THE CAR LIFE, AN IRRATIONAL BOND Posted on 02 May 16:49
This week I spent substantial time in the garage working on my aging car. Aside from some basic maintenance and a couple of needed repairs (a torn CV boot was the main reason), much of the time was invested in removing rust and adding extra rust preventative measures. In the course of these repairs, I started to consider why I was going to such measures instead of just buying something newer. I remembered a friend once jokingly posed the question regarding my car, "what, you want this thing to last forever?". I realize now, just how attached I've grown, that perhaps some part of me really does want that. This attachment, or bonding with your car is perhaps how enthusiasts, petrolheads, gearheads, or whatever nomenclature you prefer, are born. Some folks love the newest, fastest, comfiest version of whatever is available now. For others, they fall for that certain some-car and stick with it for the long term. I fall into the latter category, and in my specific case, the car is my 06 Mazdaspeed 6. I picked it up in 2008 as a one-owner car with 17k miles on it. I have found it to be fairly enjoyable in my several years of ownership; it has a punchy turbocharged four cylinder engine, providing thrust through an all wheel drive system that helps it move briskly. I have modified it to make a bit more power, and to handle more sharply and more neutral, which adds a bit more sporty feel and fun factor as well. There are not millions of them around, since Mazda produced this car for only two years, so there is a bit of uniqueness to having one. All of these factors do not completely account for my attachment as there are plenty of cars available today that can best it in any one, or in some cases all of these categories. So why do I seem to be intent on owning this thing indefinitely?
The idea of keeping the same car for nearly, or over a decade, would seem absurd to likely a vast majority of people in the U.S. In fact, statistically, most people only hang on to their new cars for an average of 3-5 years. Being one of the many people who would opt for a more committed car relationship, I thought I might shed some light into the mindset at least for me and perhaps other like minded individuals. I know there are nicer cars than my over 10 year old Mazda 6, I get that, I even really like many of them (currently pining for an Alfa Romeo Giulia in fact). I do not expect my Mazda to be an appreciating classic in the years to come, it has no real racing pedigree and the Mazda nameplate holds little prestige in the collector world. In fact, depreciation is hammering it as we speak and I know full well that the longer I keep it, the more value I lose when it comes time to sell it. Thing is, I can not even bring myself to think of selling it despite all of this. If there is one thing that watching too many episodes of Top Gear has taught me, and in particular their "cheap car challenges", it is that you can fall in love with any car given the right amount of epic journey. I think that is what is behind my love for this particular Mazdaspeed 6. However in my case, the bond is a more substantial, meaningful experience compared to the condensed and manufactured for TV experience you'd see on Top Gear. My car and I have weathered many Chicago winters, getting stuck only once when it bottomed out on ice so high it lifted all four wheels off the ground (my fault). It got me to an IMSA race in Birmingham and back, through torrential downpours and the very late night fatigue and boredom traveling through downstate Illinois. It has been through several road trips, twisting happily along roads that include Needles Highway and the Tail of the Dragon. You remember these things, and the car becomes less an appliance and more a trusty steed. There is a shared adventure there, and sometimes when you are on a solo drive, the car is the only other thing sharing it with you.
People form bonds all the time with things like horses, or dogs, or cats, or hermit crabs, so is it such a stretch to imagine the same psychology at play when it comes to your car? Memories are formed when you nurse a sick pet to health, in the same way that you form memories of late nights wrenching your car back to health. Modifying your car can strengthen the bond as well, you can see your own personal touches in it. Your car can now evolve into something unique you have crafted, even if you did not necessarily make the car to begin with, again strengthening this strange human-machine bond. Every time I sit in the driver seat of my 6, consciously or not, I recall the countless hours spent working on this machine. I remember the H&R Sport springs being the very first change, and how immediate and noticeable the upgrade was, making the car feel so much more nimble and planted. I remember the trials of breaking parts in the course of a VVT replacement, the extra down time because of it and the joy of hearing the engine fire back up after a week of doubts and worries. I remember the holy pain in the ass that installing a high performance down pipe was, and the added punch it gave the car, adding new dimensions of fun and enjoyment of driving. This history goes on and on, including many cold nights working with numb fingers, hot summers sweating buckets in the garage, bloodied knuckles, and obscenity laced tirades aimed at an oblivious machine.
I think it is those concrete experiences, these memories that can make it hard to let go of a car, even if it is not one deemed "special" by the automotive pundits. Perhaps the greatest bonds are born of emotional memories of times and events that just happened to occur in the car, both good and bad. All the times you set new personal bests at the track or autocross, and the relief of saving the car from a near incident. Remembering the back seat where your pet dog took his last ride to the vet. The middle row that anchored a baby seat, keeping your newborn safe on the first ride home. All the times your kids were happily singing in unison to the radio. The mad race to the hospital driving into opposite lane traffic, to make it in time to see your ill father before it was too late. How can you put a price on all of that, how can you trade that in? So far, I can not.