This Old Car

My ride doesn’t look so good these days.

My car was manufactured when I was in the fifth grade. At the time, Los Angeles still had two NFL teams, and Clinton had just been elected president. If this vehicle were a person, it would have its drivers’ license by now. And believe me, this baby-blue 1993 Toyota Camry is showing its age.

With 158,000 miles on the odometer, it’s youthful only by Toyota standards. (My first car was a 1996 Camry that my parents had already put through the wringer; it had 217,000 miles on the odometer when I totaled it in late 2005.) The Camry has no antenna — the result of an encounter with a renegade chunk of ice that broke free from the top of a tractor trailer on I-95 a few winters ago. The windshield washer fluid hose is loose, so I get a pitiful little trickle any time I try to clear my sightline.

The plastic casing on the emergency brake column has a gaping hole in its side, because I punched clean through it with my backpack and elbow one morning when I stumbled while climbing into the car. I really should cover that up with tape or something.

And that’s just the cosmetic stuff. In the two-plus years that I’ve had the car, I’ve probably spent close to $1,500 on repairs. The brakes have been overhauled, the engine had to be flushed after my oil cap went missing, the driver’s side power window went kaput (while in the “down” position, of course), and the brake light switch had to be replaced. That light switch apparently affected the automatic transmission, which explained why I spent a few frustrating weeks violently yanking on it every time I wanted to get out of park. Who knew?

In addition to these imperative tune-ups, I’ve also been putting off repairs to the struts and axles. At some point, the financial benefit of going without a monthly car payment will be outweighed by the increasingly frequent chunks that my mechanic is taking out of my checking account. We’re just about there.

Last month, I dropped my car off at the body shop to get the above-mentioned brake switch fixed. At the time, I didn’t know what was wrong with it, and the worst-case scenario would have been a major transmission problem. As I waited for the call from the mechanic, I prepared myself for an outsized estimate and planned my response. If this was a $500-or-greater problem, I was ready to wash my hands of my big blue automobile. I’ve saved enough money in recent months that a new car wouldn’t be out of the question, and I was sort of looking forward to driving something shiny and brand new for the first time in my life. Maybe I’d get a hybrid, with some bells and whistles and an engine that’s dead-silent when it’s idling. Oooooh.

Then I got the call. Just a brake switch. With the oil change, the total damage was only $130. The Camry would live to fight another day.

But it’s officially on notice.

Article © 2009 by Kevin Brotzman