1 It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Your First Car | The Billfold

It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Your First Car

The other day, I drove my first car for the last time. It was a short trip, but an oddly pleasant one. I pulled out of a street-side parking space and turned left down an adjacent residential road. There, I executed a three-point turn and brought the car slowly onto the down-turned platform of a flatbed truck. I put the car in neutral, cranked the emergency brake up, and said goodbye.

The two-minute drive was the least stressful we’d had together in a long time. For the last year or so, the car regularly convulsed at red lights, trembling slightly, then lurching back and forth. More than once, I had to kill the engine for fear of something exploding underneath the hood. This time, there were no red lights; there was no idling at all. Had I driven even a few additional blocks, it would have overheated. Smoke would have billowed up from underneath the hood, and it would have looked like the car, a 1995 Acura Legend, was running on coal power. But for those two minutes, there was none of that. There was only my car getting me where I needed to go.

When I say I drove my car for the last time, I mean that my car will never be driven again by anybody. It has a blown head gasket. (A head gasket is what prevents coolant and oil from leaking into the engine’s cylinders.) Fluids pouring into the engine have damaged it to the point of no sane return. In other words, the car would be more expensive to repair than it’s actually worth. My mechanic—his shop is actually called My Mechanic—all but refused to fix it. Replacing the gasket itself would cost about $1,500. And that would only be an appetizer to the ensuing main course of engine damage. For context, the Kelley Blue Book Value on the Legend in “fair condition” was $2,781. What about cars in poor condition? “Kelley Blue Book does not provide values for cars that meet this criteria.” 

This was a long time coming. In the last two years, I’ve spent about a thousand dollars repairing cylinders, brakes, and other assorted parts. Meanwhile, much has been left in semi-intentional disrepair. The bumper was only about three-fourths attached. The driver-side window hadn’t shut properly since 2007; when I took the car over 40, air would stream in and whistle in my ear. Much of this is typical of Acura Legends, I’ve learned recently. They drive great, but their engines are set in such a way that makes them difficult to access, and costly to repair. Thousands upon thousands of words have been written in online forums about the regularity with which they blow their head gaskets.

I should say that this was typical of Acura Legends. The model no longer exists. Legends were sold in the United States between 1986, the year I was born, and 1995, the year my car was born. Around this time, Acura executives reportedly discovered that the Legend model had better name recognition than the company itself. In 1996, the Legend was rebranded the Acura 3.5RL—the car’s name turning out to be too apt for its own good. The 3.5 of today looks nothing like the Legend from which it evolved, and that’s the way it should be. I took pleasure in driving a car that was no longer made, that despite being an entirely nondescript white, four-door sedan, was also, in its own way, a relic. The name Legend only added to this mystique.

On the inside, the Legend was a luxury car with all the trappings a mid-nineties consumer could want, including a six-cd changer in the trunk. But the six-cd changer hasn’t worked since I was in high school—and it was in the trunk. The lone cup holder quit ejecting from its hiding place in the center console years ago. Hell, at this moment the center console is probably no longer attached to anything. The car has likely already been taken apart, piece by piece, in a salvage yard somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, a reality that, the more I think about, the more I like. My car will never be anybody else’s. In the back of my head, I think I always knew it would end this way. After all, 11 years ago, this was the car I learned to drive in. Of all the possessions I owned, it was the one I owned the longest.

When I first started writing this, I imagined a sort of comprehensive accounting of all the places my car has driven. It would have started in Los Angeles, ended in Seattle. In between would have been Dixon, Illinois and George, Washington, and Boise City, Oklahoma. But that would have been boring. A car is a car. You might have kissed a girl in it, but you also sat in traffic driving to Santa Monica to get allergy shots. You might have grown to love it, but it was still a pain in the ass, right up to the end.

