You never forget your first, right?
For me, being born in the late Seventies, the first car I can remember was my father’s 1979 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, silver with a silver vinyl top and a bordello-red leather interior. It was a beast of a car, I thought, until my friend Manuel’s dad pulled up in an older 98 much like this one, which belched hydrocarbons as if burning them all up would be the equivalent of not leaving a little bit of food on the plate for Miss Manners. I think that’s when I learned the term “downsizing”. But it was somewhat of an imposing vehicle, especially for a young kid.
The Olds would be an outlier, however– we were a solid Buick family, dangit, and after the Olds my parents would only own Buicks for the next thirty-five years. That started when my grandparents and my parents bought 1981 Buick Century sedans, ours in powder blue metallic with a dark blue vinyl top, and my grandparents with a similar silver-on-silver scheme to the Olds, but a gray interior. GM’s Mark Of Excellence was in full force then, as my grandparents’ car had a Century logo on one rear fender and a Regal logo on the other, and a year later, my parents had found out during routine maintenance that the “new” car had been in an accident and was hastily repaired before being sold and titled. That being said, both cars ended up being solid in the long run.
My grandfather had lost his legs to disease a few years prior, and his Century was done up with all the hand controls for the brake and gas, so he was still getting around pretty well, other than the climb up the stairs to our second-floor apartment when he’d come visit. He died in 1992 but I can still hear the click-clack of his crutches if I sit in my mother’s stairwell and listen very closely.
I was too young to drive the Ninety-Eight, but I did get to drive one Oldsmobile before they went into that good night. My other grandfather had an Olds Delmont 88, in that awful avocado green color, that stunk up the garage with volatile substances that made me think maybe it was competing with Manuel’s Ninety-Eight. At the age of 13–and yes, even in Chicago and the nearby regions, that’s still too young to pilot a vehicle–I would drive my grandpa around town. My parents didn’t have time to do it and, eh, it was the late 80s, what could go wrong? I made my many trips down Lake Street with no issues.
Anyway, speaking of Buicks, we all know of Deadly Sin Number One: the 1986 Buick Riviera. Now, my dad was a Riv fan and had wanted one since the original beautiful ’63. But… if what the buff books said was true… the gorgeous (in my, and his, opinion) ’79-’85 were going to be put to pasture for a glorified Citation. After some consultation with my mother, he pulled the trigger and bought a 1985 Riviera, which in my opinion is the most beautiful of that generation. The waterfall grille and actual metal-surround taillamps (as opposed to the painted chrome-on-plastic of earlier years) gave the car a gravitas that could not be ignored. Now, that being said, we were not $20,000 ($50,000 today) car people. But it was the one thing he allowed himself to splurge on, my mother was happy to let him have his car, and I loved it because, well, it was awesome, and he ordered the reading lights in the back seat so I could take my books with me when we traveled anywhere.
The Century was getting a little long in the tooth by 1989 and it was replaced by a brand-new LeSabre. The H-body gets some love here, but I will say it deserves more; it’s probably the closest thing Detroit ever put out to a Volvo, except maybe the Ford Fairmont. It was a solid car, and even though it ate a transmission, it still lasted about 300,000 miles, not only under our ownership but after we sold it to our next-door neighbor (and, yes, we’re still on good terms). I was a little bitter they traded the Century in because I was hoping to take it over at some point, but whatever. The LeSabre was a great car and the car I learned to drive in. Ruby Red Metallic on a red leather interior. In my opinion, it might be the best car GM designed and built in the 80s.
Fast forward to 1999. I’m now out of college and bought my first car, a Honda Accord coupe, which was a flaming dumpster fire of a vehicle, but I’m not going to get into that here. Dad passed away, leaving me with the Riv, which finally blew up a piston at 185,000 miles and was unceremoniously towed to the junkyard, as I didn’t have the money to replace the engine. My mother is now driving a new LeSabre, which would be the second of three. Probably would have been four if they kept making them, but what the heck’s a Lucerne?
“OK, OK,” I hear you asking, “What the heck does all this have to do with a COAL?” I’m getting there. I suppose I like to ramble.
