My brother Paul drove a 1980s Cadillac, in some shade of blue just slightly darker than "baby." Part of this, I always suspected, was attitude: as a Cadillac driver, he presumably wouldn't have to take any crap from some pesky little feeb in a Nash Rambler. But the major reason was logistical: he was a big fellow — offensive lineman way back in high school — and there wasn't any way you were going to squeeze him into the likes of a Honda Civic, at least the Honda Civic that existed about the time that Caddy came off the assembly line. (Automotive bloat being what it is, a present-day Civic has more room than the 1980s Accord.) Now there is no shortage of 1980s Cadillacs on the road, even today, but most of them, unlike Paul's, are clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk, on their fifth or seventh or twelfth owners, still around to support the old theory that a General Motors car will run badly longer than most other cars will run at all.

Such is life at the low end of the automotive food chain, where warranties are nonexistent or might as well be, where owner's manuals exist only in dim memory, and where buying parts is the moral equivalent of a scavenger hunt. I think about the situation in Cuba, where a fifty-year trade embargo has resulted in a bumper crop of mid-century iron being kept alive with chewing gum and baling wire. But José on the edge of Havana, having had much more practice, might be a bit more ingenious than the average Joe trying to keep rolling in a relic from Clunkerville.

Joe, of course, has several questions, the sort of which I see every week on Yahoo! Answers, the first of which is "Is it a fuse?" No matter what the problem — dash lights out, turn signals at the wrong speed, inability to shift out of third — there's got to be a fuse, the replacement of which will immediately solve the problem at very low cost. This actually comes true about three or four percent of the time, which is better odds than you get from the lotto. Then again, this leaves about 96 or 97 percent of the time when it doesn't, which means escalation to the next level.

That next level is summed up by the phrase "Can I bypass this?" "This," in fact, could be just about anything, though most often it seems to be heater cores — replacing one in an aged Taurus costs approximately 1.5 times what the car is actually worth — and A/C compressors, on the basis that yeah, it's 105 in the shade, or would be if there were any shade, but you still gotta get to work. These ideas occur to people, it seems, on a seasonal basis: for some reason, nobody seems to want to bypass the heater core in the middle of January. I admit to living without a function I couldn't afford to replace, but it wasn't all that, you know, functional: one year, somewhere near Chanute, Kansas, one layer of the headliner of my Toyota Celica fell on my head. I figured that the cardboard backing was unsightly, but so was the faux simulated imitation Naugahyde Toyota had lavished on the surface, especially if it was hanging down half a foot, so I spent a stop at a rest area painstakingly ripping away the warmish leatherette-like substance, which I left in the trash barrel. Drove the next several years without it.

Which brings us at last to Desperate Part-Swapping, usually heralded by "What transmissions can I put in a [year/make/model]?" or something like that. There are even some who will ask if they can bolt in a stick shift to replace the failed slushbox, like that's going to be any cheaper. This seems to occur most commonly with Turbo Hydramatics, of which there are apparently infinitely many variations, or with the last two generations of Mazda 626, where the transmission you got was dependent on the number of cylinders you had. You occasionally see this for cars which are running well, but this is for cosmetic reasons: several people have expressed the desire to replace the Lincolnesque grille with tiny logo of the second-generation Infiniti I30 with the blacked-out I35 grille with huge badge. And it seems like every boy under 19 wants a body kit to make his [whatever] look like a Nissan Skyline, since the bad old Feds won't allow him to spend six times the cost of a year at State to import one.

For the moment, we don't have regular emissions inspections in Oklahoma, though I suspect they're on the way, the EPA having decided to tighten up the ozone standard, so when we see people wondering if they can get by without a catalytic converter ("No"—ed.), it's because they can't get rid of that damn engine light, or because somebody stole their cat and sold it for scrap. Emissions inspectors are apparently viewed with the same suspicion as TSA operatives, although the smog police, as a rule, will reach only into your wallet. Now I can't address this matter personally, since we don't have regular emissions inspections in Oklahoma, and my one experience with California inspection (1988) went relatively smoothly, by which I mean I did not actually fail. I am not, however, sanguine about the prospect of having to go through them here, not so much because I expect to have compliance issues, but because I don't think they'll weed out bottom-feeders like these:

Coming back from the supermarket, I managed to get behind not one but two purveyors of pure pollution: a first-generation Dodge Intrepid and a going-on-fifteen Mazda 929, both of which were spewing roiling plumes of noxious white smoke into the air and into the ventilation systems of everyone who wasn't fast enough to switch to Recirculate. I don't want to hear anything more about greenhouse gases and other dubious bugaboos until somebody does something about these easily visible and highly verifiable mobile smog machines.

I mean, if my exhaust has to be cleaner than Wolfgang Puck's kitchen, so does yours, right? (And the first person to tell me that women and minorities will be the hardest hit by emissions enforcement is invited to take a couple of hits off that Intrepid's tailpipe.)

The Vent

  8 August 2011

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 Copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Hill