Even getting rid of the Legend was hard—not emotionally but logistically. The kinds of people who buy broken down cars for a fair price are flaky, lowball you, and miss appointments for three consecutive days—but the kinds who come on time and have 1-800 numbers lowball you even worse, won’t negotiate a dime, and only want to smash them up into scrap metal anyway. I found myself haggling over the phone with guys named Mike and Frankie over a matters of just a few bucks. They’d list off all the parts of the car, and I’d have to be ready to explain, in detail, what was right and wrong about them. I learned more about the Legend in death than I ever did in life. When I finally sold it for $500, I felt like I was mostly just getting paid for the hours it took to finally consummate the deal.

I’m from Southern California. There, a car can be a sort of home in itself. You spend hours in it, often doing nothing. Everything you see is curated by its windows, curated by the roads you take it over. Saying goodbye to a car is like saying goodbye to an entire way of seeing the world. I’ll never sit at precisely that angle again. I’ll never look through a mirror quite the same way. I’ll never drive around for two years with a pair of all-white New Balances, a size too small, molding away in my trunk. I’ll never squeegee the condensation off of the inside of a windshield because so much water has leaked into the car’s frame that the defogger has been rendered useless. On the bus, on the sidewalk, even in my girlfriend’s car, I’m already seeing things differently. I guess that’s how you know it’s over.


Eric Nusbaum lives in Seattle. He writes about sports at Pitchers & Poets and The Classical, and has also written for Deadspin, Slate, and various other publications. His thoughts on Jeopardy contestants and Subway menu items can be found @ericnus, and his clips, etc. can be found at his website. Photo: flickr/fotosleuth 


16 Comments / Post A Comment

Cary (#667)

Damn, Eric. If anything you’ve ever written was gonna make me cry…

This evoked a lot of memories of my first car, a 1984 Honda Prelude that had previously belonged to my grandfather (who, long since legally blind, had not driven it in years). It had amazingly low mileage when he gave it to me in the 90s, but after years of commuting to school and work it also finally died of a broken head gasket, smoking like it was on fire on a 100+ degree day in July. Like your Legend, it was worth far less than the repairs would have cost. It also had so many idiosyncratic faults that, even if it were repairable for some sensible figure, it was probably worth scrapping anyway.

When it finally died I asked my dad if he could call around to all the local places that would take in donated cars for tax breaks. He did this a little too efficiently and the car was gone before I returned from a weekend out of town. He had not noticed the aftermarket stereo equipment I’d installed and not yet had a chance to remove. Oh well.

Arran@twitter (#670)

@sorry your heinous I had a 1984 Prelude! Inherited it from my brother, who had inherited it from my aunt. It had pop-up headlights and everything. Rapidly turned to shit quickly, of course. It was almost 20 years old when I had it. Still. Memories.

@Arran@twitter The pop-up headlights were the best and it performed surprisingly well for such an old car. Felt bad for anyone that had to sit in the back, though. They’d almost be more comfortable in the trunk. Memories is right!

I was heartbroken to get rid of my first car, a 96 Mercury Sable whose interior passenger door panel would frequently fall off (most notably on the way to junior prom, when my 15-year-old date was forced to roll the window down and slam the door shut from the outside while trying to hold the panel on). My best friend’s family had the same car, same color, and it made me love them even more. I drove it to college, to a million shows, to a new life in Chicago (where I got more parking tickets than I knew what to do with), back east where I belong. I upgraded to a Camry with a sunroof and a cd player when I got my first real grown up job three years ago, and even my old college boss was sorry to see the Sable go because it had taken me so many places.

I handed it down to my brother, and it crapped out on him after just six months. He was mostly upset that he’d spent all that time scraping off dozens of bumper stickers and only got to drive her for half a year. I was sorry to see her junked, but glad I’d bought a new (used) car on my terms instead of frantically shopping because I needed to get to work/concerts/life. But if I could get another Sable like that I would.

