A Car Passed Down, A Father Pays it Forward

I’d been sitting the waiting area of the Somewhere Upstate, N.Y. Volvo dealership for almost an hour, watching the Weather Channel on repeat and awaiting the diagnosis on my car, when I remembered I should call my dad. Because technically, as far as the actual registration goes, it is his car.

“Nobody is telling me what’s wrong and I still have another five hours to drive and the car is probably toast and I’m never going to get home,” I said as soon as he picked up.

“These things take time to figure out,” my dad said, the kind of reassuring words that only dads can conjure. “They’re gonna have to run through all the codes and see what’s going on. Where are you?”

The HD screen zapped back to Local on the 8s, and I triangulated my position from the compass rose of cartoon suns and dots on the map.

“Albany?” It seemed right. “Far away. And I’m really, really hungry.” This had nothing to do with the car, but a lot to do with my feelings of desperation, and was made worse by the fact that the last screen on my iPhone before I dialed him was a maps search for “Chipotle” and now all I could think about was eating my weight in guacamole.

“Remember what I told you about when I was 23 and driving to Chicago? The water pump blew, I had to stay overnight and spend money I didn’t have.”


“So, you’re fine. We will pay for this. This is not the end of the world.”

My parents gave me a car, but it’s not like that. Really.

A month before my senior year of college, I talked my parents into a bargain: If I applied for and got a scholarship for choral singers, they would let me “spend” the $2,000 on their spare car and take it to Chicago with me.

But “spare car” is actually kind of misleading. My family has never been poor, but we also don’t have things like automobiles just lying around for the taking. With my sister and I both in college and the era of station wagons was finally at an end, the family fleet of vehicles consisted of a second-hand Mini Cooper (midlife-crisis-mobile #1), a Volkswagon Westfalia campervan, complete with pop-up mattress, refrigerator and two-burner stove (midlife-crisis-mobile #2), and a 1992 Volvo 240 sedan. The 240 was intended to be a learner car for my 19-year-old sister to drive in, since the Mini is a stick shift and the Westy is about as easy to handle as the Mystery Machine. But she left for another year at Vassar without a license, and the empty nest was now too full of cars.

The scholarship bargain ended up being a non-issue, since my sightreading sucked and I didn’t get picked for the prize. But my parents, for whatever reason, decided I could still have the car if I paid them $50 a month and covered gas myself. They would still pay for insurance and AAA. It was way cheaper than Zipcar, and a way better deal than I deserved, so I took it. Two weeks later, I was cruising back to Chicago in “my” “new” car.

The thing about car problems is that they always happen when you need to go somewhere, and in the year that followed, I would call AAA five times. The first time, I twisted the key to find the car utterly, totally, stone-dead when I needed to get to the airport to go to a wedding (and also had to drive afriend who needed to get to the airport to get to a funeral). We took a cab, and upon my return two days later, AAA installed a new battery and told me to turn off my lights when I parked. My parents covered it.

The second time I called AAA was from the parking lot of a Medieval Times restaurant in Schaumburg, Ill., almost an hour away from where I lived. It was my twenty-second birthday party, my designated driver snapped off the 240’s key right in the lock, and the castle was closing. I was a little drunk, a little hysterical, and wearing a paper crown in a downpour. Towing was included, and my parents told me not to worry and FedEx-ed me the spare key.

The third time, a damp March morning, the 240 wheezed and sputtered and refused to start when I was already late to volunteer at the Farmers’ Market. Naturally, after my shift had come and gone and the AAA guy finally arrived, the car started just fine for him. When I brought it home, my dad bought it a new alternator so that it would start in the rain again.

The fourth and final time was a week ago, in the parking lot of Supermarché PA in downtown Montreal, where I now live. The car wasn’t starting and the AAA number wasn’t working and the sign on the wall said 45 MINUTE MAX. I bargained with the scrawny attendant and some nice Canadian interrupted my hyperventilation to give my the number for Canadian AAA (AKA CAA). I burned up long-distance minutes to get a tow truck and call my dad, who told me not to worry for maybe the ten millionth time in my life. The tow-truck driver, in violation of what I think is the law in Quebec, did not speak English. And even though I do talk pretty one day and am often mistaken in Francophone countries for a native speaker (though they always think I’m Belgian?), I know all of no car-related vocabulary.

“It’s not lighting up,” I explained. “I use the key and the little fireworks go on inside behind the roll but then the motor, he? she? is dead. I think it’s because there is something that should be dry inside but now is not dry.”

The following week I was going to have to drive the car back to Philadelphia. I imagined a terrible five days of pidgin negotiations over repairs, wondering what the French word for “alternator” was and if the repairs were going to max out the limit on my student credit card and if I could live with myself if I had to beg my parents for more money for this stupid thing that I thought I was adult enough to bring with me to a foreign country and maintain like an actual, post-graduation grownup.

The car started just fine for the CAA guy, of course. I said thank you, in French, and then swore a blue streak, also in French, which earned me two nods of appreciation as he handed me a pen to sign his clipboard.

A week later, I hit the road for home. A week and two hours later, somewhere in the middle of New York state, the “Check Engine” light flared up.

In a world of half-dome Priuses and perky-faced Jettas, the 240’s boxy snout and ginormous trunk make it stick out, literally and figuratively. It’s not sexy. It’s not cool. You’ll never see it topped with a jumbo-sized ribbon and rolling up to a Super Sweet Sixteen. My fellow 22-year-olds who save up their own money for used cars would probably choose something that’s more appreciably younger than we are.

