COAL: 1988 Honda Accord LX – Chapter 13, How I Married A Keeper Twice In One Day

In December of 1988 I got a call from a law school classmate.  Karl and his wife wanted to have me over for dinner one evening.  “Oh, would it be a problem if Mary invited one of her friends? ”  He said something about how they were trying to fit in as many visits with friends for the holidays as they could, so, efficiency.  Sure, I replied, and gave it not another thought.

That had been a busy month.  I had come off of doing two jury trials in a three week span of time and was happy for things to slow down as Christmas approached.  On December 19th I arrived at my friends’ house for dinner.  Mary’s friend turned out to be much more attractive and interesting than I had been expecting.  An enjoyable evening was had, and as we left the house together, the new girl (Marianne) pointed out her new car.

She was quite proud of it.  It was the first “nice” car she had ever owned.  I could see that it was a nice-enough dark color, but the nearby street light did not offer much chance to take it in.  No matter, because once you have seen one Honda Accord you have seen them all.  This thought was kept inside, so as to not make me sound like an insensitive jerk – which can be an occupational hazard for someone in my line of work.  But really, to a guy who had grown up surrounded by Oldsmobile Cutlasses, another boring middle-America, middle-size middlemobile was the last thing I had any interest in.

She probably had similar thoughts of automotive disinterest when we went out for a date in my ’66 Plymouth Fury III.  That bit of quirkiness in my personality that would lead a young lawyer to be driving a 20+ year old Plymouth sedan did not seem to bother her at all.  Things progressed and I found myself spending a lot more time around that Honda Accord (and its delightful owner) than I had expected to.

I was pretty familiar with the Accord.  They had been the popular choice of classmates after we got law degrees and first jobs – although not for me because I had been drawn to something more interesting.  I remember being a little put off by the 1986 restyle, but got used to them after one showed up at my office.

My law firm had four partners – two were older (Wendell and Bob) and each drove a Cadillac.  Bob had grown up quite poor, and was fortunate to have been a really good basketball player.  He went to college on a basketball scholarship and, after graduating about 1951, played professional basketball for a season or two.

Bob once told me how he hated pro ball – there was no money in it then, and he was a competitive guy surrounded by others who played like it was just a job.  He joined the marines, then sold Solo Cups, became an insurance claims adjuster, and finally went to law school at nights with a young family at home.  He was one of the hardest working men I ever knew and after about 20 years in practice, finally treated himself to that Cadillac he had grown up wanting.  Bob’s Cadillac was a 1981 Sedan DeVille with the troublesome V-8-6-4 cylinder deactivation system. He never admitted it to me, but Bob’s wife once told me that he had been extremely disappointed with it – not that particular car’s well-known weaknesses, but with the whole “Cadillac Mystique”.  He felt that there “was no there there.”

In 1986, Bob could have written a check for any car he wanted, and he traded that Cadillac on an ’86 Accord, the first year of that generation.  It was a nicely done car.  I did not find it extraordinarily interesting, but I spent enough time in it to conclude that it had been executed in a highly competent way and was far advanced from the Hondas I had been around a decade earlier.  Bob must have been satisfied because he drove Honda Accords for the rest of his life.

By late 1988 and with my exposure to Bob’s car, I thought I knew all there was to know about Accords – so Marianne’s Accord was not that interesting.  It was an attractive darker blu-ish gray color and the blue interior was a very nice place to spend time.  It was comfortable, and we would drive it when hot weather made my Plymouth a less attractive proposition.  I became quite comfortable in the Accord, and it slowly wormed its way into my good graces.

I remember being a little surprised when I learned that she had never had a single repair or warranty adjustment on the car in its first several months.  That had not been my new-car experience at all.  But then 80’s Hondas were not 80’s Volkswagens.  I also remembered in reading car rags at the time that a 1986 Accord had better objective performance numbers than my former VW GTI, which had received so much applause from the automotive press.  I learned firsthand how the Honda was like one of those highly skilled people who doesn’t brag about his abilities, but just goes quietly about his business with superior results to many others who have better PR.

