Old wagon's not going anywhere

January 22, 2000|By Rob Kasper

WEDNESDAY morning, at 9: 32, a big event in my life took place. The odometer on our 1993 station wagon hit 100,000 miles.

It happened on the Beltway, on the inner loop, as I passed the Charles Street exit. One minute the digits on the odometer read 99,999. A short distance later they read 100,000. It was thrilling. I felt both a sense of accomplishment -- the car and I had survived the last seven years together -- and a sense of renewal. All those zeros signaled a clean slate on the road ahead.

I wanted to share my joy. Alas, I was alone, on a solo shopping mission buying floodlights, an exhaust vent for the dryer and -- my fun purchase -- a new push broom at a distant mega-store.

As it turned out, no one in my family cared as much as I did about passing the 100,000-mile milestone. When I told them my big news, I got a variety of reactions, none bordering on excitement.

My wife seemed underwhelmed. Since she drives the station wagon more often than I do, I thought she would feel a sense of kinship, of shared accomplishment with the vehicle. She listened to my news, but in a "distance-listening" kind of way. I could tell that a more immediate matter, boiling the water for spaghetti, had her attention.

Our older son, a senior in high school, questioned whether this event had any meaning for the wider world. What, he wanted to know, was the average life span of a car in America? How many other cars have turned over 100,000 miles? I had come to him expecting a pat on the back; instead, I got an inquisition.

(Later, I called the Polk Company, a market research firm in Southfield, Mich. that keeps track of automobile statistics, and was told the median age of cars on the road in the United States as of July 1999 is 8.3 years. In other words, the fact that I had a 7-year-old car was nothing unusual. This served as yet another reminder to me that what I consider important in life is statistically insignificant.)

Our other son, a high school freshman, only wanted to know if the station wagon happening would affect his driving career. Didn't this mean it was time to get a new car, he asked, one that, a few short years from now, he could wheel around town?

I told this kid that on the distant day when he takes the wheel, chances were excellent it would be the wheel of the aged and battered wagon, the family's unofficial "training vehicle."

There are, I think, two kinds of car owners. First, there are folks who get a new vehicle every few years. Then there are those who cling to the steering until their vehicle expires after suffering many long and painful maladies. I am in the second group, the clingers. I tend to drive them until they drop.

During our 100,000 miles together, this Ford Taurus wagon and I have been through several near-death experiences. I have stayed with it as its alternator, air conditioner, heater coil, motor mounts, tie rods, and something in the transmission -- I forget what -- were yanked from its innards and replaced with newer, younger parts. Just the other day, the rear window wiper, working to keep the back window clear of snow, sounded as if it is not long for this world.

The body of the car also has withstood the slings and arrows of driving in a big city, and the "bump-and-run" driving style of our family. For example, the brick walls near our parking pad now sport bright splashes of green. This, by no small coincidence, is the very same color of the station wagon.

During the early stages of our 100,000 miles together, I quickly attended to every scratch and dent on the wagon. But as the years wore on, not only did I begin to tolerate imperfections in its appearance, I began to view them as marks of distinction.

There are plenty of green Taurus station wagons on the road, but I can spot ours several blocks away. Ours is the one with the wobbling right rear quarter-panel (the result of a surprise encounter with a high curb) and a telltale scratch on the right rear door (the result of an unpleasant encounter in a crowded alley with a jagged metal trash can).

Once the station wagon's 100,000 moment passed, it continued on its usual rounds, hauling groceries, kids and large, lumpy stuff. The old wagon is not as easy on the eyes as it was a few years ago. It was never "quick," and lately its engine seems to be slowing down. Our teen-agers think it embarrassingly out of fashion. All these criticisms of the aging wagon sound hauntingly familiar to me.

But like an old shoe, it is dependable and is reasonably comfortable. I am hoping that both of us will be around for another 100,000 miles.

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