Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From the Archives - Farewell, ‘84 Volvo


A year ago today I drove my beloved ’84 Volvo to a wrecking yard to be utterly destroyed (in exchange for $650 that Alameda County paid me to get my “gross polluter” off the road). To commemorate this anniversary I am posting here my farewell letter for the car (that I’d sent around as my holiday newsletter that year). But first, here is a movie I made at the Goodbye Volvo party that morning:

Farewell, ’84 Volvo - December 23, 2008

I’m going to share with you a long goodbye to the only car I’ve ever owned.

For awhile it seemed the car would live forever, a position emphatically held by our stellar Volvo mechanic. But alas, after more than a decade of solid service the car began to deteriorate rapidly, such that our program of maintenance came to seem like one of hospice. A shocking turn of events this past June led us to finally replace our beloved car. What follows is a eulogy of sorts, in the form of a timeline of the car’s life, told in fond memories.

AD 1984 – Our car, a grey Volvo 240GL wagon, is born in Gothenburg, Sweden. Over the next twelve years, it has at least one owner, perhaps several—who knows? Eventually it is sold to an independent used Volvo shop in Richmond, California where it becomes the errand vehicle during its Corduroy-like wait to be given a good home.

February 16, 1996 – We haven’t had a car in two years (since Erin had a company car), but Erin now needs a car for her new job. She meets our mechanic for the first time, and purchases our Volvo from his shop for $3,994.45 ($3,500 plus the tax, smog, license, registration, etc.). Mileage: 206,000 (with a newly rebuilt engine).

February 20, 1996 – My second time driving the Volvo. Erin is fighting a flu, and—after a terrible hour-long commute in the dark and rain from Fremont to San Francisco—doesn’t feel like driving around looking for a parking spot. I head to Hyde Street, a grade so fiendishly steep that most people won’t park there. Using a driveway to turn around, I stall the car. I sit there trying to crank the engine, with a chorus of angry honking cars piling up behind me. I decide to try roll-starting the car. I roll backwards down the hill, in the rain, in the dark, and did I mention on one of the steepest hills on planet earth? Soon enough I have a good head of speed, and I pop the clutch. The car dry-heaves, but I get nothing out of it. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I am losing vacuum pressure in the power brakes, and they began to get harder and harder to apply. (No engine means no power brakes; as a freshly minted motorist, I don’t understand any of this at the time. I simply assume things are taking on the semblance of a nightmare, the one where your car is rolling toward a precipice and you can’t brake hard enough to stop it.) Now I’m starting to get closer to Bay Street, a major thoroughfare; after that, open ocean. I’m not dead yet, but I’m fairly hurtling down the street with an occasional heave as I pop the clutch. Suddenly I spot a gap between two cars: if I can just get the car pulled in there, I’ll be saved! Miraculously, I end up perfectly parked, two inches from the curb. Lessons learned: 1) this car has a loose ignition wire; and, 2) this car is easy to parallel-park because it’s got a really tight turning circle.

October 20, 1996 – An airport shuttle van backs into our Volvo at an intersection. The driver tries to claim Erin rear-ended him. Witnesses scare him into submission. $987.48 in damages.

November 30, 1997 – A huge pickup truck backs into our Volvo at a gas station. Because the driver starts his trajectory from at least fifty feet away, I watch in horror as the disaster unfolds before me. I don’t have time to start the engine and back up, but I have time to honk the horn, which gets the attention of the gas station cashier, who becomes our star witness. The driver tries to weasel out of paying for the repair, and I eventually have to call his insurance company directly. Why do these jerks have it in for the grille of our innocent car?

February 15, 1998 – As of the two-year mark, the car has been costing us six cents a mile to operate. We have virtually no problems until a ski trip with Kari, Erin’s friend from the newspaper. On the way back from a ski resort near Truckee, we get stuck in a horrible blizzard, and the windshield wipers go out. I have to drive along with my window down, manually dragging the left wiper across the windshield, the car sliding all over the road. Kari seems certain that we are all going to die. The blizzard closes the highway and we have to get a motel in nearby Reno. When we have finally returned to the Bay Area, Kari affectionately dubs our car “the PLP” (from its license plate, 3PLP090), and to this day she looks back fondly on our shared ordeal, as one would a mining shaft cave-in we survived together.

