• The art of choosing wisely
    August 02,2014

    Recently I crossed that great threshold in life that is often said to be responsible for the rapid onset of gray hair and wrinkles. My son got his first car. It was an experience unlike any I had known, and yet it was strangely familiar. A very long time ago in a land far, far away, I got my first car.

    I, too, went with my dad to get that wondrous magic carpet that I had so often dreamed about: powered wheels. As with most first-car buyers, I would be satisfied with the most basic transportation. I think my dad instinctively knew that, and he was very careful to steer me toward a car he said would be ideal for me. I should have known better, but with only $400 to spend, I could not be real choosy. When he recommended a car that looked like it would be affordable and versatile, I bought it — a 1952 Crosley station wagon.

    The now extinct Crosley was the poster child of basic transportation. It was a cross between a very small SUV and a soup can. It had a four-cylinder Cobra engine that I later learned put out all of 26 horsepower and was designed to power refrigerators for the Army. At 40 mph it began to shake, and by 50 mph I felt as if I were in a blender. Dad chose well.

    Leap forward many years to the time that my dad got his revenge as I contemplated my own son driving his first car. I am pretty sure I heard my dad chuckle up in heaven at my dilemma. I could almost hear him say, “You’ll see.”

    My mind raced with all the articles I had read about the male teenage mind, the total lack of frontal lobe reasoning and their unquenchable belief of invulnerability and infallibility. I was momentarily frozen by the image that my son will go down in history as the reason for elevated crosswalks and reinforced roadside barriers.

    As the laughter of my father lingered in my mind, I had to remind myself that my son took driver’s ed and got an A, as did I. I told myself that he is as responsible as any 18-year-old male. It was at that point that I distinctly felt the rest of my hair turn white and two new wrinkles pop up.

    But times have changed. Whereas I was stuck finding a car from some sleazy used car lot, my son and I used Craigslist to search every car being sold within 200 miles. That’s a lot of cars and a lot of sellers who just want to dump their old car at almost any price. We found someone like that in Manchester, New Hampshire. When he described the car, I had to agree that it was an ideal car for him and it was at the right price, $2,000. But as I said, times have changed. His ideal car was a 1997 Cadillac DeVille.

    It has power everything. Even the trunk closes by itself. It is just a tad smaller than the Queen Mary, and I am sure the engine came out of a locomotive. Opening the door was like opening a bank vault, and the leather seats must have needed the hides from 25 animals. As I watched him sitting in it for the first time, all I could think was, “This certainly isn’t a Crosley.”

    We took it for a short test drive, and at my suggestion he gunned the engine. The car blasted off like the space shuttle. The tires spun and shot gravel into the next county. The hood rose 3 feet and then the engine exploded. Well, not exactly. The sound of the engine very suddenly rose from Main Street Montpelier to acid rock concert level in a half second. The giant 467 cubic inch V-8 Northstar engine with 32 valves had blown the exhaust pipe and muffler completely off. It was still running, but it now sounded like an F-35 fighter jet. Even at 5 mph, we had to shout at each other to be heard. Fortunately, the seller was an auto mechanic, and he quickly patched the pipe and we bought the car.

    My son is now on cloud nine with a massive luxury vehicle that he is enjoying showing off to his friends. Surprisingly, I am pleased with his purchase also. Of course, I’d feel better if he waited perhaps another 10 or 15 years, but I think if he has to have one now, this one has a number of desirable features.

    I didn’t find a car with a 26-horsepower engine in it, but although this engine is large, it is certainly not a high-performance car. The automatic transmission and soft suspension make it respond more like a cruise ship. It is, after all, a car that was designed for comfort, not performance. With my son’s lead foot, he will average about 12 miles per gallon, and the engine requires premium fuel, which will seriously curtail his joy riding.

    There are more than 4,000 pounds of steel and four airbags wrapped around my son when he is driving, meaning that he will be able to drive through almost any fence, forest or guard rail and still be unharmed. Dad chose well.

    Tom Watkins lives in Montpelier. He can be reached at KeepItReal@21vt.us.

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