Mother’s Day Feature: The Cars Of My Mother

IMG_8584(My mom with her “retirement present” 2013 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350)

Mother’s Day is a day of honoring our mothers and motherly figures in our lives, and recognizing all they do or have done for us. I have no hesitation saying that my mom is the most influential person in my life. From the moment she found out she was going to become a mother, Mom has been my all-time greatest champion, supporting me at every mile. Our single parent-only child relationship is an ultimate bond, and of all my good friends, I’m happy to call my mom my best friend.

Since my interest in cars developed at a young age, my mom has put up with, encouraged, and even taken an active interest in my car obsession. I can’t think of a better day to honor her, and this being Curbside Classic, honoring her through the cars she has owned seems an appropriate choice.

dart swinger blue(Not Mom’s actual car)

Like many Americans do, my mom obtained her license as a teenager, in her case in the early-1970s. Mom was the third of five children, and she neither was given nor bought her own car right away. Within a few years though, with her older siblings in college, and my mom about to begin, my grandfather purchased a Dodge Dart Swinger for his driving-aged children to share. Light blue with a black vinyl roof, the Swinger saw the most use by my mother, as she was commuting daily to Bridgewater State University, which was about 45 minutes away from where she lived in Milton, MA.


The year after graduating, my mom obtained her first teaching job as a long-term substitute at Collicot Elementary School in Milton, MA. She was hired as a 1st grade teacher the following year, and would continue to teach at various grade levels in the Milton Public School system for the next 36 years. Around this time, Mom purchased her first car of her own, a very gently-used orange Fiat 124 Sport Spider convertible from my family’s then next-door neighbors.


Although the official color was “Orient Yellow”, it was by all means an orange car, like the ad above. As it was a used car, let alone a Fiat, Mom put a good bit of money into it over the course of her ownership. Every time she talks about her Fiat, she never fails to joke that Fiat stands for “Fix It Again Tony”. Among cosmetic repairs, she replaced the original, well-worn cloth top with a vinyl one. A highly common malady of Fiats from this era was their proneness to rust, and Mom’s Spider was no exception.


Mom loved her Fiat, but after a couple of years of ownership and some more rusting, it was beginning to become too much of an investment. With a steady job and stable income, Mom decided to take the plunge and purchase her first brand new car. Massachusetts may not have had the import adoption rate of say, California, but by the early-Eighties, Japanese cars were ever prevalent on the East Coast.


The car she selected was a bronze-colored Datsun 200SX. Now I must say that these were quite sharp-looking cars. The alloy wheels look unusually good with the white walls. The notchback roofline was obviously the more conservative choice, but I prefer it to the fastback roofline that never quite meshed with the car’s angular styling. This was the only picture I was able to find of Mom’s actual Datsun, seen here parked outside of our house in Milton.


I’m not sure of the exact model year, and limited changes over its run make it hard to peg. Mom thinks it was an ’82, so I’ll go with that. Regardless, she has really fond memories of this car. She loved its modern (for the time) interior, and with its supportive tan velour seats, it’s one of the first cars she can recall that had adjustable lumbar support.


After about five years of pleasant new-car ownership, it was time for a replacement. For her next car, she stayed with Japanese, but for whatever reason chose to leave Datsun (now Nissan) and head over to Toyota. My mother usually bases her initial impression of a car on its styling, so it was likely the clean styling of the new Camry that brought her into a Toyota showroom.


While the Camry has never really been an exciting car, its image was less geriatric and vanilla a quarter-century ago. Retirees were still driving their big Oldsmobiles and Buicks, so a young-thirties working professional was within the car’s core demographic. Her first Camry, an ’87 or ’88 (again, she’s guesstimating the model year), was midnight blue with gray tweed interior. It was likely a DX model, as Mom doesn’t usually buy base model cars, but she recalls her second Camry, a gray 1991 being better-equipped.

