Friday, July 17, 2009

In Praise of the Beater

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the futility of acquiring material wealth. If he were alive today, his argument would apply to cars as well. Thoreau would be appalled with our car culture, shunning it for public transportation. But if he had to drive, I’m sure he would own a beater.

A beater is the car equivalent of a horse at a glue factory. Its value fluctuates depending on how much gas is in the tank. Usually people who drive beaters are a flat tire away from permanent bus ridership. But not always. Sometimes a person drives a beater because they like the car too much to part with it. Or a person may view car payments with the same disdain Thoreau had for paying taxes. Aspiring race car drivers or people restoring a car drive beaters so they can spend money on their other car. Celebrities sometimes drive beaters to blend in anonymously. Sometimes the person driving the car in front of you, with a bumper sticker that says “My other car is a Porsche,” really does own a Porsche.

Most of the cars I owned were beaters. My hand-me-down Olds Cutlass and the VW Thing qualify. I also had a Buick Century which was an especially good beater; one I took for granted until I sold it. The Buick was roomy, comfortable, the air conditioning worked and it got great gas mileage. It wore peeling paint, a GM factory option at the time, and no hubcaps. When I drove it, traffic parted for me like I was Moses at the Red Sea.

A few years ago, the Buick began ringing up large repair bills. I decided I’d had enough and bought a brand new Hyundai Sonata. The Sonata was a great car. I liked the styling, which was criticized for looking like a funky Korean Jaguar, and liked rowing the Porsche licensed Tiptronic gearbox. Compared to the Buick, the Sonata was a joy to drive and in two years of ownership, nothing ever went wrong.

After a while, driving a new car began to wear on me. At work, I parked on the street downtown and mysterious scuffs would appear. My kids spilled milk and Teddy Grahams in the backseat. I realized I was leading a life of quiet desperation and car payments, so I put the Sonata up for sale and began looking for another beater.

I looked at Hondas and Toyotas, but the ones in my price range were shot to hell or looked like rejects from “The Fast and the Furious”. I looked at GM cars, but couldn’t bring myself to own another wobbly land yacht. One day I stumbled across a ten year-old Infiniti I30 with less than a hundred thousand miles on it. I remembered it was the same basic car as the Nissan Maxima but better looking. Curious to why it was in my price range, I called the owner who informed me it had slight hail damage. Two hours later, I brought it home.

The Infiniti is too nice to be described as a beater. Everything works and I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it on a two thousand mile road trip. It’s more rewarding to drive than the Sonata and has leather seats and a sunroof. I don’t mind parking on the streets or in the sun. I don’t cringe anymore when I hear, “Uh oh, Daddy! I spilled!”. And even though it’s black, I don’t feel the insatiable need to keep it washed. But it does clean up well and I’m not ashamed to take my wife out in public in it.

For me the Infiniti is the best of both worlds. Thoreau would not approve. But he might appreciate it, if he knew it saved me from the quiet desperation of car payments.

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