The Honda almost didn’t make it to our marriage because of a nasty hail storm.  Marianne was sick about the hundreds of dents all over her car.  It did not help that I was the one who talked her into driving to my house that particular evening instead of going to pick her up (and thus removing the Honda from its parking shelter).  It also did not help that my ’66 Plymouth, parked next to it, had nary a blemish after the storm.  I went with her to several dealers looking at potential replacements, but in the end it was decided to take the insurance check and keep the dents.  From then on, it was always easy to identify our heavily dimpled Accord among the many others.

I remember one day in the late 70’s.  I was a teen and found myself driving my step-mom’s ’74 Cutlass Supreme.  It was still fairly new then, and I remember thinking: this must be what it’s like to be a grown-up.  I got that same feeling in the Accord.  By 1992 I had passed my 30th birthday, had a wife, a kid, a house, something like 5 cars, a pilot’s license (albeit an inactive one) a career and all the rest.  I guess there was no putting it off, I was a grown-up.

The Accord turned out to be a keeper.  Our first baby came home from the hospital in it, it took us on many trips, and never gave us a moment’s trouble.  That oldest son took an early interest in cars and, just as it had been with me and my mother’s Oldsmobiles, he was excited about every one he rode in – except one.  His mom’s Accord was evidently the boring Oldsmobile of the 90’s.  Except that it was far better than any 90’s Oldsmobile.  And in a real change-up in my life, the Accord stayed around long enough to make the transition from being the “good car” to  being the second car (also spelled “my car”).

The Accord taught me one really interesting lesson.  When it came time for brakes, I knew a good independent shop by then (assuredly not the one that had worked on my New Yorker) and saw no reason to go to the dealer.  A few months after that brake job, the pedal developed a nasty pulsation.  We lived with it for awhile, and I became convinced that the rotors had warped.  We had the car in to the Honda Dealer for something I don’t remember, likely a minor recall, and I mentioned the brakes to the service advisor.  She dismissively quipped that “it’s probably because they aren’t Honda brakes” and said they’d take a look.

“What a stupid thing to say” I thought.  It was surely warped rotors and aftermarket brake pads could not possibly have caused that.  When I picked the car up, the advisor said “It was just the pads.  We put Honda pads on it.  The rotors were fine.”  She was right.  That car stopped as smooth as glass from then on.  I wish I understood more about that, but this would not be the last time I tested this wisdom and had it proved to me that there was something about Honda brake rotors that was very sensitive to the choice of brake pads.

I learned one other lesson which involved batteries.  This is not restricted to Honda, but I learned that my old experience with batteries had become obsolete.  I had spent many a year with older cars and had developed an ear for when a battery needed to be replaced because of slow cranking.  One day Marianne drove me to some outpatient surgery, then brought me home.  She needed to go to the pharmacy and the Accord, which had never given the least hint of a weak battery, was dead, dead, dead.  But replacing an OEM battery at about 4 years was nothing to really get out of joint over.

We put many thousands of miles on the Accord, and it eventually earned the award as the best car I could ever recall from any part of my extended family, including the sainted ’64 Cutlass I had grown up in.  It carried us (and eventually more than us) to several states and never once gave us any concern beyond tires, brakes, a battery, and finally an exhaust system.  As I went through a handful of other daily drivers for myself, the Accord remained a constant in our life as the go-to car for almost any occasion.

That Accord was actually an excellent car for long-distance travel.  The seats were comfortable for long distances, and the car was reasonably quiet.  It tracked straight and required very little steering correction.  And once it was up to speed, the engine had plenty of power for flatland cruising.  And Honda’s method of selling the different trim levels with pre-packaged equipment combinations was well thought out, with our LX being the perfect middle ground between the somewhat sparse DX and the super fancy LXi, with its alloy wheels and sunroof.

