I Can Walk Everywhere, But Still Love My Car

People are often surprised by my passionate attachment to my car, a champagne-colored, diesel-powered 1987 Mercedes Benz named Stan. Sometimes they’re surprised because I’m a girl (and they are sexist), or because I’m a vocal environmentalist. But mostly it’s because I live in downtown San Francisco. The fact that I live within walking distance of (most) everything awesome and still own a car confounds nearly everyone I meet.

I’d dreamed of a car like Stan most of my life, and five years ago, I found him in a Boston suburb for $3,000, cash. A family was unloading their patriarch’s estate, and I jumped at the chance to care for his ride and give it his name in memoriam. Since then, Stan the Mercedes has been up and down the eastern seaboard half a dozen times, locked in storage for several years while I lived overseas, and driven from Boston out to California last fall only days after he was dusted off. He’s a hell of a trusty ride.

When I moved to California, I made my personal journey of westward expansion in my favorite car—and when I arrived, I wanted to keep my wheels. I did, and that’s why, even in a neighborhood with a plethora of car-sharing options around, I have come to proudly defend the cost of car ownership. 

Since I bought Stan outright, my regular costs are cheap insurance and exorbitant parking. I have the cheapest insurance, ever. Because my father was an Army reservist, I have what is possibly the most coveted car insurance in the country. United Services Automobile Association (USAA) insurance coverage (plus myriad financial services) is only available to individuals and the families of those who have served in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. With every bill, I think, Thank you for your service. (Actually, no, I’m horrible and just think, Thank you for the cheapest insurance, ever.) I pay a mere $42 a month ($504 a year) for coverage. This does not include collision protection, because, though Stan may be a priceless treasure to me, he isn’t worth anything if he gets smashed up.

My cheap insurance is balanced out, however, by my massive parking costs. I pay $300 a month ($3,600 a year) to park Stan in a nearby public garage. Even if I could outsmart the hotel valets in my neighborhood and score a street spot, street parking rules around here mandate that you move your car every 72 hours. I decided to buy my way out of that inconvenience, and so, every time I want to drive somewhere, I make the 10-15 minute hike straight up Nob Hill, where I’m sure Stan is waiting for me, ticket-free.

To own my car, that’s $4,104 annually before fuel and maintenance gets factored in.

There is a Zipcar hub with 16 spots in the garage where I park Stan, and a few times I’ve wondered if that would be a smarter option. Here are the Zipcar rates for San Francisco:

The cars available under the Occasional Driving Plan start at $78/day for full-day rentals (weekends rates, including Fridays, jump to $94/day). There’s also a $60 annual fee and $25 application fee to consider. At those rates, it would cost $1,957 to take a Zipcar out for a full day twice a month— $2,341 if those days were both weekend days. It’s up to $3,829 if I rent a Zipcar for a full day once a week—$4,597 if my daily car day is a weekend day. These prices include some fuel (the first 180 miles per trip) and maintenance.

But here’s where it gets tricky. When I do take my car out, I take it out. When my best pals from Boston came out to visit last month, we took the car out several days in a row, driving down Highway 1 to Big Sur, over the Golden Gate to Muir Woods, and crossing the Bay Bridge to hit up the best eateries in Oakland. For those three days (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), we’d have paid $252 for all-day Zipcar rental, plus extra for mileage if we did more than 180 miles/day. On the day we drove to Big Sur, which is 300 miles roundtrip with absolutely no detours, we would have paid an extra $54. That one-day Zipcar rental would have cost at least $148, or more than a third of the $342 monthly for Stan.

And that’s when I stopped doing the math. I take my car out at least a few times a month. This weekend I put 350 miles on it. And maybe I don’t actually come out ahead of my car-sharing friends, but that’s okay. By keeping my car, I get all the perks of private ownership—my personal assortment of maps and supplies in the backseat, trunk, and glove box; my own music selection and radio pre-sets—and never have to wonder if a car will be available or how much I’ll spend to borrow it. And of course, most of my car-less friends don’t hesitate to hit me up for a ride. Not that I mind. In fact, I kind of love it.


Brittany Shoot wants to join a car club. She never tweets and drives.


15 Comments / Post A Comment

bgprincipessa (#699)

1987?! Okay, my 1999 VW Jetta just officially died on me as of last week, and so I gave in and signed up for Zipcar. I haven’t tried it out yet, but what an appropriately planned post. I am wary about the cost per hour, but I got a good deal where I paid no app or membership fee via Groupon, so I’m hoping it works out. The cost of replacing the transmission on my car probably made this deal pay for itself….

Bill Fostex (#573)

Brittany, is that a 300D? I have a ’83 240D with 223K miles and I plan on driving it until it dies (which, if the Good Lord is willing, will be decades from now), no matter how impractical or expensive the ownership is. I’ve never formed an attachment to an object like I have to my old diesel Benz.

shoot (#1,281)

@Bill Fostex Sure is! I also have never had the same attachment to an object. Yours has got to be gorgeous, that year and model. What color? I seriously want to join the local Mercedes car club, except it’ll be young weirdo me and old dudes in soft-brim Hard Rock caps and glossy windbreakers, talking about their newer models and their golf games. Awkward.