In 2005, I was still pretty broke and the Honda had eaten one transmission under warranty and was about to eat a second, not under warranty, at about 98,000 miles; I decided to sell it. It had some other issues too– the factory CD player died so I had installed a Blaupunkt. The leather on the steering wheel would come off on your hands while driving. A weld in the driver’s seat had broken, making it a rocking chair. I could not find a matching one in the junkyard, and I didn’t know how to weld. The alternator died leaving me stranded at a truck stop in Indiana on the way back to Chicago from Detroit. So, goodbye car. I wouldn’t own one for four years. By this time, I had moved closer to downtown Chicago and could rely on transit and biking to get around.
I married into a car, a horrible, horrible car, a 2006 Toyota Solara convertible. All the sportiness of a Camry, all the weight of a Camry with a crap-ton of bracing to allow a soft top. However, we somehow managed, by loading the car with the top down, then raising it, to fit an entire Ikea kitchen table and chairs in the back seat. I’m still impressed.
After the warranty was up on the Toyota, we leased 2 Minis, a 2012 Clubman and a 2015 Hardtop. Nice cars. I wouldn’t buy one. The maintenance after the lease is up scares the heck out of me.
After the last Mini, which we put 8,700 miles on in three years, we decided that maybe we drive so little, buying again makes more sense than leasing. So, we looked around for smaller vehicles that weren’t penalty boxes (we have a pretty tight garage space, and need to maneuver around sometimes tight streets) and settled on a highly-optioned Hyundai Kona. We were at the dealer ready to sign, but my wife was quite upset for some reason and said, “I can’t sign on this now. I need to eat lunch and we’ll come back.” Now, she does get hangry, but this was relatively unusual behavior. I decided I should probably acquiesce, and we decamped for some suburban fast food.
“That whole time, he wouldn’t say anything to me, he was like you were the only one making the decision,” she said while halfway into a chicken sandwich. “What a sexist asshole.” Honestly, I hadn’t noticed, but my wife works in a very male-dominated industry and could probably win some fistfights at work if it came to that, so I took it to heart.
We had been out in the Chicago burbs in an area that is known for having a ton of dealers, so I said, “let’s do another drivearound.” We had looked at the Buick Encore before, but at the dealer we had happened to be at, no one came up to us, so we left before test driving. This time, a salesman who reminded me a hell of a lot like Doc Brown from Back to the Future came up to me. We agreed to take one out.
When I got into the car, I had noticed the low fuel light was on, but didn’t think much of it. The salesman gets into the back seat, my wife and I get in front, and I start the car. Wow, this thing is nice. The interior is actually nicer-feeling than the Hyundai. What happened to the 90s GM Fisher-Price interiors? I drive out and we get on the nearby Interstate. I go to merge and hit the pedal and… nothing. Nope, this car is out of the running. Gutless. The salesman says “don’t be afraid to give it some power,” and I replied, “I’m flooring it.” We get about a mile down I-355 and that’s it, the car’s done.
Out of gas and pulled off to the shoulder, the salesman looks like he wants to die. He starts frantically making phone calls and, finally, someone from the dealership comes by and refills the tank. Oh, hey, this car is actually pretty peppy when it has actual fuel!
We get back to the dealership and there’s a sign taped to this computer monitor: “STAFF NOTE: CARS NEED GASOLINE TO OPERATE. THANKS, THE MANAGEMENT.” Not sure if he ever lived that down, but the car was good, we got the numbers working, and actually saved about $5,000 off the cost of the Kona due to generous-as-always GM rebates.
I drove the Buick back from the dealer while my wife drove our soon-to-be-turned-in Mini back. I used the new swanky Apple CarPlay touchscreen to call my mom, the Buick diehard, while stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Eisenhower heading back east into the city.
“Hey mom, I’m calling you from my new car. You’re not gonna believe it, but we bought a Buick.”
Her response: “You tell me to buy a Ford and now you’ve got a Buick?”
I had recommended a Fusion to her in 2016 when her last LeSabre was on its elbows.
Postscript: My mother’s Fusion is amazing, the most trouble-free car she’s ever had, and it has 70,000 miles and counting. The Buick Encore is our favorite car we’ve ever had, and it’s got a staggering 6,500 miles in 3 years, some of that due to COVID. And that’s how I got a Buick again, even if it’s built in Bupyeong, not Flint.