Scan 69(That’s my mom and my older cousin; I hadn’t arrived yet)

The Camry proved to be an experience of both reliable and pleasant ownership – so much that Mom traded it in for another Camry almost exactly like it. Her second Camry was of the same generation, a ’90 or ’91 model. This one was an ever exciting gray, and from this picture, it was likely another DX model, as LE’s had lace-spoke alloys. Although she’s light on specifics, my mom always says that her second Camry had a greater amount of equipment than the first. Once again, her experience with the second Camry was positive and uneventful – as are most tenures of Camry ownership.


In September of 1992, my mom received some exciting news which changed her life forever – she finally was going to have a baby. She gave birth to me on Wednesday, April 7, 1993 at 1:22 in the afternoon, and has devoted her life to me ever since.

Scan 50

Until the early ’90s, SUVs had largely been truck-based, heavily utilitarian vehicles. While it too may seem overly utilitarian today, at the time of its introduction, the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee was easily the most car-like SUV on the market. With tough looks, all-weather capability, and many creature comforts, the Grand Cherokee offered enough to catch my mom’s attention.


Shortly after my first birthday, Mom said goodbye to sedans forever, trading the Camry in for a navy blue 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. For all intents and purposes, the ’94 Grand Cherokee was a great vehicle. It had loads of space, was great in the snow, and offered a high seating position and visibility that Mom came to prefer. Wide rear doors made it easy with my car seat, and the the waist-height trunk was great for my stroller and later, my bike


This was her first car which I have memories of, and I associate it with the happy, carefree times of my early childhood. During this time, Mom, my aunt Kathy, my grandparents and I all lived under the same roof. When we would all go somewhere together, the Jeep was usually the chariot of choice. I have fond memories bringing our Christmas tree home atop it every year, attached via the bungee cords Mom kept under the folding rear seat bottoms.


Mom really liked her Grand Cherokee, so it was an easy choice to buy another when the redesigned model came out in 1999. I’ve shared her less than pleasurable experience with that car before, but to briefly sum it up, the ’99 Grand Cherokee still possessed most of the characteristics Mom liked about the ’94. Unfortunately, its cheaper interior components, shoddy build quality, the nightmarish recurring issue of defective rotors, and endless dealings with the Chrysler service department effectively ended her relationship with Chrysler.


It was at this time that she started talking about the Jeep’s replacement. At the forefront of her interest were two car-based SUVs (“Crossover” was still a relatively unheard of term in 2003) – the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. I was advocating for the Pilot, largely because of its third row seat – a novelty I had previously only seen on large SUVs such as the Expedition and Durango.


After looking at them both at the New England Auto Show in autumn 2003, mom was determined to get a Highlander. She liked its interior and styling better, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that as part of the 2004 model year refreshment a third row seat was added to the option list. Mom went to Boch Toyota the day after Christmas in 2003 to start the buying process. Usually a buyer of mid-range models, Mom was faced with a bit of a conundrum in that the only Highlanders in stock were base 4-cylinder models and fully-optioned Limiteds.


After test driving and fully examining both, Mom decided to spring for the Limited. At that point, it was the most expensive car she had ever purchased, and considering inflation, it’s still the most she’s ever paid for a new car (even more so than her Mercedes). The following day, her birthday coincidentally, she brought home her 2004 Millennium Silver over Stone Leather Toyota Highlander. With leather, heated seats, wood trim, six-disc CD changer, and rear-seat DVD, it was a truly exciting experience – I really felt that we were moving up in the world!


Flash forward to late-2009, and I had just obtained my driver’s license and was naturally excited about getting a car of my own. My mom had always told me she’d buy me my first car, which was I was especially grateful for, as my minimum-wage summer job cleaning dishes, tables, and toilets at Panera Bread wasn’t going to get me much. The original plan we discussed was for me to find an affordable, low-mileage used car.


However, the Highlander was finally paid off and now approaching six years. This was longer than Mom had ever kept a car, and she knew that she’d likely be thinking of a new car in the near future. The safe and trouble-free Highlander still had a lot of life left in it, and rather than having to deal with two car purchases and two separate car payments, she told me that instead, I’d be getting the Highlander and she’d be buying a new car for herself. The Highlander was, of course, much nicer than any used car I’d likely be getting, so I had no objections.


