Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chevy Chevette ... it'll (not) drive you happy!

Our 16-year-old son recently bought a car from a trusted family friend. Sure, the car has over 250,000 miles on it, but this 1996 Honda Civic runs surprisingly well. Granted you might point out the dent in the hood from the past owner’s run-in with a deer, or the faded paint on the roof, or the crack in the window. But as far as first cars go, this one is a winner.

At least my husband and I can see that it is a winner, especially compared to the sorry jalopies we’d owned over the years (kids, ask your parents what a “jalopy” is). Of course our son, Nathaniel, wasn’t around when we owned these cars. Ever since he’s been old enough to remember we’ve had sensible and reliable family cars, and we’ve been blessed to be able to afford to get them fixed when they need it. 

He wasn’t around when we were newlyweds, poor as dirt, living in a 600-square-foot apartment and happily accepting day-old bread off of the Safeway truck. We were graduate students in love, and living from paycheck to paycheck. Macaroni and cheese made a complete meal, and date nights consisted of the $1.50 cheap theaters in Denver.

Before our marriage, I had a penchant for truly horrible car decisions. While I was paying my way through college, I grew tired of the beater cars that kept breaking down. As a commuter student, I needed a reliable car to get me to and from the university, so I decided to bite the bullet and buy a brand new 1986 Chevy Chevette. But wait! Why buy one when you can lease one for $10 a month cheaper and save yourself a full $120 a year? (At least that’s how the sales guy put it). Being young, thrifty and foolish I signed on the dotted line and leased myself a Chevette. For five years. With no option to own. Ah, youth!

The car, although brand new, went through three alternators in those five years. At one point, the driver’s-side door stopped opening, forcing me to climb over the console and exit out the passenger door. Then right about the time I was finishing up college, the passenger-side door stopped opening as well, forcing me to crawl through the hatch and hoist myself over the two seats. This was neatly timed with my student teaching at an area high school, making for an interesting entrance and exit each day.

After the “Chevette Lease Debacle,” I got smart and bought a used but reliable Nissan Maxima which I loved. I then started dating my soon-to-be husband. I heard through the grapevine that his last car was a VW van with carpeted ceilings and fuzzy dice. It was a match made in heaven.

Since then, we’ve made some wiser choices, learning from our many mistakes, but we realize that we’re only one step away from a really bad car choice. In fact, I recently passed a Chevy Sprint that had the back hack-sawed off like an El Camino wannabe, and I muttered, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

So now it’s time for our son to learn the hard way how first cars have the power to make your spirits soar and break your heart, all in the same afternoon.

Full disclosure: The Chevette was my SECOND car. My first car was even worse – a ’74 rusted out Dodge Dart. But that’s another story…

Eileen Burmeister is a freelance writer and reliable car owner, despite the dent in the back panel. She claims a deer ran into the car. You can email her at or follow her on Twitter at EBurmeister.

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