Archive for June 3rd, 2008

Borrowed Time

The local Irvings (the top gas outlet in Maine) is selling regular unleaded at $4.039 a gallon. Filling an 18 gallon tank thus costs over $70. To lock in heating oil for the winter right now is $4.89 (so I’m not locking in yet). While we can afford it by cutting back other unnecessary expenses, there are people now who are facing major life decisions because they have a long commute, they can’t afford to heat their house, or their jobs are in danger. Even options such as geothermal energy, usually seen as unviable in Maine because of cool ground temperatures, are getting renewed interest thanks to new technologies.

But what about the car? I feel lucky to have lived my life in the age of the automobile. Yes, it has polluted the planet, led to countless traffic deaths and created numerous problems we’re dealing with now, but the lifestyle it provided was fun. My first car was a 1963 Chevy Bel Aire I got when I was 16 years old from my Grandma for $100. My friend Dan and I used to drive our cars (his was a 1966 Nova) at high speeds over a raised railroad section on a gravel road outside of town. We’d get airborn and the key was to land and keep going straight. I got up to 60 MPH. He had his car taken away before he could beat that record. The next year, at age 17, we both realized how crazy we’d been the year before. But it was fun. Now that part of Sioux Falls is all built up, instead of fields and a gravel road it has schools and stores.

As children we didn’t have any car seats. The point of a station wagen was to have kids play in the back, and I recall (despite my mom’s yelling at us to sit down) standing in the back of the convertible as we headed out to the lake when I was 5 or 6. What a life! I feel a twinge of guilt when I buckle my kids into car seats. Yeah, it’s safe, but somehow they’re missing out on something.

After my transmission and engine failed on my Bel Aire (I’d love to have another light green 1963 Bel Aire!) for reasons that were pretty obvious (but which I never shared with my parents) I got to drive around with my mom’s 1973 Bonneville convertible. 455 8 cylinder engine, we’d cruise town and taunt cars full of bigger meaner kids to chase us, and we’d always lose them. We knew where the tricky curves were and I was usually the driver, adept at weaving in and out of traffic. Unbelievably, we never got pulled over. Alas, I would joke that the car’s mileage wasn’t measured in miles per gallons but gallons per mile. It was the last of the pre-oil crisis cars, and at best got 4 or 5 MPG. My mom sold it long ago, but she says it’s still around, used now for parades back in South Dakota.

Perhaps my favorite was a 1970 Olds Tornado, again an 8 cylinder 455 engine, front wheel drive, and FUN. I was 18 by that time and a bit more reserved in my driving, but heading out to Rapid City to watch the state basketball tournament, armed with a fuzz buster and CB radio, we averaged about 120 – 130 MPH on I-90 (a very straight and sparsely traveled interstate). Made record time Sioux Falls to Rapid, but my car broke down once we got there. It got fixed, but later a lady came out of the driveway and smashed into it, totaling the car. I got a check for its value ($900), but never again would have such a fun car. My next one was a Dodge from the early 60s with push button transmission and a weak engine.

I’ve also been at the other extreme. From 1990 to 1994 I was getting around 50 MPG on the highway, driving not a hybrid but a little red Geo Metro. In 1990 I purchased a brand new Geo Metro after getting a job teaching a course at St. Olaf College for a professor who was on global semester. I had been going by foot, bike and bus in Minneapolis where I was a graduate student, but to get to Northfield I needed a car. I sold that first Metro in the fall of 1991 before heading to Germany for a year, but bought a used version of the same car — red again — when I returned. From experience I know it’s possible for car makers to provide very fuel efficient cars! I wonder if GM wishes they were still churning those things out!

Are we at the end of the automobile age? On the one had, there is no alternative, so cars will be around for awhile. My son’s favorite movie is Cars and both boys have more matchbox and hot wheels cars than they know what to do with (but still each want the exact same one at the same time). I still go car by car through Consumer Reports every year when they have their ratings, looking at what is new, redesigned or dumped. The rise of hybrids and electric cars, as well as the inevitable shift in emphasis to gas mileage means that for some time the automobile industry will adapt.

Still, the automobile age seems to be slipping away. There was a kind of innocence that’s been lost. No worries about pollution or wasting gas when you went outside of town to watch a street race, or go cruising the loop downtown for hours. In those days drinking a beer while driving was common, and when pulled over often the police would simply tell you to pour it out rather than charge a serious offense like today.

To be sure, I didn’t drive until after the first energy crisis, and already things were changing. We had the 55 MPH speed limit for a while, a friends parents’ bought this interesting little car called the Honda Civic (I had thought Honda only made motorcycles). But in a world with no internet, it was still the age of the Automobile.

Back in 1980 a Styx song had the lyric “we were so cool back in ’65, we had it made because we understood what to do to survive, I had my car and I made the scene, didn’t give a damn about no gasoline oh no, they can go to hell.” The song’s refrain “living high, living fine on borrowed time” aptly describes that age — the wild, fun, wasteful and polluting 20th century age of the automobile. It was an illusion, borrowed time until we would have to face the facts of global warming and diminishing oil supplies. But damn, it sure was fun.

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