A new car was a monumental occasion in my family. The fiscal conservativeness of my parents had done them well in their lives, but driving second-hand cars can only go so far. By the turn of the millennium, my father decided that all the hard work he and my mother had accomplished meant he didn’t have to wrench on broke cars if he didn’t want to. My mother’s new Buick was a good example of this, but as a recent graduate from Florida State without a solid job, did I really deserve to have a new car myself?
Doubts about my worthiness aside, I was excited beyond belief the day we went to pick up my new Focus. My girlfriend at the time, A.R. had made the trek from Tallahassee to New York, where we would join my parents for a holiday week at Northampton Beach, MA. The Contour had made the trip without any fuss, but as noted in my previous COAL entry, the car was mechanically iffy.
We picked up the Focus and tooled around the far northeast corner of MA, crossing over into New Hampshire and up into Maine. The idea being that we would drive my new car in every state on the Eastern Seaboard. Nevermind that I was driving a car that had plates still registered to the Contour, we were on a road trip in my new car!
We made it successfully back down to the Sunshine State without any incident (at least not involving the police). This trip would be the start of a love affair with the Focus that remained unabated.
So what did I sign on the dotted line for? A 2001 Ford Focus ZX3 five-speed with the 2.0 Zetec motor. AC, cruise and CD player, power windows/locks, fat tires on chunky alloy wheels, and a host of neat little design features that I would come to love over the years. The low beltline of the windows made visibility excellent, and I never regretted the choice of silver for the color. I’ve seen plenty of Foci over the year, and I think silver still looks the best. I soon christened the car Tabitha (or Tabby).
The Focus, A.R. and I enjoyed the cool AC in the Florida heat. With the five-speed transmission, A.R. was unable to drive the Focus so I drove her to work every day. Any road trips that we took meant that I was the left-hand seat, but I have never minded driving so this wasn’t a problem. Tabby and I ventured home to New York for Christmas and occasional summer holidays, and we took the car down to Orlando to Disneyworld several times. I had always wanted to go to the Florida Keys, so we decided to venture to the furthest point South in the United States.
I had never imagined that Florida was as big as it is (Pensacola is even in a different time-zone as the rest of the state!) and the trip from Tallahassee to Key West took something on the order of 11 hours. We had a friend R. with us who could drive a manual transmission, so I didn’t have to take the entire trip myself. We made it down after driving overnight on a Friday night without incident, although I did pass out for the last leg of the trip from Marathon to Key West itself. I woke up to the sounds of roosters crowing, abandoned in the car while R. and A.R. wandered around looking at free-range Key West fowl.
We spent two days in the Keys camping, and it was on one of the long stretches of bridges leading up to Key West that Tabby would see her first run-in with the law. Reminiscent of Walter, the words “How fast will it go” were uttered. Fortunately for me, I was the one who spoke the words and my friend was in the driver’s seat. The nice Florida Highway Patrolman clocked us at 106 miles per hour. (I would much later find out that like most Ford products, it was governed to 110 mph. The law would not be involved in that speed run, however.)
One minor problem that was never properly resolved was a very uneven idle. I took the car back to Tallahassee Ford numerous times and they seemed unable to recognize the problem, let alone fix it. To say that I was unimpressed with Tallahassee Ford is an understatement, both with the mechanics and the salespeople (they had the chance to sell me a Focus but lost it, assuming I wasn’t sincere in my desire to by a new car).
A.R was born and raised Florida woman and had never experienced snow before we started dating. I had taken her home several times, and she liked the idea of living in a place that had different seasons. In need of a change of pace and more employment opportunities, we settled on Rhode Island. In February of 2005, we packed up our house and cats into a GMC Budget box-van with the Focus on a dolly and A.R. in her Accord. We caravaned back up the Eastern Seaboard with only minor issues, finally landing at our new apartment in East Providence, RI.
We quickly adjusted to living in the Northeast, and I was happy to have snow for a change. One new thing I learned about (the hard way) was parking bans during snowstorms. The Focus was towed prior to a snowstorm much to my chagrin, and to double the misery, one of the rear windows was broken while in the tow yard lot. Of course, they denied that it was their fault, so I was left to sort it out on my own. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time and while the window was completely shattered, it was miraculously still in place. I bought a roll of clear packing tape to secure safety glass and left it that way for several months until I could afford to get the window replaced. This meant that I was once again illegally driving the Focus, this time on expired Florida plates. If I had a 5-minute commute this wouldn’t have bothered me, but the 50-minute drive from East Providence down to Newport (and into neighboring Massachusetts) every day made me nervous.
Time and the Focus marched on. After a tumultuous relationship, A.R. and I split up in the summer of 2006, and I moved out of our shared apartment down to Newport, RI. It was a good thing that our relationship ended as neither of us could see past our own mistakes, but it was still rough transition moving from a 2 bedroom apartment with two cats to a shared apartment and one-room of my own. I enjoyed Newport and made good friends with my roommates, but I missed having my own space.
Much like my personal life, the Focus needed some mending and repairs. We had to replace the gas tank as there was a design defect that caused the strapping that secured the tank rubbed a hole into the top. The rear wheel bearings also needed replacement. Ford issued a recall for cars in certain states that used road salt, but because my car was originally registered in Florida they denied the repair. The bearings would be a constant source of grief as we needed to replace them with annoying frequency. Quality is Job #1, indeed. We also had to replace a broken coil spring, destroyed by the potholed roads of New England.
By 2009 I had shifted gears away from the museum world and had found employment in the toy industry (science toys to be specific). I had also started dating A., and we had in fact decided to get married. We tied the knot in July of 2009 and moved in together in an apartment in Providence, RI. Life was good and A. and I took many road trips together. Unfortunately, the Focus was sidelined for most of these trip as A.’s car was a Honda Element. The Element was much more practical as a road-trip car, so Tabby was relegated to a commuter car.
By early 2011 things the Focus was ten years old and while I still loved the car, I was itching for something different. I still had the conundrum that I didn’t have the resources to do the minor work on the car that needed to be done, but being closer to my parents made it feasible to get the car home for major work. But honestly, I just wanted to be driving something different. My next COAL would be in my driveway before the end of 2011, but this wasn’t the end of Tabby.
I didn’t want to trade in the Focus, so it went to my parent’s house in Upstate New York. My dad drove it for a little while, but then it was tucked away in long-term storage. This ability to keep my old cars is a wonderful luxury, one that would allow me to bring the Focus back to life several years later. After a year or so of sitting outside, we finally made enough room inside to store the Focus.
After a few more twists and turns in life and the realization that I could have more than one car registered and on the road, I went back to NY and retrieved the Focus. We put new tires and did a few other deferred maintenance jobs to it and licensed and insured it. I was amazed at how simple and basic the Focus was compared to newer cars, but it also felt more direct with go-kart-like handling. Driving the car, even today brings back many wonderful memories. Of all the cars that I have owned and loved, This Focus is truly a Car Of A Lifetime.