But people love it—I’ve had everyone from customs officials to ambulance drivers to a French-Canadian hippie couple whose yurt I was renting fuss over how groovy it is—and I love it, too, but for different reasons.

A car is freedom and responsibility indivisibly bound into a single, expensive object. The ability to tool around Chicago for a school year’s worth of weekends, the option to take a day trip to go apple-picking out in the sticks, the feeling of self-reliance that comes from driving yourself eight hours into a foreign country to live by yourself: These are invaluable and priceless, and not just because I didn’t have to pay for them. Every AAA call was another lesson in crisis management, another toddling step towards adulthood, another chance to internalize the sound of my dad saying “It will be okay” because one day I will have to pay for my own car, talk myself through every breakdown and fender-bender and miss my parents like crazy.

At my grandfather’s 80th birthday party this summer, my dad read a letter that he wrote home after he got his water pump fixed and made it to Chicago for his first job after college. The letter thanked his mom and dad for the support and the money they’d given him, for the car they had bought him, and told them he wouldn’t forget it.

“One day, I hope to do this for my own kids,” he read.

By the time the cake came out, I was crying.

The repair bill for the engine was $168. The burrito and chips were $14. The tank of gas was $51. I got home 11 hours after I started. My dad said he would cover everything, then gave me a hug and a promise I could sleep in the next day before we got back in the Volvo to drive another three out to meet my mom for her mother’s funeral.

I’ve developed an automatic kind of guilt about the things my parents buy me, whether it’s a food processor for Christmas or 17 straight years of private education. Their governing philosophy has always been that their parents did it for them and I’ll do it for my kids, but I know how much writers (don’t) make and I worry that I’ll never be able to equal them in their generosity.

I still owe them $1250 in installments for the 240, but I will pay it off. They gave me a good deal because they knew I would learn to appreciate not just the car but them; not just as my parents, but as someone else’s children.


Blair Thornburgh lives in The North.


17 Comments / Post A Comment

Reassuring dad words: “Call the police. I am 5 hours away. They can get to you a lot faster than I can.”

iffie (#1,911)

The best dads always pass down old Volvos.

juksie (#2,048)

@iffie my ’87 740 and i totally agree.

Drea (#325)

My dad isn’t much for words, but when I bought a car, he was the one with me when I test drove it. When I bought my second car (a manual, which I didn’t know how to drive), he was the one I talked pros and cons with, and the one who actually test drove it, and drove it home. When that car broke down, he was the one who fixed it, and when I finally sold that car as a junker, he was my first call.

this was lovely and you are very lucky. some parents don’t have the “reassuring words” chip.

sony_b (#225)

I drove TWO of my dad’s ’84 240s (he liked them, had three for the family, all white, all four door, bought used), one was a loaner when I was a teenager (which then went to my little sister), and another in my 20s when my car died and I bought his from him. Loved those cars. I solved the towing issue by working as a dispatcher for AAA. Tows whenever I needed them!

I just got rid of my ’94 Pontiac Sunbird that my parents gave to me when my grandfather finally admitted he couldn’t drive anymore. Man, that car was the best. It was like a tank, it just powered through snow, gravel roads, whatever, and never broke down on me. I bought a new car this spring when I finally admitted the mold was getting to be a bit much. I figured the dealer who took it on trade-in would scrap it, but the 17 year old who works at the flower shop drives it now. I was so so glad when I saw it was getting a new life.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

“The tow-truck driver, in violation of what I think is the law in Quebec, did not speak English.”

Either I’m missing the sarcasm or the author hasn’t been in Quebec for very long. Really cool story, and really cool cars! I briefly owned an ’81 242 – it’s one of two cars that I was able to sell for more than I paid for it.

wearitcounts (#772)

blair you are a beautiful writer and it sounds like you have an amazing family.

logan you are The Best at tags.

florabora (#123)

This made me slightly emotional

Titania (#489)

Aww my high school best friend had that same car! She was the first one to get her drivers license, and we spent hours in that thing. It was an unattractive shade of blue, covered in Grateful Dead stickers, and we loved it madly and gathered at her house in protest when her dad finally announced he was getting rid of it.

Also, sending this to my dad, who has bailed me out (particularly in car-related matters) more times than I could ever hope to deserve or repay or pay forward or anything, really.

Caddy@twitter (#1,711)

My old late 80’s Volvo 760 had the same non-start problem that was magically fixed as soon as someone else came to look at it. The first few times I called my parents or asked someone else around if they could help, but after getting help and having them think I was an idiot because it worked fine when they tried, eventually I learned that if I waited 10 minutes (or 30), it would change its mind and turn on with no problem.

I’m prone to car trouble and I always call my dad. My favorite thing he says, car problem or any other problem, is something along the lines of: “Did anyone die? Was anyone hurt? No? Ok then, little problem. There are big problems and there are little problems and this one is little, so don’t worry.”

It makes me feel better every time.

So because I’m feeling a bit weepy this evening, your nice article had me a bit misty eyed.

This article is just really exciting to me, because I drive a ’92 Volvo 240 station wagon! His name is Lord Volvomort, and every time I see another old 240 out in the wild, I feel like I have a special bond with it’s driver.

whimseywisp (#220)

This article makes me so happy. I’ve had so many conversations with my dad that sounded a lot like yours :). I shared this article with him. Thank you.

Amazing stuff, whenever you are in car related trouble, use this site to find car keys

harpist (#6,850)

I hope dad had that car insured before he passed it down. You can get a free auto insurance quote online, just to have an idea. Also, having your own parking place is the best thing to have when you live in a busy city.

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