The first thing you need to know is that I just made up the idea of taking a blogging break and calling it a Saint Joseph’s Retreat. Why did I call it that? Because Jesus’s foster father wasn’t very chatty, see? The man was a worker bee who either didn’t say much, or else everything he did say was unprintable. Most prefer the former description, but no one really knows for sure.
The second thing you need to know is that my Saint Joseph’s Retreat is over. You don’t announce these sort of things before hand. You just do them. And for four years of blogging, I’ve rarely taken a break. But something happened that was important enough for me to push myself away from the urge to micro-manage Pope Francis, worry about the state of the Church, wax poetic about the Communion of Saints, stay focused on the HHS Mandate fight, tilt at internet windmills, etc.
What happened was a boy became a man, and that man needed a car.
He had gotten his first “earning a paycheck” job back in November. At that time I told him that if he saved up $1500, I’d match him in order to help him buy a used car. All was quiet for a month or so. But as his 18th birthday hove into view, I started getting e-mails of listings from Craigslist, and such like. These listings showed two types of vehicles: used SUV’s with 250,000+ miles on them, and used Mustangs. Eventually the tired-from-the-journey four wheel drive listings stopped coming, but not the pony car ones.
What does any of this have to do with being Catholic? Nothing, particularly. Feel free to stop reading now if you’re not into fathers, and sons, and cars. All I knew was that I couldn’t help my son find a decent pair of wheels unless I used what little spare time I had to help him pursue the same.
So a Saint Joseph’s Retreat for me, it was.
We started concentrating on Mustangs because I know them inside and out, and they are one of his favorite cars. Also, we only looked at the V-8 powered ones with manual transmissions, because he was raised right. At his price entry point, we were looking at 1998 models and older.
Let me make a little Dad observation here, if I may. One of the neatest things about our search over this past month has been the fact that, though I’m usually ignored (like most parents of teenagers are), when it comes to car talk, my son has been all ears. It’s like he’s 6 or 7 years old again, and by that I mean he listens intently to every. single. word. I. say. At least while we’ve been test driving cars, talking about cars, car insurance, costs, reliability, bargains, rip-offs, etc. It’s been a very good thing for him, AND for me. It’s nice to be reminded that our children need us, and that we won’t always be the adults speaking in muted trumpetese like they do in a Peanuts cartoon. Peppermint Patty demonstrates,
We started looking for cars, with a $3,ooo ceiling on the price. What we learned is that there are an awful lot of Mustangs that have been used and abused. Many are ready for the glue factory, and usually the reason why is because they haven’t been well taken care of.
There was the red 1995 convertible (with a leaky top) whose’s emergency brake light stayed on constantly (though the brake didn’t work), that ambled down the road, seemingly wandering wherever it wanted to go regardless of the inputs you made with the steering wheel. I scratched that one off the list before even letting my son look at her. It burned oil too, which screamed “valve job.” So the motor was most likely thrashed anyway. At least it had a Windsor motor, though with dumped mufflers it was both smoky AND annoyingly loud.
Then there was the white ’97 coupe, which in photographs looked great. But in person? Well, all it took was a cursory glance under the hood to know that things were dicey. Having torn down and rebuilt the motor in my own Mustang, I know that errant wires coming out of the radiator fan area is not a good sign that a pony has been fed and watered correctly. During the test drive the clutch was making the sounds that announced that it’s death was imminent. On top of that, the drivers side door trim piece was broken, so it slid around when you were trying to close the door. Did I mention that the windows were tinted so darkly that it felt like you were driving in a tunnel? And another inoperable parking brake? The windows were rare manual ones, though, so that was a plus.
And so it went. Each time after looking at a car, I’d let my son drive the Evergreen Mustang that you see in the banner photo above. Night and day differences are less startling. It was around this time when my son started getting disgusted with how folks treat their cars. I used the opportunity to tell him that there are folks who use cars, and folks who love cars. It’s just like there are folks who love people, or those who use them as objects. It’s an analogy that’s pretty simple, and doesn’t need a lot of words to explain, right?
Then my son thought he had struck gold when a listing for a 1998 Mustang Cobra convertible popped up for $4500. Uh-huh, it was out of his price range, but the car looked great, and should have been more like $10,000. I warned him that it sounded too good to be true, and to be prepared for disappointment.
It was at this time that I said a prayer about our search. It wasn’t a “please Lord let this be the car” prayer. Instead I asked God to please show us the car that he wanted my son to have. It wasn’t me asking for him to give us a sign, or anything, but simply a petition with a purpose.
