The Middle-Age Guide to Growing Up: Motorhead

Vintage car

I haven’t owned that many cars in my life, until recently, when I’ve been using them up at a rate of about one a year. None of the unfortunate circumstances leading to this are really my fault, but they all seem to end up with my latest Mazda 3 getting written off by the insurance company.

My first car (the first I actually owned, rather than “borrowed”) was a 1961 Ford Corttina I bought in 1975. I had no license, no insurance, and I didn’t really know how to drive, but Quebec was kind of lawless in the 70s, none of those things really mattered.

I paid $75 cash for the car, despite it’s advanced age and uncertain shocks. I put it in the local garage to have it made drivable and picked it up a week later. My friend was with me, driving wing in his ’69 Plymouth Valiant (the Valium) with the pushbutton automatic. He followed me up the hill to the family farm, and as I drove a little too exuberantly through the S-curve, watched me topple the Cortina into the ditch as the offside running gear collapsed.

I popped my head out of the now vertical door, and said “how’s that for parallel parking?”. I don’t know what happened to the Cortina. We left it there, and the next time we went by, it was gone.

Funny thing; that happened to an ancient snowmobile I co-owned once. My friend, the other owner and I, drove it down he hill to The Pub one snowbound night and left it in the parking lot for a night of drinking Cinquante in quarts and playing pool. When we stumbled out, we found the snowplow had been in to the parking lot, and buried the snowmobile under a huge drift.

We shrugged, bagged lifts home and waited for spring. The snow pile got bigger and bigger until March, and then started to shrink. It eventually disappeared completely, and, as if by magic, so had the snowmobile! We never found it.

My first car, the one I learned to drive on, was a 1967 Volvo 123GT called Greta. She belonged to oldest brother, who left her behind when he went off to college. I stayed in the area and , sort of, inherited Greta. Again, no license, no insurance, out-of-date Connecticut plates. Missing the battery and one front fender, too. But Greta moved like scalded snot. She was a rare model, a 2 door version of Volvo’s dependable 124, rounded and modest. She also had the GT package, fuel injected and the 2.0 litre motor. Greta was a sports car in hobo’s clothing. I used to drive her at 110 miles an hour down the hill on Stagecoach Road.

Without a battery, she had to be parked on hills and bumped into life. That worked most of the time, but I used to end up leaving her on roadsides around the county, and the local police would show up at the farm and ask me to pick her up. One time, bumping her nearly killed me, but that’s another story, entitled “In The Woods”.

I bought a white van, the kind clowns abduct children in, for a theatre I ran, and drove it from Toronto to Montreal, the day after I finally got my license. I was a regular hotshot driving on empty rural roads in Quebec, but getting out of Toronto was a comedy of terrors. The van had a broken leaf spring in the rear and it liked to hop around at high speeds.

The summer I ran that theatre, I honed my driving skills on my mothers Mazda GLC (which stood for Great Little Car), the model that eventually became the Protegé and then the Mazda3 as the company went through different ad agencies. It was small, tight, fast and, because my mother was cheap, it had no radio.

When I moved to Toronto, I borrowed cars for several years. A five litre Mustang with a Hearst on the floor and a Dodge Caravan (two diametrically opposed vehicles) were my whips. Then I bought my first house (the only one I’ve owned with a garage), and I decided I needed my own car.

My mother had moved on from the Mazda GLC to a Lada Cygnet (the model known as a Zhiguli in Russia). Once again, she was cheap, and I think a new Lada was less than $5000. She sold me her old one for $900, which was about $500 more than it was worth. In the business, they say the negotiations for a used Lada consist of asking “How much gas is in the tank?”

I loved that car. It came with a complete tool kit that included a plug-in 12 volt lamp to hang from the engine hood as you worked on it. It had windshield wipers on the headlights, the only car besides a Mercedes with that feature. The ignition was on the wrong side of the steering column, the heater was enormous and worked too well, the car had a power take-off through the rear bumper so it could pull a combine harvester or run a sawmill.

The transmission was heavy, and very solid, no mistaking first for third. I drove that Lada to Alabama one year for a vacation, where people had never seen one before, and it was a trusty, comfortable conveyance the whole way. I could see a nomadic Uzbeki family living nicely in a Zhiguli.

I liked it so much, I bought a newer one (still used), but a fancier trim level. Leather seats, the same tool kit, better heater and interior. It had a good 10 inches clearance; we used to go off roading in it.

When the second Lada wore out, I returned to Mazdas, and bought a 1990 Protegé. That lasted for five years until it started leaking gasoline from the tank. It got so I wouldn’t fill it past half full so the gas wouldn’t reach the hole. I had to stop smoking in the car. These were my peak earning years, and I actually bought myself a new car. A Protegé again. The build is so solid, the car so quick and responsive, they’re the best value on the small car market.

I did a research project where I rented a couple of luxury cars and took owners of other luxury cars out for “rolling focus groups”. One of the cars was a black BMW 325i convertible, a complete chick magnet, and I took it home a couple of nights. I stopped at the liquor store and the corner store on the way home and got propositioned both times. So, I understand why people drive Bimmers, but, in a direct comparison, my car was a better performance car and road handler than the rather leaky and wobbly BMW.

Here’s where the automotive slaughter begins. One fine July day, driving on a back street with a cat in a carrier in the front seat, I reached over to secure the door of the cage, which had come open, and rear-ended a dump truck. The cage flew open, the cat went out the open window like a scalded, well, cat, and the driver of the dump truck came around to see what happened. His license plate was bent. My front end was on it’s knees leaking vital fluids. My first write-off.

The insurance paid me enough to buy another Mazda. I found a used 2005 GT model, five years old, with just 16,000 km on it. This is like finding a 1963 Barbie in the box. It was the best car ever. The 2.3 litre motor, leather seats, roof, power everything, alloy wheels, low profile tires, black all over with tint. I finally had a real whip.

A winter later I wandered off a boulevard on an icy patch, t-boned a lamp post, rolled, and drove it home, dragging trim and dropping tinkling glass. Another write-off. The payout was less this time, it wasn’t a new car they were replacing, but I went up to the store that sells nothing but Mazda3s and bought the identical car. 2005, GT, 2.3 litre motor, leather, black.

A winter later (are you seeing a pattern here?) a huge tree branch fell on this Mazda3 and totaled it, Third write-off in as many years. Once again, the settlement just covered the cost another used 2005 Mazda3 GT (grey this time, I had run them out of black ones). I don’t park under that tree anymore. I don’t travel on icy roads. I don’t put cats in the front seat. I’m determined to keep this Mazda3 for at least 5 years, maybe 10. It’s one of the last generation of automobiles that doesn’t have a touchscreen, and that’s worth keeping.