You probably wouldn't have recognized Susannah, the very first car I could call my own. (She'd be 50 years old next year if she'd survived, which of course she hasn't.) A 1966 production of General Motors' Chevrolet Motor Division, Susannah was two-tone green, and one of those tones didn't come from the factory: the right-front fender had been hammered into a condition we could call Marginally Less Dented, and someone working with the hammerer, if not the hammerer himself, had been persuaded to correct the color problems at that corner with a brush and a gallon can of Sears Weatherbeater. It was not pretty. Nor, for that matter, was it especially functional: underneath, suspension parts that used to be welded together became detached, first by a little, than by a lot, as the wheel suddenly reached a camber figure that doesn't exist on alignment tools. Then again, we're talking the middle 1970s here, and the solution of the moment was to take it to a commercial welder, who would yank the suspension back into something approximating its proper position, bring out the heat, and relieve me of $100.
This was not, as it happens, the largest single repair bill I incurred during my brief ownership of the vehicle. At one point, the trusty old two-speed Powerglide automatic had deteriorated to the point where it would deliver only one speed, and not always the same speed either; the slushbox was turned over to the dreaded Transmission Shop, which pronounced her cured after a three-day stay that cost $175.
None of these numbers make sense in the automotive market of the mid-2010s, when transmission rebuilds run routinely into four figures and extensive front-end damage will like as not get a vehicle totaled. This latter happened to me on the first day of World Tour '06: the body shop quit counting after $6000, and the insurance company wrote me a check. Forty years before that, $6000 would have bought me a brand-new Chevrolet Nova, one of Susannah's sisters, with enough left over to buy a second Nova just for parts.
A lot of this price disparity, of course, is simple inflation, something which we have had more or less uninterrupted since the 1913 enactment of the Federal Reserve Act and the shift to an economy largely based on debt. Still, there are marked differences between a compact Chevy today and a compact Chevy fifty years ago. Susannah was rear-wheel drive, as were most cars of the era; up front was a 3.8-liter inline six with iron block and heads and a single-barrel carburetor. Power accessories were most conspicuous by their absence: nonpower brakes, nonpower steering (with a huge plastic wheel for leverage), and windows that you could roll down manually and sometimes even roll back up. Air conditioning? Not a chance. Today a new Chevy Cruze will have power everything as default, more amenities than the Impala hell, more than the Cadillac of those days. And with its smallish four-cylinder engine, it will drink about two-thirds as much fuel, despite weighing every bit as much as its grandmother. Still, I hate to think how much I'd have to pay if that six-speed automatic ever needs work.
Which is not to say that everyone will be happy with the Cruze. I had a brief dust-up on Yahoo! Answers the other day with some dimbulb who deemed his new Cruze insufficiently speedy: he wanted to replace the engine with the highly strung four-banger from Chevy's defunct Cobalt SS. I told him that it was a goddamn stupid thing to do while the Cruze is still under factory warranty; the obviousness of that statement ratcheted up his stubbornness. Besides, engine swaps are so last-century: Chevrolet will happily sell him an LNF 2.0, as seen in that Cobalt, for four grand, but he'll have to make everything else fit, explain it all to the computer, and then hope it works. By then he'll have spent roughly 80 percent more than he'd have paid for a decent used Cobalt SS, but hey, his dream will have come true, and he'll enjoy it right until the moment when the overtorqued axle breaks free and he plows into a bridge abutment, another shining example of the gene pool protecting itself.
If there's a lesson here, it's that buyer's remorse, never a useful emotion, is downright harmful when it comes to all things automotive. And we're going to see more of it in its most baleful manifestations, as desperate buyers line up to be ripped off by Craigslist sellers, or discover that their shiny new-ish $8000 ten-year-old sedan is actually worth about $3000 at retail, and that they're paying 21 percent interest for the privilege of overpaying. I knew my old Nova was basically junk it was purchased from off a tow hook for a price that barely exceeded the cost of the tow and therefore I had little emotional interest in it. After I got married and my wife refused to ride it in anymore, I handed it over to my sister, who had once threatened to take it to a demolition derby, and we newlyweds bought, yes, another Nova, albeit a decade younger. She still had it when we first split up.
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Copyright © 2015 by Charles G. Hill