If you want another object to further your obsession, put the (out of print) book Enduring Passion on your list. My sweetie got it for me last year. It ranks as one of the most perfect, gorgeous, thoughtful gifts I have ever received. It’s also hella expensive and hard to find. Godspeed.

samsei (#947)

@shoot I have an ’84 300 TD, dark blue and rust, over here in Oakland that I plan on driving for at least the next ten years. I have to spend a few hundred bucks a year getting something fixed at my awesome Mercedes repair place (James Auto Repair of Emeryville) and my USAA insurance is $131 a year. Are you running yours on biodiesel?

shoot (#1,281)

@samsei Noice! Yeah, I hope to keep Stan for another five years minimum, but we haven’t even hit 200k miles, so maybe we can cruise for another decade or more at this rate. I’m not currently running biodiesel, but now that I live in the Bay Area, it seems sort of silly not to convert it. (Was planning to let some guy in Boston named Pony do it, but that never really panned out. Also, a guy named Pony.) My mechanic is Ed at Ed’s Autohaus if you ever need a guy in the city. Reasonable (but high in general b/c it’s SF) rates and so incredibly nice. Has great memory, great staff, and great pitbull, which seems like the requisite list for a solid mechanic.

Also, Carmine at European Car Doctors in Boston if anyone here is looking for a Beantown rec. He got Stan ready to drive cross-country in two days flat, and that was after Stan had been in storage for three years. I can’t say enough good things about my mechanics. Team Stan is bicoastal.

Bill Fostex (#573)

Yes, it’s mighty pretty, @shoot. The color was billed as “sunshine yellow” when I bought it from the previous owner, which is apt, but I don’t know if that’s the official designation. And get this: it has all maintenance records since Day 1, and a complete gas log from 1983 to 2006 (the third owner slacked on that). For every single time the tank was filled over the course of 23 years, there’s an entry in this little, weathered book along with a description like “Weekend at Margaret’s in La Jolla.” I should probably revive the log. And yeah, stay away from the car club. Only losers buy expensive Mercedes.

shoot (#1,281)

@Bill Fostex OMFG I am so jealous of that log! What an amazing little treasure. You should definitely bring it back. Kind of makes me want to start my own now. (But I also want to start a hipster car club now too, so…) I have all of those original booklets about the various switches and gears. They’re quite lovely.

I have a friend who just bought a ’79 Ferrari (obviously, he had a windfall) and even he loves my ride. You know you’re doing something right when other car people are into your style.

Maven (#402)

I too have been dreaming of an old diesel Mercedes beast and lurking around on craigslist thinking about buying one. I have a car–you pretty much need one in Minneapolis unless you live very centrally and have a predictable schedule/routes–but I want to run an 80s Mercedes on biodiesel. Sighhhh, someday.

Bill Fostex (#573)

@Maven, check out this amazing thing and all of its Italian Catholic accoutrements: http://germancarsforsaleblog.com/1964-mercedes-220se-leichenwagen-hearse-in-italy/. That’s what you really need.

camanda (#132)

I live in an area where I need a car (rural-suburban southern New England), so there’s no agonizing about whether or not I should have one, but I don’t at the moment and it’s killing me and your attachment to Stan may have made me slightly moist-eyed thinking about my late lamented ’94 Saab 900S. I loved that car and it’s been gone two months now and it huuuuurts. And it didn’t even have air conditioning or cupholders! I just loved it.

Also, I’m sharing with my parents at the moment so I can get to work, so I hear you on being able to have your own music, collection of supplies, etc. I’m on the hunt for another car (this is a topic I probably should’ve written The Billfold about already) and I can’t wait to stop sharing cars. Worst thing ever.

Ya know, I’m just working on a post right now about the true cost of owning a car! Even as a one car household (http://eemusings.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/the-art-of-the-one-car-household/) car ownership is a squeeze.

mathison (#1,306)

k sorry, but I have to call bs on this one. I just don’t think your car-less comparison costs are reasonable.
1) It doesn’t seem likely that you’d need a car once a week, given your description of where you live.
2) When you did need a car for errands or other short-term use, you probably wouldn’t be paying Zipcar’s daily rate (which *is* super expensive). You’d just reserve the Zipcar for the few hours you needed to run your errands.
3) For long trips (weekend or more), a regular rental car is usually considerably cheaper than Zipcar. A quick search on Kayak shows rental cars for $40 / day this weekend in SF.

I’m not hardcore anti-car over here (have one, in LA; lived without in New York, NJ, and Berkeley). Even in cities with great public transit, cars give you some extra freedom and convenience for sure. And your car sounds awesome! But if you’re going to look at straight-up cost comparison, I think you have to assume you’d be a smart no-car consumer.

ThatWench (#269)

@mathison Don’t know how much points 1 & 2 apply to her lifestyle (they would apply to mine/ours, except for my works-in-the-suburbs partner), but definitely agree on point 3! When she was talking about driving her friends all over the place, I kept thinking “rental, not zip! rental, not zip!”

ThatWench (#269)

I think the very end of your post brings up an important point about urban car-sharing: the organic, social kind. I’ve never had a driver’s license, and having friends with cars is definitely part of what has made that doable.

I assume your friends – both local and visiting – offer to “chip in for gas”? Have you considered either formally tracking how that influences costs, or considered formalizing that relationship with your friends further? By all accounts, you aren’t necessarily the type of person who would be comfortable letting others drive your car, but I could see an arrangement like, “$20 for my car keys for the day so you can go to ikea” or “I’m totally free to drive you to ikea that day; can you pay for the $20 tank of gas/parking bill?”

@ThatWench Car ownership among my friend group is kind of low, so there’s a lot of carpooling. Unless we’re actually going out of town, we usually don’t chip in. That said, most everyone has fairly small, very economical vehicles.

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