COAL: Automotive Interregnum

Around the same time that my mother informed me that I was now required to pay rent, I took a trip up to Washington D.C. to visit a close friend who had just graduated from Georgetown and was working as a Hill Rat.  She was still living in Georgetown, but now sharing a house with five other girls.  She had been trying to find a better situation, but her stories about responding to “Roommate Wanted” ads were quite frightening.  The middle-aged fat guy with no teeth who answered the door in his undershirt was the most memorable.

I had absolutely no intention of paying rent to live in my parents’ house, but no car, little money and a menial job somewhat limited my options.  I was looking at moving to Manhattan, where my sister was living at the time.  I could stay with her until I found a job and was planning on responding to the “Roommate Wanted” ads myself to find a place to live.  After hearing my friend’s stories, however, the prospect of actually doing that was much less appealing.

Upon returning home, I called my friend and asked what she thought about becoming roommates?  She ended up finding a two-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill, right near the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 2nd Street SE, for $795 per month (total, not each).  The Capitol South Metro station was just around the corner.  Was I interested?  Hell, yes!

Shortly after moving in, I met my neighbor, Debbie.  Debbie was a wonderful woman who fit the definition of eccentric.  She had come from an old-money family and had married into another old-money family, with all of the biblical Deadly Sins that entails.  Reading about the Vanger family actually reminded me of some of her stories.  After her divorce, she moved to D.C. to be near her three somewhat untrustworthy children and adopted me as a fourth (albeit more trustworthy).

Debbie’s 1987 Toyota Celica GT parked in front of our apartment during the Great Blizzard of ’96.  It would be three days before our road was plowed.


Debbie frequently traveled to Palm Beach to visit her mother, and, after knowing me for a while, handed me the spare keys to her 1987 Toyota Celica GT and said that I was welcome to drive it whenever she was away.  “Celeste just loves a run in the country.”  For a person without a car, this was an irresistible offer.  It was clear that the car had spent the majority of its life parked on the street.  It was hacked, and the radio was broken due to an aborted theft attempt.  However, in true Toyota fashion, the fuel-injected 2.0-liter engine ran like a sewing machine, the 4-speed automatic shifted smoothly, and the car drove well overall.

Internet photo of a BMW 320i that is in much better condition than was my roommate’s.


Of course, that still left the times Debbie was in town to find alternate transportation.  One of the advantages of not owning a car is that it gives you the opportunity to drive plenty of others.  My roommate’s father gave her his old, used-up 1982 BMW 320i that had a tendency to stall when stopped.  I had to teach her, when coming to a stop, to take the car out of gear and brake with her left foot while keeping the accelerator pressed with her right.  Even with its faults, I still enjoyed driving the 320i more than any of the later BMWs I experienced.  It was pure.  My roommate still misses it, even though her mechanic Fritz (who else?) probably put at least one of his kids through college with the money he made off of her.

Another wonderful thing about living in D.C. without a car is that you can easily hop on the Metro to National Airport..sorry, Ronald Reagan National Airport…and rent a car.  Shortly after my now wife and I started dating, we were looking for something to do, and I found a hay ride out in Maryland somewhere.

“Unfortunately, the Metro doesn’t go there,” she said.

“We’ll just rent a car,” I replied blithely.

“What?  You can do that?!?”

Then she sat there slack-jawed as I called Alamo, reserved a car, and we hopped on the Metro to the airport.  This was a drastic change from her ex-boyfriend, who made them walk through downtown D.C. in the middle of the night, after the Metro had closed, to avoid paying cab fare.

Other memorable rentals included the Chevrolet Corsica with the non-working brights that took us into the deep, dark Pennsylvania countryside on our way to the bed & breakfast near Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Falling Water.  The white Oldsmobile Achieva where we got lost in downtown Anacostia. “I-395 meets up with I-295 right here on the map.  I don’t understand it!”  Clearly, not the car you wanted to be in when lost in downtown Anacostia in the nineties.  There was also the Mitsubishi Mirage sedan that took us to Paramount’s Kings Dominion, where I proposed at the top of the “Eiffel Tower” (classy, huh?).

