My 14-year-old son, Anton, is as enamored of cars – especially new and flashy ones – as any boy. Whenever we're out driving, he rubbernecks continuously as he spots Camaros, Corvettes, Lexuses and the car of his dreams – the Ford Mustang. These sightings are accompanied by the most impassioned commentaries ("Did you see that, Dad? The new Audi A6 – zero to 60 in 5.9!").
"Yes, yes," I nod. "I see it." This is as much enthusiasm as I can muster, because I am as interested in new cars as I am in the various grades of sand. The tragedy for my son, however, is that we are meandering along in my 1987 Dodge Raider, a big red box of a car that is as aerodynamic as a cinder block. My Raider can also go from zero to 60 in 5.9 seconds, but it has to be an exceptionally steep downhill grade.
My son is at an age when he is embarrassed by many things: our house, my attempt to engage his friends in conversation, the food I cook, my taste for the thrift shop. But topping the list is our car. Perhaps this is why he prefers to walk the mile to school, even in the most challenging weather. On one occasion I insisted on driving him in during a deluge. He allowed this, but asked that I let him out about a block from the school so he could keep his dignity intact.
One day, in a quiet moment, Anton mustered the courage to ask, "Dad, why do you drive such an old car?"
I didn't have to search very far and wide for an answer, because I knew my own heart in the matter. I explained my philosophy of what a car is. "Anton," I said, "a car is something that gets us from Point A to Point B. What more do I need?" And then it occurred to me that I could better explicate my answer in terms of what I don't need.
"Anton," I began, "I don't need a car that talks to me or entertains me.
"I don't need a car with a key that costs $250 to replace. (The very idea is an abomination.)
"I don't need a car with remote access, or that beeps at me to assure me that it's locked. (This is Maine, where I leave my keys in the ignition so that I always know where they are.)
"I don't need a video system that turns my car into a movie theater or tries to sell me things I don't need and can't afford to buy.
"I don't need a car that is so complicated that I can't change my own oil.