Jerome Shea       October 18, 2009      Weekend Wonk

(Another vintage essay, friends [1990?], but such car rants are, I hope, timeless.)

Our family car is a 1988 Chevy Astrovan. I drive it as seldom as possible, not because it is a truly terrible machine but because certain defects that it does have can ruin my day if I start to dwell on them. The coachwork, in particular, is a disgrace, the ultimate in cheap plastic and bad fasteners. Handles snap off and panels come loose. The plastic itself cracks. For some reason the electric plug for the remote door lock won’t stay connected. The sliding door is an expensive disaster that strikes regularly. Lately, as if the car were laughing at me, the wipers will sometimes make one swipe across the windshield for no reason at all. Like any engaged car owner, I often regale my friends with these woes.

On the other hand, I can’t recall ever singing the car’s praises, and there is much to praise. It is a roomy and comfortable car for cross-country travel. The view it provides for the driver—for the passengers, too—is superb. Most of the accessories have never failed. Finally, there is the drive train. Not so long ago, an owner would have considered himself lucky to get a hundred thousand miles out of a car. However, I have every reason to believe that this Chevy engine and transmission will last at least twice that long. My gratitude should smother my petty irritation. I should remember the Dodge Aries that the Astro replaced and get down on my knees. I should be grateful and shut up.

But I won’t, and statistics suggest that my behavior is typical. Why are we so eager to complain and so stingy with our praise? Probably there are a number of reasons. For one thing, bad stories, like any bad news, somehow are just more engrossing. If someone says his car is comfortable or reliable or especially safe, we smile and try to stifle a yawn, as if the neighborhood gossip has just told us a long story about a happy marriage. But I think the basic reason for this phenomenon is a very simple, primitive one: we want revenge.

We have been wronged, violated, financially ravished, and we will move heaven and earth to see that someone is punished for it. We are out for blood!

This reaction reveals a lack of perspective and humility that should embarrass us. Trouble with our cars we take as a personal affront, and yet the good things about our cars—the long-lasting engines, the general reliability, the efficient service from the dealer—we take as only our due. We deserve perfection, and anything short of that is an insult to the natural order of things, proof that the world is morally out of whack. Who do we think we are? Nobility, evidently; gods, more like. And nothing will shut us up until no one buys a Chevy Astro ever again and the dealership is razed and the land it stood on becomes a blasted ground zero on which—like salt-sown Carthage—not even weeds will ever grow. Only that will restore the moral balance of the universe. Only that will teach them not to mess with us!

And sometimes we do get satisfaction. A local automobile dealer from whom we bought our first new car and whose idea of customer satisfaction was a cruel and notorious joke was finally, rightfully, driven out of business some years ago. Yet I still buttonhole strangers on the street, my eyes glittering, and tell them the more outrageous stories about that mercantile miscreant so that he will never return, never again rise to visit evil upon the world.

This is the kind of moral firepower that we should reserve for world hunger or cancer or child abuse. Perhaps it is only in a country where people can afford to spend many thousands of dollars on an automobile that they can also afford to drive themselves crazy with misplaced outrage.

The Astro, the Aries, and our first Honda (compromised at the factory and made steadily worse by the dealer) are distant memories today. Readers of this cyberspace know that I now drive—and sing the praises of—the Little Red Beast, my ’99 Mazda Miata. Our family car is a ’98 Honda CR-V, a rock-solid, if boring, appliance of a car. Over the years both of them have held up so solidly that only the most neurotic nit-picker could find a nit to pick. Great cars, both. So I should be happy, right? Well, I guess I am. And it is churlish of me, I know, to lament the fact that I have no stories to tell, anecdotes to make my blood boil. But still…still…

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