from places like Arizona or Guam.)

Finally, when the car was parked on someone’s front lawn with a sign on the windshield that said “$600 OR BEST OFFER,” it was my turn to step forward and become the proud owner of that gorgeous, high-performance vehicle. I am using, of course, the definition of “gorgeous, high-performance vehicle” that means: “bucket of bolts that may not even make it to the DMV office so I can get it registered.”

The very first car I ever owned was a 1971 Ford Pinto. By the time I bought it, it was eight years old and had 90,000 miles on it, which was about 30,000 miles past the average lifespan of a Pinto. If you remember the sensational news stories back in those days, when a Pinto got rear-ended by another car — even at low speed — the resulting fireball from the poorly designed gas tank would make the car’s (and the driver’s) lifespan about an additional 10 seconds.

My Pinto had an interesting quirk: whenever it came to a stop, the engine stalled and shut off. I had to yank up the emergency brake, press down on the clutch pedal with my left foot (I can’t even begin to explain what this means, as everyone under the age of 45 has never even seen a standard shift vehicle), start the car again, and keep my right foot on the gas so the engine revved enough not to stall again. And then when the light turned green, I’d have to simultaneously give it gas, let up on the clutch, and release the emergency brake so the car could continue driving. It was a very good hand-eye coordination exercise, and I got to experience that particular physical skills test EVERY SINGLE TIME the car came to a stop.

Of all the cars I owned back in those days, the Pinto was the most reliable. At least it always re-started. I had a ’74 Saab and a ’77 Datsun pickup truck that broke down so often I had the tow truck driver’s phone number memorized.

So, I’m not sure if the reliability of my current car is because the auto manufacturers are making better vehicles, or if it’s due more to the fact that I’m now usually the first or second owner of the car rather than the fourth. Either way, I am very grateful it’s been so long since I’ve experienced a vehicle breakdown. Uh oh, I think I just jinxed myself. I’d better go memorize a tow truck driver’s phone number right now.

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