Saturday, January 23, 2010

Automotive Reincarnation

On Jul 15, 2008, Nora Gallagher published a column in the Los Angeles Times entitled Ode to a Dead Volvo. (Don't look for it.) I just found the clipping while looking for something else through the pile of stuff on my desk. It was reminiscent of cars in our family. In the process of looking for a digital version of the article to email to our family, I discovered, with a sense of eery and ironic amusement, that Gallagher had slightly re-written and updated her original column with a new ending.

I thought I would post both versions of Ode to a Dead Volvo simultaneously:

He was a 1989 Volvo station wagon, silver gray, turbo. We bought him used, one owner, in 1995, for $12,000 and we were lucky. We had another Volvo at home, a snappy red 850 (1993) who had a kind of Viking joie de vivre, if Scandinavians can be said to have joy in life. We named her Freya. When we brought the station wagon home it was clear he was more patient, less a Viking than a modern Swede, a socialist perhaps, and so we named him Oskar.

Oskar was my car. The first time he and I went on a longish trip, it was from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles with a friend in heavy rain. We hit rush hour traffic on the Pasadena Freeway, an elderly roadway of narrow lanes and bad curves, and Oskar drove like a draft horse, pushing his chest through the squalls and the waves from trucks, mowing his way past drowned sports cars.

He was comfortable. His leather seats were high, and reclined, like Eames chairs. When I drove him north to San Francisco the first time with another friend, she said, “It’s like driving in a living room.”

Nothing ever went wrong with Oskar. A few small things had to be replaced: hoses, brake linings, a wiper. Regularly, our mechanic, Steve, who had an old dog that used to lie outside his garage on a large cushion, would pat Oskar’s hood and pronounce him “good.” I took him in for his 3,000-mile checks and thought he would last forever.

I killed him. In my busy life, I ignored the smell of oil for two days. I had a list of things I had to do the day of Oskar’s death and among them was not dropping him off at Steve’s. And so on the freeway, I heard a fluttering sound, as if a flag were inside Oskar’s hood, and looked out the rear view window to see black smoke blooming from his tail pipe. I pulled over, at the foot of an exit, but not soon enough.

After the AAA tow, Steve met with me over the body. “That engine got hot,” he said, and looked at me as if I had shot his dog. I felt I had, practically, done exactly that. This car, so patient, so reliable, so destined to last for over 200,000 miles had died an early death at 158,619 because of my neglect.

And then? What to do? I mean, the decision to buy another car is freighted. It’s not only new vs. used, and cute vs. practical, and what we can honestly afford vs. a lark, it’s gas mileage, gas mileage, gas mileage. And emissions, emissions, emissions. And maybe we should just rebuild the engine. It was cheaper than a new car and in some ways, made green sense: recycling is a virtue.

And so I am faced with ... a Prius? I know there are many who love them A friend wanted to sleep in hers the day she brought it home. I having known Oscar, cannot bring myself to love a car that crows about its technology: that TV screen that advertises its energy consumption, that rearview video camera and odd button-like shift. (And isn't there something a little preachy about them?) My Oscar was self-effacing.

Perhaps it's too early; I should mourn. A car is more than its technology, more than it gas mileage.It's all the places you went together, all the ways it served you and, finally, who it was.

We test drove a Prius. I know there are those who love them: a friend wanted to sleep in hers the night she brought it home. But, I wasn’t sure. The TV screen, the technology –- isn’t there something a little preachy about them? And, of course, the Toyota dealer wanted what was essentially a ransom for this one -- silver, with gray leather interior -- which was, unbelievably, available. People were waiting five months for a Prius and plunking down thousand dollar deposits, non-refundable. But it was soooo expensive. We decided no, we’d rebuild Oskar.

Then a friend called. My husband mentioned our decision. Our friend, an environmental consultant said, “You can’t do that.”


“You actually can’t do that. The emissions on a car that old are terrible. You gotta either buy the Prius or something made within the last three years.”

Damn. The rubber hit the road.

We bought her.

We love her.

We named her Lady Murasaki.

Happy endings! Gallagher's new version is better than her original stalemated one. But I'm glad she skipped some of the details and changed the names to protect the guilty!

And, too bad Gallagher missed out on Cash for Clunkers!


  1. Emily, I'm really glad Nora changed the names to protect the innocent!

  2. P.S. I tried to steal that great Obama pic Vigil but it wouldn't let me:-)

  3. My dad had a similar car when we were kids. This brings back lots of fond memories for me.

  4. Emily... I REALLY enjoyed this post... and learned something, like how a ride can feel "like driving a living room" and how a Queen of the Valkyries can find a happy consort like olde Oskar. Great post.