Mike Dang (#2)

The car I had to say goodbye to was a red ’91 Mustang. My folks cashed it in during the Cash for Clunkers program because it was sitting idle in their driveway while I lived my life in NYC. I was devastated. Newsweek wrote about it.

selyse (#497)

I “traded in” my broken down 2000 Ford Focus wagon for a shiny, new-to-me 2009 VW Tiguan just a few months ago. It took a long time to justify a car payment (I work from home and don’t really drive that much) but it’s a totally reasonable amount for my salary and I can not even express the joy of ownership that I feel every time I see my car. I feel a little guilty, shallow and materialistic to be so excited about it, but I am! I can roll down my windows with the touch of a button! I can hear my radio! I can accelerate on a hill! I can drive medium range distances without fear of breaking down! I’m not even going to get started on my seat warmers. All this and more is mine, mine, mine.

OhMarie (#299)

Awwwww I am about to say goodbye to the first car I ever actually owned, my Mazda Protege. Pooor guy has 180,000 miles on him and has really been a trooper. I am thinking about just replacing it with the most similar Mazda I can scrounge up.

petejayhawk (#674)

My first car, an ’85 Accord with upwards of 250,000 miles has likely been dead for at least 13 years now. But my SECOND car…my second car was a 1993 Saturn SL2 that had previously belonged to my father. When it was bequeathed to me in 1998, it had 215,000 miles on it (ON A FIVE-YEAR OLD CAR). After my freshman year of college, the transmission went out. I sold it for $1000 to an acquaintance. He then put a new transmission in it and drove it for the next five years until graduating from law school in 2004.

Two years ago, I was visiting the town where I attended college (Lawrence, KS, obviously). I pulled into a gas station…NEXT TO MY OLD SATURN. It still had the KU sticker in the back and the strange dent in the front right fender where my father, distracted by his cellular bag phone, had rear-ended a delivery van in 1995.


petejayhawk (#674)

@petejayhawk (I have owned 14 cars since then. You get over the attachment, kids.)

Sloane (#675)

Last month, I had to say goodbye to my 1996 Honda Accord wagon.

It had no paint left on it (I’ve learned that taking care of the paint job is an actual thing); the power windows didn’t work; the trunk wouldn’t stay open (crashed on my head a couple of times); the driver’s window leaked air and squealed when I drove on the highway because one of the times it was broken into (of the 4 or so), the window was broken, and they just don’t seal up when you replace the window; the power locks didn’t work (another time it was broken into, the locks were broken); the car made a lot of noise from a broken control arm.

But I loved that car. Fiercely. I paid cash for it to buy it used when I was first out of college, drove it all the way through law school and for too many years after. And saying goodbye was really sad.

But moving on to my BMW was pretty sweet.

omitofo (#676)

My 88′ white Volvo sedan named Thor was my pride and joy from the years 2001-2004, may she rest in peace with heavenly father

nonvolleyball (#305)

I didn’t get to run it into the ground (my parents traded it in while I was a sophomore in college), but I still have fond memories of my ’92 Ford Taurus named Cleo. its odometer only had five dials, so when it hit 100,000 miles, it reset to zero, & I got to enjoy saying “my car only had 15 miles on it!” etc.

it also had a weird thing where the keys would sometimes fall out of the ignition while the car was running, & you could usually turn the car on without a key in the ignition at all (there was a metal thing the key fit into, & you turned that)–but that would never work twice in a row. it also had a keypad that you’d use to get into the outside door, so I lived in fear of driving somewhere, realizing that I didn’t actually have my keys, & then not being able to get home.

A lovely tribute. On my last drive in my ’92 Suzuki Swift, I realized that I would never smell that car again–fortunately, it didn’t smell bad, just had a smell particular to that car. When I bought it used, it had a bunch of hay in the back (?!) and it never quite lost that farm-fresh smell. I’m glad I let it go, but I miss it too.

omgkitties (#206)

Getting to this way late but had to chime in to say that that, as a fellow Southern Californian, I feel you. I still have my first car (going on 13 years) and plan to be buried it (jk! maybe?) but did have to get a daily driver a few years back.

ujas2134 (#4,045)

I still have my first car and I won`t sell it because it reminds me of a lot of beautiful moments from my life. The last month I installed dealer decals on it and now it looks great, I drive it very rare, several times a month, but I get so much pleasure by driving my first car.

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