Car deserves respect and a hubcap in its final years

April 05, 2003|By ROB KASPER

MY MISSION in life, at least for this month, is to find a junkyard hubcap that fits the right rear wheel of my station wagon. Technically, I am looking for the "center ornament" of the wheel cover, the silver-looking circle, about 7 inches in diameter, that covers the lug nuts of the 1993 Ford Taurus.

How the original hubcap disappeared remains a family mystery. My interrogations of the usual suspects - my wife and teen-age son - have not yielded much information. My wife was able to conjure up a vague recollection of hitting a "major pothole at a pretty good clip" sometime within the past two weeks.

I figured if I could locate the scene of the incident, I might find the hubcap lurking nearby. But the only details of the pothole encounter that I got were that it occurred "somewhere in Baltimore ... in daylight."

The teen-ager had noticed that the hubcap was gone, but that was the extent of interest he was devoting the situation. He said he had bigger things on his mind than a hubcap. I was tempted to ask, what? But then I reconsidered. Most of the time you are better off not knowing what a teen-ager is thinking.

The youth also pointed out that the 10-year-old car was not in prime condition. It has almost 140,000 miles and multiple dents on its body. Speaking up for the aging, I replied that the old car should be treated with a certain amount of dignity in its final years. It deserved better treatment, I said, than having to appear in public with bare lug nuts.

Just how much better treatment was uncertain. I was reluctant, for example, to spring for the $28 that a brand new "center ornament" would cost at a dealership. Nor did I leap at the chance to spend $35 for a used center ornament and accompanying wheel cover that one hubcap emporium offered to sell me as a unit.

So yesterday morning, I went "junkyarding," prowling through the rows of wrecked cars that sit on Crazy Ray's lot on the 6200 block of Erdman Avenue in East Baltimore, looking for a previously owned hubcap.

Crazy Ray's struck me as a junkyard organized like a theme park. I went through an entrance, paid a $1 admission fee, signed an insurance waiver, then was pointed toward the rows of wrecks grouped by auto manufacturer. General Motors and Ford wrecks resided in the middle of the junkyard. Chrysler wrecks were down on the end, while the smashed foreign models sat on the edges. This was an adults-only junkyard, you have to be 18 or older to enter. You had to bring your own tools and pull the parts out of the vehicles yourself.

While some might see a junkyard as a grim and muddy place, I found it fascinating. All those mangled cars, all those exposed engines, all those retrievable parts. I found myself thinking that I could build a car, if only I knew how.

I toured the lot, marveling at the smashed metal forms, wondering if that 5-speed Saab 9000 collapsed in a corner was my old car. A giant Caterpillar lumbered across the yard carrying a deceased Mercury in its tongs. Men wearing coveralls bent their bodies deep into engines and pulled out greasy prizes.

Eventually the weather - Cold, raw and threatening rain - prompted me to get serious about my search for the hubcap. Most of the Taurus wrecks I located didn't have wheels. Others had different styles of wheel covers than my car. I spotted a wheel cover on a Mercury wagon - a cousin of the Taurus - that looked similar to my missing hubcap. I knew it would not be an exact match. It had the Mercury logo on it, while the center ornaments on my car were emblazoned with the word "Taurus." But it would be close, and it would look better than naked lug nuts. It cost a mere $5.25.

Sadly my "bargain" hubcap fit did not fit. The Mercury center ornament turned out to be a shade bigger, and its locking mechanism was slightly different from that of its Taurus cousin.

I had spent several hours of time and $6.25 and still had a car with exposed lug nuts. But I picked up a tip about another junkyard that supposedly is filled with old Taurus station wagons.

That means my quest for meaning, and for a cheap hubcap, continues.

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