I really don’t remember how I ever convinced my mom to start thinking about BMWs, but somehow it just happened. By now a well-seasoned SUV/CUV buyer, Mom had her heart set on the X3. Knowing that a brand new BMW was out of her price range, Mom began adjusting to the idea of buying certified pre-owned – her first used car since the Fiat.


We shared the Highlander for a few months, before Mom was fully ready to commit to buying her next car. On a Saturday morning in March 2010, we made the trek up to the swanky new Herb Chamber’s BMW of Sudbury to look at X3s. When we arrived, there was an ’07 Platinum Bronze Metallic certified pre-owned X3 parked right out front that immediately caught my mom’s eye.


After test-driving the X3, Mom was certain that it was the car she wanted. A quick look through their certified pre-owned inventory, and Mom decided the 2007 Platinum Bronze Metallic X3 was going to be her next car. She started the buying process then, but it wasn’t until the next week that everything commenced and she finally took delivery of her very first Bimmer.


If I had thought the Highlander was a huge step up, than the X3 might as well have been a Rolls Royce. At last, my childhood dream of my mom owning a BMW had come true! The X3 was truly a spectacular machine, and apart from some odd peeling trim around the steering wheel audio controls (enlarge picture to see), there was no evidence that this was a used car.


At least in terms of non-supercars there really is no car that handles quite like a BMW. The X3 was heavily-derived from the 3-Series, and the relationship was immediately noticeable once behind the wheel. Power was effectively delivered, shifts were quick, steering was precise, suspension was firm, and the 3.0L I6 gave out a pleasant no-nonsense roar. Being rear-wheel biased, you could literally feel the power from the wide, Pirelli-wrapped rear wheels pushing the car along like no other car I’ve ever driven. I naturally drove the Bimmer whenever I had the opportunity, but the important thing was that my mom loved that car just as much as I did.


When she purchased the car, the original factory warranty was still good for another year, upon which the 2-year certified pre-owned warranty kicked in. Over the course of her ownership, Mom only had two problems with it, both of which were repaired under warranty. The first was in the summer of 2010, when it was having issues with the HVAC not working properly on the passenger’s side.


Right before Christmas in 2012, the Bimmer was rear-ended by a teenager in a Maxima, causing damage to the rear bumper. After the damage was repaired, we began to notice an abnormal noise and vibration from the rear of the car. The damage had obviously extended further underneath than the body shop realized, and it ended up being some exhaust system component that was damaged in the accident. It took two trips back to BMW to correctly fix the problem, and even though the warranty had expired by the time it was corrected, BMW Gallery of Norwell didn’t charge her because they had not solved the problem the first time.


It was around this time that Mom began thinking of getting a new car. Although she had only owned it for three years, it was now a six year-old car nearing 100,000 miles with no warranty left. Additionally, Mom wanted to drive a “new” car again. Whatever elevation in status the Bimmer was, Mom could never become truly comfortable with the fact that it was a used car, and having been a buyer of new cars for thirty years, she always felt like she had compromised.


She would also be receiving a pretty nice check soon from the Town of Milton for all of her hundreds of unused sick days through her 36.5 years of teaching (the result of the teacher’s union forgoing an annual raise sometime back in the ’80s) that would go towards the down-payment of her “retirement gift” to herself.

IMG_2097(The last picture of Mom and her Bimmer, walking into the dealer to sign the paperwork)

Her short list included a new X3, as well as its German competitors, the Audi Q5 and Mercedes GLK. Having driven the second generation X3 several times as a loaner, she liked its improvements, but wasn’t in love with it enough to not consider alternatives. She expressed favoritism to the GLK, particularly for its more distinctive styling, but its base price was a few grand higher. In her own words, “it will all come down to what the monthly payments will be”.

IMG_2107(Mom’s new Mercedes on the day she took delivery)

With this all in mind, we decided to look at the Mercedes first. Although it wasn’t the closest M-B dealer to us, Mom was happy with Herb Chamber’s level of service, so we drove over an hour away to Herb Chamber’s Mercedes-Benz of Natick to test-drive and inquire about the GLK. Once there we placed with one of the most down-to-earth and honest car salesman, John Angelo, a man who ironically reminded us both of Joe Pesci. We took a test-drive, looked at the car a bit, and then got down to business.