February 27 thru March 6, 1999 – The PLP, parked on Lombard Street at Hyde, won’t start, despite my attempts to roll-start it, jump-start it, and charge the battery. I put in a new battery but it still won’t start. So I decide to just leave the car for awhile and at some point have it towed to the shop in Richmond. The following Friday, walking home from dinner, Erin and I decide to visit the car. Imagine our surprise when it’s gone! Turns out it’s been towed because a TV crew was filming “Nash Bridges,” and it’s actually illegal to park on the street where a TV crew is filming, even if you were there first. So I have to go to the police impound lot, pay a ticket, and pay for the towing and storage of the car ($275). But I can’t get the car out, even after dinking with some fuses and attempting another roll-start. I end up getting a tow truck driver there to tow the car to his shop for $70 in cash. I don’t actually have the money, so our mechanic spots me, in the process unknowingly achieving legendary status with the Albert family. He discovers that when I installed the new battery I neglected to attach some secondary cable to the positive post. He shakes his head in disbelief at my cluelessness, but doesn’t charge me for the repair—the black comedy of my utter humiliation is more than adequate compensation for his work, at least this time.

September, 1999 – Erin and I drive the PLP to Moab, Utah for vacation. The car performs very well—in fact, we make remarkably good time. On the way back, we’re pulled over in Nevada. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop asks. I tell him, “Frankly, no, officer.” My speedometer said 100, and since the odometer has always read 30% high (I know this from watching mile markers), I’d always figured 100 was actually 70, the legal speed limit. I explain this. “I clocked you at 85,” he says. “Well, then, I’d say my speedometer is only 15% high, officer. My mistake.” He writes me up for 80 mph—a misdemeanor in Nevada, with no insurance repercussions—and dings me $40. A small price to pay, after 3½ years of unbeknownst speeding.

August 17, 2001 – We drive the PLP to Sacramento to Erin’s friend Melissa’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Erin, more than eight months pregnant, is suffering in the terrible heat because our A/C isn’t working (never did). We arrive drenched in sweat, Erin’s face bright red, her damp, limp hair plastered to her forehead, a stark contrast to her cool, perfumed friends in their crisp dresses. As these friends worry aloud about Erin’s health and safety, and we think about all their shiny, late-model cars in the lot outside, we feel like sheepish martyrs to a liberal Berkeley Volvo-belt ideology. We take to bringing a spray bottle in the car for summer trips to Sacramento, to spray the mist directly into the vents.

September 9, 2001 – Alexa Coral Albert, age two days, is taken home from the hospital in the Volvo. Unlike my brother Bryan’s first child, who started bawling upon seeing the ‘67 Dodge Coronet she’d be riding home in, Alexa has no response to this first indication of the kind of family she’s been born into. Erin and I are unable to believe that Alexa is actually coming to live with us, that we’re not just having her over for a visit before returning her to the experts at Alta Bates hospital.

January 27, 2002 – Two weeks after Erin has returned to work after maternity leave, we take a day trip to Sacramento to visit her family. That night on the way home, Alexa starts screaming, for no apparent reason, and then suddenly three terrible things happen at once: Erin says, “Oh [drat]!”; the oil light of the car comes on; and the PLP loses all power and—in a crazy parody of sports car marketing claims—goes from 60 to zero in 2.9 seconds, grinding to a halt on a narrow median between I-80 and an on-ramp. Erin tries in vain to restart the car. We wait for a break in traffic and I push the car over to the shoulder. As we wait for the CHP to notice us, we realize Alexa is running a fever—her first childhood illness. Eventually a towing guy happens upon us. Erin and Alexa ride in the tow truck cab while I ride illegally in the PLP, and he drops us off at Erin’s grandma’s house. The towing guy agrees to tow the car all the way to Richmond and drop it off at the shop. The next day, Erin’s mom drives us home, where Alexa’s fever hits 101. I call our mechanic and ask if my car got there, fearing the towing guy has dumped it off the side of the road somewhere, or sold it to a moneyed, insane person with a fetish for ancient Volvos. To my surprise, he replies, “It’s fixed!” So: AAA roadside assistance (including tip): $20. New timing belt, oil change, and smog: $303.96. Our mechanic: priceless.

