Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Good-by LeBaron, Hello, Solara

The LeBaron in July 2007. (Photo by Susan Braden)
When I was a little girl, not more than 3 or 4 years old, I went with my father as he took an old car to the junkyard. I think it belonged to my great-grandmother, a 1930-something Plymouth. As young as I was back then, I felt bad and cried at the thought of this old car being abandoned to rust with like castaways. 
Almost 60 years later, the emotions were exactly the same as I drove my 1992 Chrysler LeBaron convertible to the now-renamed “salvage” yard. It was always a pretty car, sort of a champagne color with tan top and the nice rounded lines. We called it our “mid-life Chrysler."

At 20 years old, it was either a classic or a clunker.

While the car had given me long years of service, a transmission problem was the death knell. (Chryslers are notorious for lousy transmissions and this one had already been replaced.) It would only shift into passing gear intermittently, allowing me to reach a maximum speed of just over 40 mph. A transmission service – filter, conditioner, etc. at a cost of $195 – solved the problem short term, but even then it worked off and on, most off. An Internet search and consult with an online mechanic pointed to the input and output speed sensors – more likely the input speed sensor. I went back to the shop and tried to explain that to the guy there. He said the “codes” had been read, which didn’t indicate that as a problem. Of course, he said could replace the sensors, which had to be done in pairs, for another $200.

So, I knew there was no chance of any trade-in value. I searched around for a group that was into restoration. With a dented left front fender, rust on the rear quarter panel and the bottom of the doors, a tear in the top, and general weariness, I knew my options were limited.

The prospect of paying for a new car sent me into a financial panic. We were only just recovering from Recessionitis. Car loans were complicated by the hit our credit had taken during the Recession, even though we’d been back on track for two years.

Without betraying the LeBaron, I had been looking around for the past six months or so. I knew I wanted another convertible. There was a 2004 Sebring that had been for sale for some time at a decent price. Once I investigated further, I knew why. It drove nicely and was clean, but it had 130,000 miles on it. But then so did many of the cars in the $5K and even above price range. 

My husband kept making noises about “a four-door sedan, with standard, even.” I have no objection to stick shift, but once you’ve had a convertible, you don’t want to go back. “If I can’t be thin, I’ll be blonde and drive a convertible” has been my mantra.

For years I had lusted after the Toyota Solara. It had the brand dependability of Toyota (I had four others) and the cachet of a convertible. Consumer and personal reviews were excellent.

As luck would have it, three were for sale in town. A black 2001 had 110,000 miles on it. Scratch that off the list due to age and mileage. A white one and a red one were at another place, both 2002. The white Solara had a weird grinding noise when test driven, even though its mileage was lower and the CarFax more detailed. The other one, with almost 92,000 miles, required a new battery, but drove like a charm when I got behind the wheel. In the past, I could never have imagined buying a car with mileage that high, but cars these days are different, and I do not put on a lot of miles. A subsequent inspection showed no problems.

Did I say it was lipstick red? And that it had a black leather interior? My anxiety over the finances overshadowed the fact that I was looking my dream car right in the headlights.

I drove the LeBaron down the rutted road to the salvage yard – aren’t they always accessed by rutted roads – with tears in my eyes. There were a couple of ramshackle buildings at the end. A guy walked out of one of them and said, “Oh, we have a new resident?”

I started babbling about the car – how it had been well maintained, had new front tires, relatively low mileage in the vain hope that someone would say, “Hey, I want that car to restore!”

I took the $300 for my car and my foolish self went to handle the paperwork for the new car. A benevolent angel had helped with the financing and everything was in order.

I felt buoyed once I got in the car and headed for home. Then I realized I’d forgotten the garage door opener in the visor of the LeBaron. Know what the sound of an LP spinning backwards sounds like?

So I called the salvage yard and asked if someone could meet me at the head of the road. I couldn’t bear to drive down there again. Besides, the new car had just been washed. No problem. The guy chuckled as he handed over the remote and said there were worse things that had happened.

That night I reviewed the service records I had diligently kept. I was annoyed that the front tires I put on last winter had just 2,000 miles on them. Overall, I was rather shocked by the amount of money poured into the car over the years. I wasn’t sure if it was a money pit or well maintained. The exercise helped me come to terms that buying a new car was the right thing to do.

All of this agonizing leads me to wonder if cars have souls. Are they another thing that we tend to anthropomorphize?

In my case, yes and yes.

But after driving the Solara, I can say that it’s one sweet ride.
My sweet Solara. (Photo by Mary Johnson)


Normandie Ward Fischer said...

Sally, what fun! So glad to have met you over on Facebook and to have grabbed a laugh with this tale. I can so relate--though my focus is always on boats.

Tails from the Foster Kittens said...

Oh.. My... Goodness!!

You have NO idea how much of myself I see in this post.. it is a little scary..