I was always surprised by the number of BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Lexus SUVs other kids at my college drove. For me, I entered school with an ancient Volvo 240, a tank of a car, and I wouldn’t take it back even 15 years later. That car built character, taught me the value of hard work, and was the center of plenty of incredible college memories. I want my children to have the same, so they’ll be starting off with used jalopies too.
My very first car was a Chevrolet Cavalier which compared to the Volvo, was nearly new at only about 5 years old. My parents surprised me with it during my senior year of high school, picking me up with it one night after a long marching band practice. I felt like the coolest kid in the marching band – no easy feat. For much of the rest of the year, I cruised around the Poconos in my Chevy to and from school and extra-curricular activities and to my friends’ houses. I even tricked it out, inspired by the then just gaining popularity Pimp My Ride, with a MP3 compatible CD player that connected through the tape deck.
Later in the year, while stopped, waiting to turn onto our street, I got run into from behind fairly hard. I was fine other than some temporary soreness, but the car was totaled. Thankfully my CD player survived. It actually took me some time to get comfortable driving again thanks to some minor post-traumatic stress. With the insurance money, I went for something a bit safer, the immense tank on wheels Volvo. It wasn’t a glamorous car, but it was darn safe.
A bit older than the Chevy, the Volvo did have a few quirks. The power would cut off some times while driving, meaning the power steering, windows, and brakes stopped working and became completely manual. This was less than convenient when driving down an icy hill in the winter. the sunroof was manually operated with a hand crank which had a severely stripped screw, meaning it could only really be operated with a screwdriver. The heated seats never worked, probably because of the exposed wires hanging from the seats which were remedied with slip over “sports” seat covers which really made it faster. Best of all, it came with a modern stereo system which was MP3 CD ready. After a romantic interest in high school’s dog peed on one of the sports seat covers, it was never quite the same. It didn’t work out.
I kept the Volvo through my junior year of college. It was with me for countless late night fast food and diner runs, was there when I met my future wife, and carried me back and forth from football games and practices. Oh that was confusing, I didn’t play football, I was in the marching band. Once, while practicing handbrake turns for my getaway driver career, a hubcap flew off and went rolling down the street where a bystander hit it with a shovel. Bethlehem, PA has some rough streets. It carried me to my first summer job, coding for a magazine publishing company, and never scoffed at the irony. At one point the passenger windshield wiper died.
One week on a visit home, I got hit in the exact same place my Chevy was killed. This time, a pickup truck hit me. This time, the Volvo sustained only a broken windshield fluid tank while the pickup truck’s bumper was completely ripped off. When the Volvo began leaking antifreeze a few weeks later, I began carrying around a gallon jug in the trunk. The summer of my junior year when I got a better paying internship, I decided it was time to retire the Volvo and get a new car and pay for it myself.
My used cars were partially responsible for the fiscal responsibility and the appreciation I had for a newer car. Driving the older cars around for a few years taught me to care for a car and treat it with respect (minus the aforementioned handbrake turns). A newer, more luxurious car would have gotten me used to luxuries like functional air conditioning that I wouldn’t have appreciated as much otherwise. Not a day goes by that I don’t appreciate my heated steering wheel now. The “technology package”, also known as random wires hanging out of my stereo instilled a passion for tinkering and debugging technology that helped me later as a software developer. Learning to drive both cars in the ice and snow taught me car control and defensive driving that sticks with me today, driving in the even more dangerous hostile environment of New Jersey. At least snow is predictable while minivans in the left lane are not.
I’m going to start my boys off with older, newer cars too. I want them to learn to drive and perfect driving without all the modern conveniences and crutches like active lane assist and radar cruise control. I want them to learn to drive by feel and to feel something for the car they drive. A car should be an early love for a young adult, a tangible manifestation of the freedom it brings to teenagers longing for adventure. Of course I want them to be safe and comfortable, but not so comfortable that they feel invulnerable. I want them to have to work for the money to get a new car that they want and not just have it handed to them. This will teach them the value of money and how much a hard day working is really worth. And I think every parent should do the same.