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Verner column: Clunker lessons on the road of life

The worst car I ever owned, hands down, was a 1968 Fiat 850 Spider. The little red convertible was seven years old when I paid $450 for it in 1975 and drove it home.
Those familiar with Fiats will immediately recognize this as a remarkable occasion ó remarkable in that it was a rare event, and cause for celebration, any time a Fiat of that vintage reached its destination under its own power. If memory serves, that was one of the few times I actually drove the car. Most of the time I was bent over the tiny popcorn-popper of an engine, trying to figure out why it wouldn’t crank; or on those rare occasions when it cranked, why it immediately gave a few smoky belches and died; or if it cranked and continued running, why it didn’t have enough power to pull out of the driveway. And it was a downhill driveway.
As cars go, it was a great learning experience. Or, as a Mustang-driving friend of mine helpfully observed: “Fiats are God’s way of making you appreciate Fords.”
I wonder: What will the world be like when other neophyte car owners are deprived of such learning experiences ó when they never know the thrill of stuck thermostats and steaming radiators? Of failed clutches and slipping transmissions? Of grabby brakes and creaky ball joints?
That’s my misgiving about the “cash for clunkers” program. By removing clunkers as an automotive option, we may stunt the emotional development of our youth. What do we gain if, in saving General Motors, we sacrifice a priceless part of our heritage?
For generations of American teenagers, clunkers have provided an invaluable rite of passage. They’ve introduced us to the wonderful world of personal transportation and taught us to be resourceful, resilient and creative. Nothing develops character like finding yourself stalled beside a dark country road at 2 in the morning with a malfunctioning generator, a blown radiator hose, a flooded carburetor or broken ignition points. For some of us, such mishaps aren’t the imaginary prelude to a horror movie; they were commonplace occurrences whenever we ventured onto the great open road in our clunker of the moment.
Today, parents wanting their teenagers to develop such traits send them to study in Italy for a semester, or they encourage them to enroll in martial-arts classes or go on wilderness adventures. In my day, parents accomplished much the same by buying their kids a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief.
That was my older brother’s first car, and it was the epitome of clunkerdom. The thing was huge, an excrement-colored monolith so heavy and dense it generated its own gravitational field. The chrome bumpers alone weighed as much as a Volkswagen. My brother ó who was not a small person ó had to work out with weights for a month before he could raise the expansive steel hood, which could easily have served as a helicopter landing pad. Underneath was a straight-eight engine that coughed and sputtered like a gut-shot gunfighter. The transmission was something called a “hydromatic,” which ó if I remember my Latin correctly ó roughly translates as “get out and push.” The car was astonishingly, glacially slow. If you wanted to accelerate, it needed at least a week’s advance notice. Ditto for trying to brake it to a complete stop.
My brother was mortified by the car ó hated to be seen driving it ó but it was that or walk. Whenever he drove it, he’d disguise himself with a wig and dark sunglasses (a great improvement over his usual appearance, I always pointed out), and he’d park a couple of miles away from his destination, usually abandoning it on a deserted street in the worst section of town. He always left it unlocked with the keys in the ignition ó sometimes with the motor running ó in hopes that the car wouldn’t be there when he returned. Once, he even pinned a $20 bill to the seat, but that didn’t work either.
That may be the most important lesson that comes from driving a clunker: The development of emotional resilience and inner strength. Anybody can drive a late-model Honda or Toyota or Chevrolet, but it takes extraordinary intestinal fortitude for a teenager to pick up his prom date in a lumbering 1972 Lincoln Towncar with “leatherette” interior and a ragged vinyl roof. Newer cars may offer improved safety and reliability, but in their very blandness, they deprive America’s youth of the deep wells of self-esteem that evolve when one has to endure the daily embarrassment of wheeling into the high-school parking lot in a “Frank Sinatra Edition” 1982 Chrysler Imperial. (So designated, I’ve always suspected, because the gargantuan trunk would hold half a dozen dead bodies.) Such are the trials that tell us what we’re really made of.
Getting clunkers off the road may help stimulate the economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but in doing so, I fear we’re denying America’s youth a crucial formative element in life’s journey.
– – –
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. Got a favorite clunker memory? He’d like to hear it. E-mail: cverner@salisburypost.com or call 704-797-4262.

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