I did a background check on the Cobra and determined that she was a 1997 model, not 1998 as claimed. Uh-oh. I learned that early in her service life that she had been wrecked, and had a “repaired” title (which is better than a salvage title, but not by much). She was located about an hour away from us, so we had plenty to think about while we headed to the test drive over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. I had noticed a button missing on the steering wheel in the photographs, and a funky airbag cover on the steering wheel, which signaled a blown airbag. But what worried me most was the homemade looking flex-duct that was downstream of the throttle body. Let me just say that these cars are computer controlled, thus they don’t cotton to shade tree gimmickry like this.
God gave us a sign that this wasn’t the car for my son in the following way: by letting it strand us in the parking lot of a food processing plant during the test drive. I had taken the wheel first, driving it for about 10 minutes, saw the plant parking lot and figured it was a good place to check if the top went up and down, the windows worked, check under the hood, you know, give her the once over. All was well until I turned her off, and she wouldn’t turn back on.
It had other blemishes as well, like 10 degrees of play in the steering, and absolutely no power coming from the four valve per cylinder motor (that should have been making 300 horsepower). Instead, it bogged in 5th gear during wide-open throttle applications, with the tachometer indicating that the engine room didn’t get the message from the bridge about going to ramming speed.
It was sad, really. We felt awful for that poor pony. But the stranding was what capped the “we’ll pass” decision on this particular “bargain.” Plus while we couldn’t get it started we discovered that she used to be red, and though I have nothing against red cars, I do think that if you repaint a car it’s wise if you choose to repaint in the original color. Thankfully the break whistle blew and I was given mercy by a charitable soul with a set of jumper cables willing to sacrifice his break time for a jump start. We limped the sad nag to her home, and thanked the owner for the opportunity.
There were other leads, and more ponies pasturing nearby, but the answer to our prayer was actually sitting in my own driveway. I’ve written about her before, and when I thought about it I was shocked to realize that Evergreen is 19 years old now.
When I got my first car (back when I was 16), she was seemingly ancient in comparison to newer cars coming out at the time. The 1973 gas crunch had changed the automotive landscape considerably. By 1980, see, a 1968 Ford Galaxie 500 two door coupe, with doors as long as a Volkswagen Beetle, was a hideous monster compared to say a Toyota Corolla. Unlike the Corolla, though, the Galaxie had a 302 V-8, breathing through a two-barrel carburetor, exhaling though a Thrush glasspack muffler that made all the right noises to a kid who dug Parnelli Jones. I loved that car.
Snapping back to the present, I told my wife that I was thinking of letting our son have Evergreen for a song. The insurance premiums for her would be lower, as insurers don’t fear catastrophic losses to their bottom line by incidents involving replacing 19 year old cars. Other reasons were on my list too. For instance, I know the repair history on this car, since I’ve owned her for 15 years. She’s safer than other Mustangs of her vintage, not just because of the roll bar that I had installed, but because I scrapped the awful four-link rear suspension (shared with the better to be forgotten Ford Fairmont) in favor of a more predictable three link suspension (via a torque arm & panhard bar setup) that keeps the rear wheels planted.
And all the annoying things that the cars we test drove did? Like cars that thunked when you applied the brakes because they had been lowered without regard to proper suspension geometry, thus the shock absorber bump stops were constantly being bumped? That doesn’t happen with Evergreen. All the doodads and add-ons that my son would want to do on the nags (which he really can’t afford to do)? Not needed with Evergreen. Have the brakes really been maintained on the car with jury-rigged wiring crisscrossing the engine compartment? No need to risk finding out. Everything is in place on Evergreen, and the brakes are brand new.
The sticking point was shaping up to be at what price was I willing to let her go? And was I really ready to let her go in the first place?
As I pondered all these things, I was given another sign. Maybe it wasn’t a miraculous sign, but do you recall the demise of our minivan this past Spring? Back when I was on jury duty and reading Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ’s Abandonment To Divine Providence? It had been consumed by fire, leaving an open spot in our driveway. Perhaps it was a burnt offering. If I sold Evergreen to my son, (and make no mistake, he is handing me cash because he needs to have skin-in-the-game) there would be an empty spot in my garage, too. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say in my heart as well.
When I bought her back in 1998, see, she was three years old and a 35th birthday present to myself. I had seen her up on a corner display from a dealer lot that I passed by every day on my commute to work. Now, I had always wanted a Mustang since that time after I decided the Galaxie and I were going to part ways. My Mom, God bless her, had made a similar deal with me that I recently made with my son. If I saved “x,” she would match me, and help me buy a good car as I embarked on my Marine Corps career.
