I'm proud to announce that after a year or more of dithering, equivocating, making excuses, procrastinating, and generally messing myself and others around, I've finally taken matters in hand and made what is quite possibly a gargantuan mistake.
I bought a car.
You likely expect me to say that what's left of said car is three dozen moldering boxes stacked around a bare frame. Or that it's actually a lovely thing that, upon further examination, needs a grueling and total mechanical restoration. Or that it's French.
No. Those are all magnificent mistakes. I'd get great stories out of them, plus maybe interesting scars and another volume added to my vast store of useless knowledge. But this particular car is as reliable as cars get. It's easy to work on and easy to get parts for. It's not loud or temperamental; it requires no special rituals in maintenance or starting. Its electronics are foolproof. It doesn't squeak, leak, strand you, parboil or freeze-dry you.
It's a 1999 Mazda Miata. And in terms of ownership trials, it's boring.
When I told Executive Editor Sam Smith about my new car, he was happy enough for me, but he furrowed every last hectare of his enormous brow and forbade me to write about it. "Can you find something new to say about it?" he said, with the attitude of a man who has (A) written about every car he's bought or sold since he started this job and (B) sent me into the field to crash for an article in this magazine four times now. "It's kind of a safe choice."
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True. There's an old writer's aphorism that every good story starts with disaster and leads to a climax. Starting with a wise decision and building to a sense of satisfaction isn't exactly Greek drama. Or, put another way, if conflict reveals character, what does this make me? Besides a guy who, if he's being honest, probably reveals too much of his character in the first place.
And should I care? There's a pervasive attitude in this hobby-slash-avocation that if you're not properly miserable, you haven't earned your good times. We seem to feel that the guys who have shed blood and sweat for their rides are somehow better. But this just seems like the greasy-handed version of the silly idea that artists have to suffer for their art. You really shouldn't have to do it the hard way, with every car you own, just to prove you're for real.
Make no mistake: The hard way works. A car—or a guitar or motorcycle or house or bicycle or rolltop desk—is somehow more yours once you've put your hands to it, and that goes for everything from a tune-up to a full restoration. The hard way can teach you methods of work, how to approach a problem, and patience, and it can deliver full satisfaction.
That's nice when it all has a happy ending and you eventually get a great car out of the process. But that sure as hell doesn't happen every time, and it doesn't fail to happen only when you're young and stupid. I've suffered through quite enough endless hours of fuel-air-spark-cripes-what-is-wrong-with-this-thing up to my elbows with both an air-cooled VW Beetle and a Honda CB360T, poured enough aggravation and mistakes into chasing potential with a BMW 2002, and spent enough money to get something almost the way I liked it just in time to sell it, with much of the rolling stock I've owned.
Whatever your hands find to do, said the wise man, do it with your whole heart. And after a while, my heart just wasn't in it. So I started buying cars to drive, not to work on. I want to go places, to take long trips and attack back roads and enjoy track days, not sit in my garage entwined in multimeters and creeping desperation.
It's not just me. No less a wrench than R&T's editor-in-chief, Larry Webster, a guy who compulsively dismantles everything he buys after taking it home, is keenly aware of the difference between work you want to do and work demanded of you. "After a couple years of owning a car, you just want to drive it," he said. "Working on cool suff you'd rather be driving is no more fun than working on your lawn tractor." Among other things, Larry has a nice Miata.
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It's a luxury, really, having the hours and the patience to have a terrible time with an interesting car. I look forward to the day when that's an option, when my stress level and responsibilities are low enough that I can go looking for interesting disasters. Maybe someday I'll have the freedom and money for the sort of Jaguars and longhood Porsches and hydraulically suspended Citroëns that make life worth writing about. I think I'd like that. Or instead, maybe I'll just date tattooed women who are smarter than I am and use harsh language.
Perhaps both, because I can do it all and keep the reliable, affordable, unremarkable, deeply enjoyable little car that I just picked up. As another wise man said of mistakes, I've made a few, but too few to mention. Luckily, there's always time to fix that.
John Krewson has most likely jinxed his Miata with this column.
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