Thursday, November 16, 2006

End of an era

It came into our lives as a four year old car. It had been owned by an elderly Welsh couple who came here after the war, had a family and built lives here and decided in their seventies to sell all their worldly possessions and move back "home" to Wales. They sold everything they had, and I think the car was one of the last things they had left to sell. Even though I met them only briefly they struck me as one of those cute old couples who seemed hopelessly bright eyed, still looking at each other like teenagers. They embarked on the adventure back home. We ended up buying their fridge, chainsaw and wheelbarrow as well.

Walter and Grace kept it spotlessly clean, stored it in their (heated, I think) garage where they kept it locked. They had records of every oil change, every time a warning light came on, and I'm sure it was cleaner than most new cars when we bought it. It had remarkably low mileage on it for its age. We even received Christmas cards from Walter and Grace from Wales for years afterward. They wrote about how much Wales had changed since they left, how they missed Canada but not our winters, and how they were enjoying their new life there.

Seven years later, the Christmas cards were still coming, but were now just from Grace - Walter had died of a stroke leaving her a widow. I remember the sadness from that card. I think we made a donation in his honour, but I'm not sure. A couple of years after that card we stopped getting Christmas cards at all from Grace, and ours were being sent back. We never knew what happened.

The car we bought from Walter and Grace was a 1988 Chev Corsica - it was a replacement car for our 1979 Datsun (If you're guessing about now that we weren't exactly wealthy you'd be right. By the time I was 6 I could remember driving two cars to the wreckers.) when it finally bit the dust. The Datsun was a putrid 1970s diarrhea brown and I'd be lying if I were to say I was sad to see it go. Even the most devil-may-care tween girl would be mortified to be seen in that car, and I was both devil-may-car and mortified to be seen in it. I think the Corsica was the newest car we'd ever owned.

Coming to our house must've been a shock for that car - Walter and Grace would never have approved of us storing it outside in the winter, exposing it to salted roads, and, in two short years, me driving it.

I mostly learned to drive in a car known as the Death Star (my parents' 1992 Grand Marquis, which is approximately the size of a planet when you're learning to parallel park), but since it was the secondary car in the family, I often got to borrow the Corsica for toodles around town. It was so much easier to manoeuvre than the Death Star, which felt like you were steering a ship, spinning the wheel to turn slightly to the right.

The Corsica was the car I excitedly drove to pick up my high school friends from the GO station when they came home from university on weekends. It was my ride to work at my crappy high school jobs. It shuddered uncontrollably if you went faster than 120 km/h. It was my first taste of freedom that went faster than my bike.

In 1998 and 1999 after my first and second year of university I had full run of the Corsica for the summer. Every day I drove 40 minutes each way up the highway for a job titled "summer project supervisor" that paid $8 an hour. For two summers I drove it 80 minutes a day, five days a week. It was my first grown-up-like job, and the Corsica was my ticket to freedom that summer. I got to know exactly when I should pull out or wait for traffic to go by, and exactly what it could do that summer.

It had its quirks, and one was particularly dangerous. If you had a quarter tank of gas or less and you were turning left, there was a very good chance the engine would stall on you completely mid-turn. This included several times turning onto a highway from a dead stop, with oncoming traffic barreling toward me at highway speeds, and yelling "SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT" as I slapped the gear shift into neutral, turned the key, and slapped it into drive as fast as I could. I would have thought I'd earned a few grey hairs from those experiences alone but since I make Dave check daily he assures me that, as yet, there are none.

One time on the way home from work the battery light came on, and I knew instinctively it was the alternator. Being at least 20 minutes away, I called my parents, and our mechanic who told me to keep driving, and that I should even have enough time to stop, deposit my paycheque at the bank, and drive over to Steve's shop so long as I didn't turn off the car. He was right, and I was right to guess the alternator. I guess that's one thing I've been good at is car diagnosis, since every car we've owned has required some major parts overhaul or another. My sister and I even pushed it home a block once.

A few years later my parents decided it was destined to be an "in town only" car, staying off the major highways, but it continued to sputter along largely without incident. It started getting age spots of rust that Walter and Grace would never approve of, and the bottom of the wheel wells started rusting away. I think it was one of the few Corsicas that didn't end up with a disastrous paint job, clear coat flaking off and bubbling. Its steel grey colour hid the fact that it was dirty most of the time.

It survived a neighbour's kid backing into the door causing $600 damage. The neighbours never owned up to it even after we pointed out it had to have been someone backing out of THEIR driveway and it was exactly the right height for their bumper. It survived a low speed slide into the curb in on black ice, and came through alright.

It had a simple speedometer and gas guage were the only thing on the instrument panel. I could spin the radio dial to hit all my favourite stations without even looking and spin back to the song I liked. The wipers were a dial on the dash, the high beams were a click forward, the lights an on-off button on the dash. It was great in the snow in winter, gripped well with its front wheel drive, and any spin-outs I had never ended in disaster. There were times I wished the windows were automatic, but it was so good on gas I couldn't complain.

We've been going to the same mechanic as far back as I can remember. If I came home from university and called Steve, he'd recognize my voice and tell me what was wrong with the cars or how long they'd take to be done without me introducing myself.

I drove it a few weeks ago when Dave and I went to visit, and still love driving it. Sure it's got lots more road noise, and felt so different from my car but I still had a good deal of affection for it.

Last week my parents called Steve to ask if it was worth having the Corsica emissions tested, and whether it was worth it to buy a sticker to put it on the road for another year. The news this time was grim. While the engine was still in good shape, evidently that was about the only thing that was; the rest of the body and parts wouldn't last a year.

My parents took the plates off it today, and took the "Corsica" decal off the side of it. The decal now sits with the decals from other cars we've driven into the ground - a Cordoba (pronounced Coooooorrrrrr-doe-baaaaa! with your 'r's rolled in our house), a nissan one from the yellow rusted out station wagon, a buick sticker from my mum's car when I was little, and the datsun as well. They're the cars from my childhood, but this was the car of my independence. My brain turns to anthropomorphizing, wondering if the Corsica is sitting at the side of the road, feeling naked without license plates and wondering why it wasn't worth fixing anymore.

I'm sad to see it go, but after 18 years and 14 with us, it owed us nothing.


TB said...

Wow! I don't know many people who have that kind of personal history with a car. I'm surprised all never named it.

The Waghorns said...

awww, what a sweet story. I remember when my dad's volvo was on the verge of tripping 500, 000 clicks we took a drive until it finally turned.

I think he was prouder that day than the day I graduated from University.

elaine said...

It was truly a great little car, and now that I think about it, was in our family for most of my life.

Like you it was my first taste of freedom. So many memories of just driving around with my high school friends, the alternator dying on me and me managing to coast home a whole km home! (finished up by the two of us pushing it home), the time the brake line failed on me as I was going down a hill to an intersection where the cars ahead of me were stopped at a red (scary, no fender bender though), the first time the car stalled going left with less than a 1/4 tank of gas (and the many time thereafter that it did that), how the face plate around the radio would always fall off and land around the shift stick.

I'll miss the Corisca.

Heather said...

tb: It was always the "little car" or "little beast," no clever monikers here. (occasionally Stalley McStallerson)

the waghorns: Not sure any of our cars tripped 500,000 - but I still remember being three and starting my dad's car because the starter had blown too many times so it started with a switch.

Elaine: It totally was there most of your life. gah! I'll miss it too.