So I assiduously saved up my part of the equation, and with a sharp eye, and a giddy-up in my step, I found one of these for sale.
Uh-huh. A red 1965 Mustang 2+2 fastback. She had a three speed manual tranny, a 289 Hi-Po V-8 with a four barrel carb, a white interior, and was in mint condition. I forgot how much the owner was asking, because all I knew was I just needed my Mom’s contribution, and she would be all mine.
But my Mom wasn’t having any of it. “Too old, uses too much gas, and is too fast. No son of mine will die in a car like that.” I know she meant well, but let’s just say that I learned another important lesson: grown ups don’t rely on their parents to help them buy their cars. Veto power is too much to bear. I still wound up with a Mustang, though it was of the tamer, newer, variety (with a straight six and a slush box automatic).
She was a good, solid car, but lacking in the performance department. Somehow, in defiance of all of the laws of physics, thermodynamics, etc., the 3.3 liter straight six made a whopping 85 horsepower at the crank. She was smogged and bogged. When I was bound for a 2 1/2 year tour overseas, I gave her to my little sister as her first car. I’m not sure what became of her after that (the car, that is, not my sister).
When I returned to the States, I bought a red hot little pocket-rocket Volkswagen brand new, which served me loyally for about 11 years. A double overhead cam, four valve per cylinder, four banger put 123 horsepower out through a 5 speed. She was pretty fun to drive, and was my poor man’s Porsche. That is, until I saw, and test drove, Evergreen.
I kept the Scirocco for a little while after that, selling her eventually to one of my truck drivers who needed a solid commuter car. But like I told my wife (on the second date, if I recall) I will always have a sports car. Evergreen has filled that niche nicely for the past 15 years.
Back to Caussade’s sacrament of the present moment, ahem, while perusing listings of used cars for my son, see, I had come across a couple of intriguing possibilities for making it easier to hand the reins of Evergreen over to him. Let’s just say that I wasn’t looking to replace the minivan. Many choices were tempting, but waay too expensive for me to actually consider.
Like, the 2012-13 Boss 302’s? Yummy.
Yes, I want one, and could easily convince myself that I need one. But I’ve got kids who need to go to college, or tech school, etc. They need to pay their own way (skin in the game, again), but I can help a little too. That is, unless I buy a Boss 302. You can only get them used for about $40K nowadays, as they’ve stopped making them. At the local Carmax lot, I then learned that a 2009 Shelby GT500 was available for a few thousand less. I had my wife lash me to the mast like Odysseus to keep me from heeding the siren song and bankrupting us for the sake of having 500 supercharged, willing, horses available under my right foot right. this. instant. Get thee behind me, Satan!
And then I saw a little pony called Silver that was for sale. Well, that’s what I named her, anyway.
And she was going around topless too, just like Evergreen did. And that tempting Shelby with the blower? Silver had one of those too. I hear tell that the new Mustang coming out in 2015 is doing away with the live axle set-up in favor of a fully independent rear suspension. Guess what? Silver has IRS too. Did I mention Silver was priced way below the Boss, the GT500, and the unobtainable 2015 Mustangs too? Looking around at her siblings (2003-’04 Cobras) that were on the market, Silver was priced to sell. With 87,800 miles on the clock, was something wrong with her? A trip to Chattanooga (get me away from Carmax, honey!) would be the only way to know.
Long story short, we’re a two pony family now. Well, a ‘Stang and a Snake. I suspect that Silver was priced to sell because of a little hiccup she developed under wide open throttle. That, and her prior owner may have just grown tired of her. The hiccup has been corrected (new spark plugs [$18.00 for eight of ’em] gapped correctly do wonders), and she rides on new rubber now as well.
If you ever wonder why I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that prayer works? It’s because a) I work on engines, and b) the car we were searching for all along was pastured in a very familiar field. God is good, or as de Caussade might say, abandonment to divine providence has its benefits.
One last thing before I let you go. I took Silver over to meet my Mom, and told her what we were doing with Evergreen, etc., and she told me that “this is perfect. He has always loved that car, and told me that one day he would like to have it.”
The irony of her vetoing that red Fastback way back in 1982, while approving of this decision, reminded me of something Bill Cosby said about his own Mom,
I tell my kids, “This is not the same person I grew up with. You are looking at an old woman who is trying to get into Heaven.”
Heh! You tell ’em Bill.
OK, Joe Six-Pack can safely go back to blogging now. Catch you later.