My only real gripe with the Accord was the combination of 4 cylinders and an automatic transmission.  It was at least a 4 speed automatic with an overdrive, and it was quite a durable design, but it was still a 4 cylinder/automatic car – a configuration I had scrupulously avoided in my life.  Marianne had driven nothing but sticks before the Accord, and only bought the automatic because she had developed a shoulder problem.  That car would have been a complete and total delight with a 5 speed stick, but that was not what she had chosen.  Once the Accord became “mine”, I was prepared to spend the next several years listening to a drone that was only slightly less annoying than the drone every other four made as it churned through a torque converter.  But fate intervened again.

Our Accord had a difficult time with weather.  The hail storm had given it the finish of a blue golf ball, but that would not be the last storm to batter the Honda.  In the summer of 1995 I was driving our new primary car through an initial shake-down period.  Marianne was happy to drive the Accord, which by now needed to accommodate two child seats in the back.  She had taken the boys with her on an errand and the weather had been fine.  But on the way home, the clouds opened and the rains came forth, as in Genesis.  God may have seen that it was good, but for a certain Honda Accord it was not.

Marianne was driving through a neighborhood that abutted ours when she saw the water began to rise in the street.  She was doing fine until another car tried to blast through and then stalled in the fast-rising water. The other car’s wake caused the Accord to stall too.  As the water continued to rise, Marianne got the driver’s window down and (several months pregnant with our third youngster) did a NASCAR exit through the drivers window before pulling the two little ones (ages 1 and 3) out of the back seat.

Our insurance company sent the car to its chosen shop, which kept the car for two or three weeks as it was dried out.  We got it back, but both of us were uneasy.  Marianne was convinced that the car’s air conditioner was not what it had been previously.  And I knew how many seals,  electrical connections and other things had been submerged and was far from certain that the insurance-arranged blow-dry had solved all of the potential problems.  The car was still at under 100,000 miles, but surely danger lurked in many hidden places.  We thought about it and agreed that we should sell the faithful 7-year-old Accord.

We listed the Accord for a private sale.  The hail damage was there for all to see and I told the guy who came to look at it about the flood/dry-out.  He bought it on the spot.  For my asking price.  Marianne had absorbed prior lessons from watching me bargain on cars, and said “You didn’t ask enough.”  She was right.  And I think I may have also been wrong about the car itself because I saw our Titleist-finish Accord running around our part of the city for several years thereafter.

This and the opening photo are the only ones I seem to have of our Accord – and both of them were taken by my mother during visits home.

Marianne was sorrier to see it go than I was, because she had been the first one to adopt it from its litter and bring it home.  I believe that there may have even been a few tears.  I did not have that same emotional attachment, but I knew that it had been a really, really good car  that forever changed my perspective on Japanese cars.  Everything about it was thoughtfully designed in a way that seemed, well, foreign to most US manufacturers.  Everyone says the generation that followed was the best Accord of them all, but I always found it a little dulled down in its styling, which lacked the crispness of our car.  I might have felt differently once the ’88 started to rust, as they all eventually did.

I remembered the ’74-75 Civics my mother got as service loaners from her Pontiac dealer and the ’76 Civic wagon we got while the body on Mom’s Luxury LeMans was being repaired due to the combination of my youthful stupidity and a fire hydrant.  It hit me that I had been on almost the ground floor of Honda in the US just as I had been on the ground floor of the Oldsmobile Cutlass phenomenon that started with out 1961 F-85 wagon.  Our Accord was Honda all grown up.  Very few cars are the total package, in looks, utility, comfort, quality and reliability.  That Accord was probably the first I had ever encountered that checked every one of those boxes.

For most of us, when we marry a spouse, we marry a car too.  In 1958, my father married a 1953 Chevrolet 210 and my mother married a 1957 Buick.  None of those marriages (whether to cars or each other) had staying power.  In both cars and in a spouse, I married extremely well.  I have owned other cars I loved more, but never one I respected more.  The Accord was the constant that saw me slowly morph from a single guy into a husband and a dad with a growing family.  The only thing that turned out to be more durable than that Accord was the marriage that brought it into my life – that one is still going strong.