I came armed with print-outs from TrueCar (a very good tool I might add) of what GLKs with similar MSRPs were actually selling for in the area. Without hesitation John said they would of course match whatever prices I had found. When it came to color, Mom was adamant about not getting white, black, or silver, the most commonly seen Mercedes colors. She initially liked Lunar Blue, but after seeing the Steel Gray showroom floor model, she set her heart on that shade. It’s actually a pretty shade and despite its name, there’s a lot of blue in it.


M-B of Natick didn’t have any Steel Gray GLK 350s equipped similar to what Mom wanted in inventory, but was able to locate one for her in Pennsylvania that could be shipped up in several days. In one of the most pleasant car buying experiences Mom had ever had, we were able to negotiate a considerable amount off the MSRP. Mom was certainly happy about that, and I got quite a rush from negotiating.


It’s been almost two years since Mom bought her Mercedes and she is still loving it. While it’s true that Mercedes’ of today may not quite be as special and exclusive as they were when my mom first started driving, there’s still a noticeable higher feel of quality, precision, and solidity in their construction and engineering over most other cars I’ve driven.


Despite being retired, between daily errands, the two gyms she goes to, and frequent substitute teaching, Mom does a lot of driving, accumulating about 18,000 miles per year. Having a car that was both comfortable and fun-to-drive was a priority, and the GLK 350 certainly delivers. Where the X3 had hard seat bottoms and a super firm suspension that was often punishing, the GLK has soft, supportive thrones and a softer-tuned suspension that’s better suited for long rides and Massachusetts’ pothole-laden roads and highways. The BMW may have been a bit more fun to drive for me, but in the real world, the Benz is much easier to live with.


I’m glad Mom timed her new car purchase in 2013, because the 2013 GLKs received a host of updates over the 2012 model. The exterior received a thorough facelift, with a sleeker front end, chrome skid plates, full-LED taillights, and new wheels for an overall less cluttered appearance.


Inside, plenty of more changes occurred for 2013. The GLK was treated to an entirely new instrument panel that included a new gauge cluster, steering wheel, switchgear, radio and HVAC controls, and full-color display screen. The most dramatic changes were new aircraft-inspired vents from the SL and a beautiful piece of burl elm veneer, reportedly the largest single piece ever used on a Mercedes.


In addition to its numerous standard features, Mom’s car is equipped with the Premium Package (panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, driver’s memory seat with power lumbar, power steering column, iPod/mp3 media interface, auto dimming mirrors, universal garage door opener), 4Matic all-wheel drive, heated seats, and the Becker Map Pilot navigation (a more basic navigation system as opposed to the one included with the Multimedia Package).


The only concession she had to make was not getting real leather, as the only three GLKs for sale with the Leather Package were in California and over budget. Like most smaller Mercedes (that are predominately leased), MB-Tex is far more common as it’s cheaper to produce and it holds up far better. On paper fake leather in a Mercedes sounds unacceptable, but Mercedes basically pioneered the “imitation synthetic leather” decades ago, and as a result, has perfected a very convincing product that’s nicer than many “real” leathers out there. It even had me fooled the first time. We appropriately have dubbed it “Vegan Leather”.

IMG_5626(Mom checking out a 1932 Auburn Boattail Speedster)

When I ask my mom which of her cars has been her favorite, she always replies that she liked them all or else she wouldn’t have bought any of them. She then usually adds, “but I do really like my Mercedes”. In her forty-something years of driving, Mom has driven cars of many body styles and from multiple continents, each of which have well-suited her at various stages of life. The Mercedes is here to stay for at least a few more years, but like her only son, my mom is always thinking of what her next car will be.


I hope you’ve enjoyed a tour through time of every vehicle my mom has owned in her lengthy driving career. It goes to show you that moms can like cars too! Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, wherever they may be.


Related Reading:

Mom’s 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Mom’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Mom’s 2004 Toyota Highlander