The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

17 June 2006

A ride from the past

There haven't been that many, considering how old I am; then again, I started fairly late — never owned a car until I got off active duty — and I tend to keep them for a long, long time.

But I should acknowledge Dymphna, a 1975 Toyota Celica GT in Hi, Officer Red, which somehow I managed to keep running until the middle 1990s.

I got married in 1978. At the time, I was driving Susannah, a 1966 Chevrolet Nova two-door sedan with the 230-cubic-inch straight six, an upgrade of sorts from the base 194. Horsepower was 140 gross, probably around 115 net; despite the slugabed two-speed Powerglide automatic, Susannah was fairly quick, and might actually have handled better had there been less of a disparity between front wheels and back, not to mention the fact that the goal at the time was to buy the cheapest tires possible.

My wife did not like this car, and eventually refused to get in it; I gave it to my younger sister, who gave it a proper destruction on her own schedule. Perhaps as a sop to my sentimentality, my lovely bride consented to buying another Nova: a '76, with an actual small-block V8 (the 305). This was my first experience with unleaded gas, and I wasn't impressed, but the family was starting to grow, and the car she had had wasn't really suitable for Mom's Taxi duty, so it devolved upon me.

What she had been driving, of course, was that Celica. It had a considerable set of virtues: a bulletproof SOHC four; a slick five-speed stick, which I eventually learned how to operate well, as opposed to merely well enough to avoid damage; air conditioning that worked at least some of the time; an actual factory FM radio; and real live gauges of the sort Chevy couldn't be bothered to put on its non-sporting models. Despite its Japanese underpinnings, it was not particularly fuel-efficient; she was hard-pressed to wring more than 16 mpg out of it. (EPA numbers were something like 18/23.) I did somewhat better, which annoyed her greatly, since she was careful to upshift around 3000 rpm and minimize the time spent in the lower gears; I, of course, did not. The record for this car was 29 mpg, which was recorded on Interstate 35 in Kansas with a curio cabinet lashed to the roof; I can only conclude that the aerodynamics of this car were so awful that carrying around furniture actually improved them. (I recounted a story of the two of us on a drive here; I ask you kindly not to inquire as to what road this was.)

Over time, I grew to think of Dymphna (she got the name some time around 1983) as damned near indestructible; the Petroleum Tanker Incident in '85 iced the car's rep for the next decade. The Celica was small to begin with, and the truck making the left turn didn't see me just beyond the corner: it was perfectly obvious that I was going to be crushed to death and subsequenly vaporized in a gigantic fireball. Not wanting to miss this for anything in the world — I was not a happy camper in those days — I floored it.

And bounced off the tire carrier, hanging below the belly of the beast, winding up about three feet from where I'd started. One headlight was crushed, its bezel bent, and the hood angled upward as though it were giving one of Mr. Spock's patented eyebrow raises, but not only was the car still drivable, that bent hood still opened more or less properly. Total damage was $489, for which the transport company cut me a check. I repaired the lights and drove on. Theologians should note that my period of Serious Agnosticism ended at this time.

In 1988, feeling that I'd played out my last hand in Oklahoma — the divorce was final in late '87 — I drove to Los Angeles, where the first order of business was to register with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Here I discovered the wondrous world of smog checks. As a '75, Dymphna needed only to meet the California 1975 standards; unfortunately, Toyota didn't fit catalysts to this model in 1975 except in California, meaning I had to meet standards established for cats without actual cats. I reasoned that surely I wasn't the only person who had faced this situation before, and a gearhead at an Exxon station in Redondo Beach futzed around with the carb and the timing for about half an hour before presenting me with an actual smog certificate. She'd passed, barely; more surprising, she didn't drive much worse than before. (Keep in mind that this was now a 13-year-old car.)

The California experiment didn't last all that long, and I returned to Oklahoma, my savings depleted and my sense of well-being back down to zero. But I still had Dymphna, even though she was nickel-and-diming me to death. It got to the quarter level in 1995, when I was leaving a supermarket parking lot and discovered I could no longer turn right. (The old recirculating-ball steering wouldn't quite recirculate all the way.) I sold her for $100 to someone who thought he could do something with her; it turned out that indeed he could. I gave her up at 195,000 miles, and I am told that she cleared 200,000 before being clobbered in a hit-and-run on the southside.

I wandered in the automotive wilderness for the next couple of years before discovering that what I really should have been driving was the Mazda 626. But that's another story entirely.

Posted at 8:17 AM to Driver's Seat

Despite its Japanese underpinnings, it was not particularly fuel-efficient; she was hard-pressed to wring more than 16 mpg out of it.

Jeez! I get 13 to 14 out of my '96 Bronco!

Posted by: McGehee at 9:33 AM on 17 June 2006

Thanks for the story of Dymphna... utterly charming. Now, I have given thought to your next car. I think you should get a Lexus. You can purchase a used one at a good price... I should know... that's why son Bo is driving my old one. They are virtually indestructable, a driving pleasure, and never need service (okay... oil and stuff). Why don't you at least test drive one of the old ones. When they come out with the 300 model in a hybrid version... I am totally getting it (of course, I will never be able to retire... however, that's another story entirely).

Posted by: Dr. Jan at 3:31 PM on 17 June 2006

Actually, I'd thought about that — briefly — and there are a few aging Lexi (say, 1997 to 1999 300ES) that fall within my price parameters, but basically, they're Camrys with better sound insulation, and whatever else one can say for Camrys, they're not that much fun to drive.

The advantage of Lexus, of course, is that its dealers are very high on the Nice scale; then again, the same is true of Saturn.

Posted by: CGHill at 4:15 PM on 17 June 2006

Now I am going to have Bo drive over to your house and let you drive our Lexus... it's the best drive of your life!

Posted by: Dr. Jan at 9:14 PM on 17 June 2006