COAL: 1997 Hyundai Accent – The Unlikely Romantic

Hyundai 1996 _accent_sedan_base_fq_oem_1_500

Mine was red, too, but sadly no images of it survived…


A while ago somewhere on the internet, someone put forth the idea that cars do not have souls. They’re just metal and plastic and fabric or whatever mushed together into something that will whisk us from one place to another at speeds a might bit faster than walking. Ideally, at least. At first, it struck me as a ridiculous statement, I mean, it’s obvious that some cars have more personality than others. Aren’t Ferraris more soulful, lively cars than Toyota Corollas? The more thought I gave it, the more the answer was no. No they are not. I have long come to think that the owner of the car and the experiences he or she has in it is what’s important. We are what gives a car its soul, and what I went through with my first car gave it a lot of soul.

My first car was a red 1997 Hyundai Accent with an automatic and air conditioning and nothing else. It had four doors and in theory could seat five, and the engine, dubiously rated at 92 horsepower, made me thankful that I lived in southeastern Michigan where there are no hills. I did not realize how good of a car it was until long after it joined our family.

Hyundai 4

It was the beginning of September of my senior year of high school when we got it. It was slow. It had crank windows and manual door locks and no cruise control. The ride was bad. For some reason on smooth roads it still felt as though it was driving over a sea of marbles. The heavy steering probably lacked feel and any member of the automotive press would doubtlessly pan its handling prowess, or rather the lack thereof, but honestly I don’t really know what they’re talking about and now I no longer think it matters. I replaced the stereo with a CD player so I would have something else to listen to other than the radio and all their commercials and the road noise and that awful, buzzing engine, so at least it had that going for it. It was tiny and I felt incredibly vulnerable in it sharing the road with the popular Expeditions and Tahoes of those years. But perhaps the biggest of its problem in the eyes of a male closing out his teenage years was the distinct lack of sex appeal. When I had a girlfriend at all back then, it was not thanks to the car.

Hyundai Engine

My friends and I were fond of going to midnight showings of movies, and one cold, winter night as we pulled up to my friend’s house at around 2:30 AM, a snowmobile clipped the back corner, twisting the wheel and permanently handicapping the suspension. It took $900 of work to again make it roadworthy in the loosest sense of the word. The Hyundai thus became punishing on the highway, vibrating like a massive “personal massager” whenever the speed exceeded 55 mph. When it joined me up at school, it made the 8-hour drive home for holidays punishing. At least for me it did. It didn’t bother my girlfriend at all. At any rate, we never found the guilty party, as the coward ran away, most likely drunk on his way home from the bar down the road. I never got over it, and I still hate snowmobiles with a fervent passion.

The Hyundai acquired a series of battle scars. I rear-ended two people at very low speeds, and the seams between the plastic bumper and the metal fender did not match up properly. The back of the passenger’s seat was bent, somehow becoming offset to the left so you could never be comfortable in the thing. It got egged while I was working at the dealership, and my boss buffed it and applied rust protection so that the chipped paint would not turn into a hideous brown spot of corrosion. Pro tip: it is not the egg’s insides that pose a problem to cars. That mess is easily washed away. The egg shell, as it shatters, leaves a nice pattern of tiny triangle chips in a circle where it hits, and those chips lead to rust. If your car gets egged, get those chips covered back up somehow.

Hyundai Interior

Probably its most endearing defect was the driver’s door handle on the outside of the car. The bar (or rubber band or piece of string or hopes and dreams or whatever) connecting the outside handle to the mechanism that opened the door was of absurdly low quality, and it was broken twice, first before I went to college, and once again just before it joined me up north. So to get inside the car, if I was alone I would crawl across the narrow center ‘console’ (it wasn’t much of one, the damn thing didn’t even have a cup holder, you had to wedge your drink between the seat and the parking brake- anyways) from the passenger side and settle in to drive. If I was with someone, I would unlock their door and then they would reach across the car and let me in, as the inside door handle worked fine. Thus, in college, my girlfriend and I called it a gentleman’s car. We’re married now. Hey! Now that I’m thinking about it, that car oozed sex appeal.

Hyundai 2

I hated it before I went off to school, but by the time it joined me up north for one last round of avdentures, I really didn’t. The heavy steering wheel was quick and the car was fairly nimble thanks to its size and it was fun to zip around in on the relatively curvy Upper Michigan roads. It started and ran faithfully (but not flawlessly) every day. It was there when my wife and I started dating. We drove around in it just to be together, driving up and down the snowy roads along Lake Superior, and it was inside it, underneath the faint glow of the northern lights where we realized that we were in love and that we were going to be together for a long, long time. The Hyundai had the most profound sense of romance about it.

The Hyundai was eventually handed back to my family when I left to study abroad in Japan in 2003. I would never again be the primary driver of that vehicle. It stayed in faithful service with my family for several more years, and was still running when we made our first move to Japan in 2007, after which I would never see it again. It did, however, do me one last favor. My wife and I were moving our stuff out of our apartment to my parents’ house for storage, and my dad was there to help us move. He brought along the diminutive Hyundai to take over for my brother’s hand-me-down Ford Windstar that sat immobile in the driveway, and he managed to fit every single thing that was packed into the Windstar into the Hyundai. Sure, the sightlines were all obscured by crap piled upon crap jammed between crap, but he smiled, got in the little red car and drove away. I swear that the Hyundai was smiling at me, too.

NOTE: Last three images from