I have many fond memories of my 11-year-old mini-van, like the time we dragged our then-teenagers 2,000 miles across the country to the parking lot of the Grand Canyon, and they refused to get out and walk the last 25 yards to look over the edge. But lately I’ve been visiting car dealerships, test-driving potential new vehicles better suited for the kinds of trips I’ll be taking in the future, like hauling friends to use our 50-percent-off Groupon vouchers at the cataract clinic, or taking our monthly road trip to Canada for discount prescription drugs.
My new vehicle will be nothing like my first, a 1961 Ford Econoline van that I bought for $300 in Northern California in the 70s. The Ford barely ran, but that was OK, since I was living in it and as long as the doors opened and closed, and the roof didn’t leak too badly, it was still very useful. The great thing about this van was that you could do repairs on it yourself, which I did almost constantly, and the engine was located right in the cab, between the driver and passenger’s seats, so when the heater didn’t work, which was most of the time, you could put a pan of water on the engine cover and take a nice steam bath while you drove.
Back then, there were no seatbelts or airbags; in fact, I don’t even think this van had a padded dashboard. But the worst non-safety feature was that the brakes didn’t always work. It’s one thing to own a car that won’t go, but there aren’t many people who last for long in a car that won’t stop, so the first thing I did after I bought it was enroll in a class on brake repair at the Junior College. I figured that if I got nothing else out of the class, I’d get a free brake job, and though I wasn’t that adept at car mechanics, I made friends with enough motorhead classmates that I got critical help with many other repairs, as well.
On the new cars I’ve been looking at, it costs $300 just to buy floor mats. The accessory packages cost as much as an entire new car did 40 years ago.
People think they live in their cars, and that’s how they justify all the exorbitant prices for Bluetooth, hands-free cell phone calling, satellite radio, heated seats, DVD players, and food warming ovens, but I really did live in my car, and the most important features were a clear six-foot length of space to lay down my sleeping bag, and a good set of curtains over the windows so the neighbors couldn’t see when I was asleep inside. I was rudely awakened on more than one morning by a new neighbor who didn’t take kindly to the fact that I had moved my mini-mobile home to the street in front of his house. It turns out you don’t need a built-in digital alarm clock when someone starts rocking your van back and forth at six in the morning and pounding on it with a metal garbage can lid.
Fortunately, with the money I saved on rent, I was able to make my van run reliably (although still very slowly) and parked somewhere different each night so as not to arouse as much antipathy from local residents. I took saunas while I was driving, and showers at the college. I ate foods you didn’t need to cook, or ones I could heat up on my engine cover. Eventually, I wound up living with some other college students who I kept picking up hitchhiking. This worked out well for all of us. They let me sleep on their couches, and I gave them rides to school.
Eventually, I sold the van to a band named Scot Free for a bag of granola and a couple of books of food stamps. I can’t help but think it wound up having its final breakdown on some hippie commune where it’s still being used as a chicken coop or a shrine to Ganesha, the Hindu God of broken transmissions.
The cars I’ve been test driving lately have seats that are more comfortable than any chair I have in my house, with 10-way adjustments that make them totally align to any driver’s form. The moon roofs let in a nicely filtered light and pleasant breeze. The climate controls can be set so that the driver is basking under palm trees in the Sahara, while the passenger kayaks through the fjords of Norway. Meanwhile in the back seat, the kids can be surfing the Internet or assembling robots in China. In the way-back area, the dog can do yoga poses or rehearse for the Hollywood musical he’s set to star in.
On the roof, there’s a rack for your canoe and dogsled, as well as a solar array you can use to power the optional fruit and vegetable dryer. The onboard digital assistant tells you where to go for lunch and who to be seen with if you ever want to get your TV screenplay produced. She also recommends the best barber, manicurist, masseuse, and tax attorney and calls to arrange appointments to see them, all while you’re waiting for the light to turn green.
Instead of a 10-way adjustable seat, my ’61 Econoline had 10 different ways you could adjust yourself in the seat so the springs wouldn’t be poking up your ass. Instead of a moon roof, it had enough rust that you could see the stars. Instead of a DVD player, you could watch out the windows as the neighbors came to pound on the van at six a.m. because they didn’t want a dirty hippie sleeping on the curb in front of their suburban home. Hey, I wanted to live in a nice neighborhood as much as they did!