The make is not important. The age of the vehicle, its history, its original conception and design, radical alterations made purposefully or by accident–none of these are necessarily important. The only qualification is, simply, that the car be a piece of shit.
It doesn’t have to be a Ford. My Ford P.O.S. is a Mazda. And let me also say, up front, that I love my car, and admit that there’s an inherent amount of privilege in complaining about your car in the first place. But not complaining because some people have it worse is like not being happy because some people have it better. So let’s proceed from a comfortable middle ground, in which a little kvetching is allowed and a little humility is assumed.
So back to Little Blue. That’s my car’s name. I was in high school when I got it, and played in a basement rock band with some other dudes who also named their cars after colors. (Red Ranger is the only one I can remember.) This was pre-P.O.S. diagnosis, when the styling was contemporary, the trunk smelled normal, and if I took my hands off the steering wheel the car would travel in a straight line.
Flash forward to the present. The odometer sports six figures, the trunk smells like camping (without showers), and the engine occasionally makes a noise like a rusty dumbwaiter free-falling a hundred stories. A friend of mine, who lives three houses down, recently told me that she heard me driving somewhere. Meaning that she was at her desk, inside her home, and heard a piercing squeal resound through the neighborhood, and deduced that I had turned the key in my ignition. Incidentally, this friend drives a Honda non-POS, but is allergic to sugar, so it’s okay if she roasts my ride. Same goes for another neighborhood acquaintance; this gentleman has good-naturedly texted me to “shut that fakakta car up,” but his own vehicle has what looks like a wad of human hair hanging from the tailpipe, which is less audibly disturbing than a loud engine, but more psychologically so. One more friend, who also lives nearby, owns an automobile (Toyota POS) that she refers to as her “garbage car.” She is very tolerant.
It may not be entirely due to coincidence that my friend group is heavy on shitty car owners. First, many of these people are writers. Second, and more importantly, I think there is something spiritually beneficial about owning/operating a POS. In fact, I have a hard time trusting people who have never driven a crappy car. Being mortified by one’s wheels, preferably at a vulnerable time in one’s life, is an important part of becoming a capable and compassionate adult. If, as a teenager, you went on dates in an Aston Martin Vanquish, said dates will have been different in tenor than if you had hobbled through them in a Buick LeSabre. To put a finer point on it: if you make a joke in the driver’s seat of a dark puce LeSabre that smells like cat litter and lacks a rear bumper, and your date in the passenger seat laughs, it’s because the joke is funny. But if you make a joke in a car that has been driven on film by James Bond, and retails for about the same as a newish three-bedroom house in Reno, your date’s laughter may or may not be indicative of the quality of your humor.
The first clutch of dates I went on, I borrowed my aunt’s ’91 Protege. It had gold paint, cracked trim, and rims that belonged on a Power Wheels. The seatbelt receiver was broken in such a way that the car could not detect whether the driver had buckled up, and so the cabin always beeped. Always. You could get around this by pulling the belt out as far as it would go–I just held the excess in one hand and drove with the other. Harder to deal with was some kind of severely distressed engine belt that, anytime the car moved in reverse, screeched like a woodland sprite being crushed between two megaphones.
Nor was I alone in this field. Brian S. drove, basically, a homemade monster truck, and between thirty and forty-five miles per hour it featured what he called the “death rattle,” which felt like sitting inside a pneumatic paint shaker. Case W.’s truck was equally terrifying, because it was such a piece that he used it like a monster truck, in back alleys and empty fields, inventing vehicular parkour a few years before we heard of normal parkour.
John K. possessed–this was my favorite–a vehicle that might actually have been a small tugboat with wheels stuck underneath, painted to look like a mid-eighties Cutlass. I rode it in occasionally, which was great, and drove it once, which was terrifying. Little Rock gets snow infrequently enough that most sleds are devices of opportunity–at least in my youth they were–and I have used upside-down card tables and garbage can lids to pilot down icy slopes. That’s how John’s car handled.
Other than the Protege, I spent the wonder years logging miles in a Pontiac minivan and a Subaru station wagon, the latter of which had this fun, built-in game where you could play fetch with the hubcaps, if you happened to notice them rolling into the yards of houses you were driving past. But you’ve got to get to school, you’ve got to get to work, and at a certain point, you’ve got to get over it. And besides, that kind of humiliation is good for a teenager. Ideally, it will inspire/force you to shore up the other aspects of your presentation. If your ride is repulsive, your shirt better be clean. If it sounds like a trash compactor, you better have interesting anecdotes to tell. It’s like being 6′ 0″ in the NBA. You can do it, but you have to hustle.
So let’s not ignore the benefits of the estimable junker. The POS made me what I am, and its lessons are just as valuable for the youth of today. If you find yourself saddled with a set of wheels somewhat less glamorous than the ones you think about while standing in line for a Powerball ticket, fret not. You are building character.
Sweet, sweet character.