COAL: 1989 Chevrolet Beretta–The Dentmobile

In 1989 I graduated from engineering school, got a job, rented an apartment and, since Dad wanted his ’83 Renault Alliance back, went car shopping. I wanted to buy a used car, and had even found a great deal on a low-mileage ’72 Karmann-Ghia. Unfortunately, I had no money and no credit history, so nobody in town would write me a loan. Disappointed but undaunted, I turned to General Motors, which offered to loan me up to thirty thousand dollars to buy a new car. “You’ve achieved so much,” the form letter said, “with your recent graduation. We think that makes you a good risk, so we invite you to reward yourself with a fine new General Motors car.”

I admired GM’s optimism about my ability to pay; fortunately, I was more realistic than they were about my finances. I went to a Chevy dealer and bought a basic car–a maroon Beretta with four cylinders and five speeds–for far less than GM’s largess allowed. In my sole concession to luxury, I had the stereo upgraded to a unit with a tape deck.

I’d never driven a new car. It cruised so smoothly! It had such power (compared to the slug-slow Alliance)! That stereo really rocked! Even so, I wasn’t enjoying the car payments. I knew I’d want to keep this car long after it was paid off, which meant keeping it in top shape and thus worth having. I followed the maintenance schedule religiously and had every funny noise checked. I also washed and waxed my car about every week and kept the interior spotless.

And then the troubles started.

After about a month, I was driving under a dying tree whose branches hung over the road. It deposited a log onto my car’s roof. Just after I got the car back from the body shop, a fellow driving his flatbed Ford truck alongside me decided to change lanes without checking his mirrors.

Then the windshield wipers quit working, and it took the dealer’s mechanic three tries to perform a repair that lasted. Then the stereo died; I saved up and installed a new one myself. Next, the power steering pump started making strange noises. This time it took the mechanic four tries to fix it right.

Later, I hit a patch of ice and slid partway off the road–as did the car behind me, right into my rear quarter. The body shop did a pretty good job of untwisting the considerable damage to my car’s understructure, but forever hence there was a spot in the front-passenger footwell that would pop like the lid of a baby-food jar with a little light pressure.

One day when I tried to turn the car off, something snapped, and my key spun freely in the ignition. It turned out that the ignition rack broke in half, a failure I’ve since learned was common among Berettas and their Corsica siblings.

The headliner had started coming down over the back seat passengers’ heads, and I reattached it with neat rows of staples. Then came the day I leaned back to square my butt in the seat, when a bracket holding the seat to the floor sheared in half.  Suddenly I found myself staring at the neat rows of staples in the roof. Thankfully, this happened in my driveway. I fixed it with a bracket from a junked Beretta.

Despite my best efforts, the car came to be in sad shape, and my enthusiasm for care and maintenance deteriorated along with it. Thinking I’d wasted my effort, I was deeply disappointed. Why care so much when external events, and plain fate, had so maliciously conspired against my little car?

Yes, cars fall apart. It’s what they do. I was naive to think my Beretta would stay like new for so many years. And yes, time heals all wounds, and I do have some great memories of my first and only new car.

I remember aimless drives in the country behind the wheel of the Beretta to clear my head when life was tough.

I remember long road trips in my Beretta, including a sweep I made alone through Detroit, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Hoboken to see old friends–and also a trip with my Dad, to the tiny town of Handley, West Virginia, to see where he grew up and meet relatives I never knew I had.

I remember driving in my Beretta to the old mill dam in Terre Haute with a girlfriend, where we’d sit and talk and maybe have a smooch.

I remember how the woman I married got me out of a speeding ticket with a wink and a wiggle.

I remember the frigid January day when I brought my first-born son home in my Beretta.

In other words, I remember enjoying my car against the entire backdrop of those years of my life. Such is a big part of what cements a car nut’s love–it’s not just about the car and its mechanicals. It’s about the experiences we had with them.

I drove my Beretta for eight years and 150,000 miles. Now that I’ve owned a lot more cars, I’ve come to realize that it actually ran pretty well and looked no worse than usual for its age. I’d have been happy to keep driving it, but my third son was on the way. My wife also happily drove a little coupe, and while we’d become quite adept at contorting ourselves to mount child seats in the back, we just couldn’t fit two child seats and a teenager abreast in either of our cars. It was time to upgrade one of them. I drew the short straw, and traded in the Beretta on a family car. I’ll tell you about that one after I write up my wife’s car, a 1989 Toyota Corolla SR5.