Oct 31, 2003 – Lindsay Reese Albert, age two days, is taken home from the hospital in the PLP.

Summer 2004 – My boss and a colleague mount a campaign to get me to replace my car. “I know you can afford it,” my boss says. This campaign will continue for four more years.

Dec 26, 2004 – Our family gets caught in the snow driving back from Oregon. Lighted signs declare that drivers must use tire chains. I pull onto the shoulder and screw with our chains for awhile. The instructions are gone. The chains seem much, much too short. Given the needlessness of chains here—the snow is melting upon impact with the road—I become too angry to continue my effort. I get back in the car and drive on until I find a tire chain professional. He spends a good 20-30 minutes fighting with the chains, during which time he has me pull forward and then roll back dozens of times. He finally finishes, and I breath a sigh of relief that I didn’t gas him or run him over. Now the car drives like hell, tires thumping every revolution—WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Five miles from Yreka, the starboard chain burns up in the atmosphere and leaves the car. A couple of miles later, the left chain breaks and wraps around axle—my worst fear realized. I stop in town and buy a pair of bolt cutters, and drive to a garage. Their jacks are broken, but the mechanic lets me pull under his overhang to get out of the snow. I’m terribly claustrophobic, but have no choice but to crawl under the car on my back to cut the chains off. The car continuously drools black water into my eyes and ears, and I fight off the panic of my claustrophobia, but from the first successful snap of a link I know motivation is not going to be a problem. God that feels good, hurting the tire chain. I have to have that feeling again! It’s a rare thing to commit vandalism and effect a repair at the same time. Again and again I open the jaws, hunt around for a good bite, and crush them shut. I come up for a break. My t-shirt is soaked, my arms and hands filthy, my numb fingers cut up from dragging on the undercarriage of the car. I spit filth from my mouth and wipe it from my eyes and then get back to work. Finally I finish the heinous job and we’re back on the road. Twenty miles later, chains are required again, but I ignore the sign. We drive the rest of the way home without chains, among the careening cars and occasional accidents. Total duration of the 330-mile drive: fourteen hours.

Summer 2005 – On my way out to the PLP with Alexa, I see a baby squirrel fall out of the tree overhead, and it lands with a terrible thud on the roof of the car and bounces to the ground. As its mother races down the tree trunk after its precious child, our cat Misha comes out of nowhere and sprints towards it. Erin catches the cat while I investigate the baby squirrel. It is obviously suffering terribly and won’t make it. “Alexa, look the other way!” I yell, before smashing the baby squirrel to death with a rock in front of its horrified mother. A bad omen for our car?

July, 2006 – I spend a couple of weeks in France without Erin or the kids, and Alexa, who’s five, decides I must not be coming back. Remembering how highly Erin had praised our Volvo mechanic, Alexa suggests that she marry him, to replace me.

April 11, 2008 – Our last big road trip in the PLP, to Colorado during spring break. Having barely made it over Vail Pass during a blizzard on the way out, we decide to take I-80 home, which is the northern route, through Wyoming. Here, we come upon a stretch of highway where howling winds blow snow across the road in places, and the traffic polishes it to ice. Caught off-guard by a semi, I fail to spot a patch of black ice and we go into a terrible fishtail at 60 mph. Back and forth the PLP slides, and though I feel I’m on the verge of regaining control, I can’t quite right the car. Most of my brain is focused on trying to stop the sliding, but small part is saying “I’m about to crash this car at high speed!” and another part is saying, “At least this is a big safe Volvo!” Finally I give up and ditch the car off the side into the median, where we sink so deep into the snow that it comes up to our doors.

We wait for an hour and a half for a tow truck, while a stream of big rigs whiz past us, seemingly mere inches from our car. So much snow and slush is flung at us, the car gets sheathed in two inches of ice and comes to resemble a giant grimy grey Popsicle, or an artifact encased in filthy grey amber. Finally we’re towed back onto the road, and we continue our trip through a series of micro-blizzards. Through it all, and for the rest of the trip home, the PLP performs like a champ and attains hero status with the kids.

June 11, 2008 – Midway through Alexa’s end-of-school party at a park near our house, I run home to grab something and discover that a teenager has just plowed into the PLP with her parents’ car. The Volvo’s rear passenger door is caved in, and the exhaust pipe and muffler are on the ground. For the next several weeks I fight with the driver’s insurance company’s Total Loss Department, going through three useless (but stubborn) reps before finally prevailing and rescuing the Volvo from the salvage yard. Our mechanic fixes the car for $680 (some $5,000 less than the insurance estimate), but the used replacement door doesn’t match that well, and the remaining body damage—guaranteed to rust—begins the official countdown to the end of the PLP’s life.

June 15, 2008 – Erin calls Kari (the friend who’d been trapped in the blizzard with us in ‘98) and tells her the bad news about the PLP. Erin neglects to mention that I was hit by a car on my bike the day before, ending up in the ER with a separated shoulder and broken elbow. Kari is very upset about the car.

November 12, 2008 – Erin volunteers to drive two of Alexa’s classmates on a school field trip. One of the kids complains, “Your car smells like gas”—and she’s right, the whole cabin is engulfed in fumes. Erin is mortified, imagining how she would explain this to the girls’ parents (“At least the car didn’t explode or anything.… ”). Our mechanic discovers that the gas tank aperture has been damaged by a fuel thief. (The PLP’s gas has been stolen at least three times; in one case we found, beside the car, a short piece of hose and a pile of vomit from a poorly executed siphoning operation.) Our mechanic fixes the problem as best he can without replacing a bunch of parts, as we’re determined not to put any more money into the car.

December 7, 2008 – On a Christmas-tree-cutting trip to Sebastopol, the PLP performs just fine until about four blocks from home, when the cabin again fills up with gas fumes. We must now officially doom the car, and we begin shopping for a replacement. When Alexa catches wind of this, she begins weeping, protesting that she doesn’t want any other car, ever. Lindsay joins in the wailing protest. We promise them a “Goodbye Volvo” party, which only partly assuages their grief.

December 17, 2008 – We procure a replacement car (another used Volvo wagon), and the PLP is officially retired. We decide to junk our old friend through a local air quality buyback program. Total mileage: 375,166. Adjusting for the inaccurate odometer, we’ve put about 120,000 miles on the car in the last 13 years, and have spent $11,336 on repairs, which works out to $0.095 per mile driven. Total operational costs—fuel, insurance, repairs, registration, parking tags, smog, everything but the car itself—total $20,112.10 ($0.168 per mile, less than a third of the $0.505 per mile IRS mileage-reimbursement rate).

February 9, 2009 – I drive the car to Deal Auto Wrecking to be destroyed. The car still drives just fine. It starts up on the first try (though I’ve been charging the battery all morning, an extension cord snaked across the sidewalk in front of the house). Sure, the engine is loud, drowning out the radio, which croaks from the last blown speaker whose wiring is still intact. The seat isn’t that comfortable, the adjustment knob having broken off some months ago, but the car’s acceleration is smooth, the ride solid. As I approach the wrecking yard, I consciously enjoy my last-ever double-clutch.

1 comment:

  1. Dana, thanks for this fun trip down memory lane. I would have to admit, I think your Volvo surpassed even the mighty Cor (our Dodge Coronet sedan) in its legendary service and faithfulness to you.

    In a way, it's a shame that you have moved from the uncertain and exciting cowboy world of the old car to the mundane but consistent world of the reliable new car. You were so good at living that cutting edge life, where your thoughts on a road trip are consumed with whether you'll even make it to your destination, not whether you'll make it in time to beat the rush hour. Or contemplating what you'll do if the latest broken thing acts up, or if your "ultimate set of tools" has everything you need to perform a roadside repair. No one really wants the kind of trial an old car can present in his life, but he sure feels good when he comes out the other end, scathed but alive. I find myself unable to resist shifting "Little Car" (our 87 Toyota) without the clutch, just in case the mechanism should ever fail again.

    The Volvo was a great car. For example, it's not many a car that two grown men, camping before the Death Ride, who have forgotten sleeping bags, can comfortably sleep in. (If really, really cold is comfortable, that is.) There was more room in the back of that car than in most tents. You probably could have put a futon back there.

    Anyway, I hope that your new Volvo gives as many decades of service as your old one did!