Fantastically red interior of my rental 1994 Mustang convertible.


Even though I had full access to the Dodge Colt, at least for the first couple of years after moving away, I had other ideas for my first trip back to Florida.  I had found a good job and had low expenses with no student loans.  There was only one way I was going to make my grand return – in a new Mustang convertible.  My sister was also visiting that weekend, and we all took the Mustang to breakfast.  “I’ll drive,” Dad said as he grabbed the keys from me.  Afterwards, I picked up my friend Steve and headed top-down to Key West, where we both got absolutely hammered somewhere on Duval Street.

The author at the end of the road.


Back at home, the hard seats in Dad’s Civic were killing his back.  One of his top candidates for a replacement was the new Chrysler Cirrus, one of the products of a rejuvenated post-Iacocca Chrysler that released a series of class leading, cutting edge, under-engineered, poorly assembled cars.  I couldn’t believe that Dad was considering another Chrysler product, but he could get a nice LX V6 for about the same price as a low-spec 4-cylinder Camry or Accord.

Internet photo of a 1995 Chrysler Cirrus LX identical to Dad’s


On a business trip to South Florida, I rented that exact car.  It had 10,000 miles on it and had already succumbed to numerous squeaks and rattles, with a rough-sounding engine and harsh-shifting transmission.  I couldn’t wait to get to the house to tell Dad he should avoid this car, but it was too late.  He’d already bought it.  While not a paragon of quality, Dad owned it until he passed away in 1999.  Mom kept it another six years after that.

As for the Colt, I received a phone call from Dad when the car was about eight or nine years old.  Dad never called.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Hello?”

Dad: “Hi, Adam.  It’s Dad.”

Me: “Hi, Dad.  What’s up?”

Dad: “Are you sitting down?”

Me: “You totaled the Colt, didn’t you?”

Dad: “Sorry.  I ran a stop sign.”

Of all the cars I’ve owned (or pseudo-owned), that’s the one I would love to have again.  It had character, and was just an all-around good car.

A couple of other memorable drives came from a most unlikely source.  While searching around trying to figure out what to do with my life (I still am), the latest issue of Car & Driver arrived in the mail.  In the Editor’s column, William Jeanes wrote about the new hires to the editorial staff.  Now, I was always under the impression that one had to be either an ex-race car driver, ex-automotive engineer, or both in order to work in automotive journalism (please hold your John Davis jokes).  None of these people fit the profile.  One or two were journalism majors, and others had non-automotive backgrounds.  Holy cow!  I could be an automotive journalist!

I immediately signed up for a journalism course.  While talking with the instructor about my career goals, she mentioned that she also worked as a copy editor for a local car magazine, African Americans on Wheels.  Seriously.  It was founded by a visionary named Randi Payton, who believed that the major magazines spent too much time focused on expensive sports cars and virtually no time on stories relevant to urban-dwelling African Americans.  Major stories included profiles of racer Willy T. Ribbs, super-dealer Mel Farr, and, most memorably, a feature article based on a guide for African-American families from the 1940s for taking a road trip, including a list of hotels where one could and could not stay.  Instead of trying to compete on the magazine racks, he pushed it as a monthly insert in the Sunday edition of major newspapers.  She gave me a copy of the magazine and offered to introduce me to Randi.  That, after offering some constructive criticism, is how I landed a gig as a fact checker.  It may have been pointing out the reference to the 24-valve Vulcan V6 in the Ford Taurus (wrong name) or the V6 engine in the BMW 325i (not a V6), but the magazine definitely needed technical help.  I also got to write up some press-release material for the Briefs section.  And, yes, I was incredibly lucky.  The contributing editors included Warren Brown of The Washington Post and Paul Eisenstein of The Car Connection.

Photo of a 1997 Ford Expedition cribbed from CC


I loved dropping by their main offices (Randi’s apartment) and seeing the press cars out front.  Things picked up when Randi asked if I could drive several boxes of magazines to the 1997 Detroit Auto Show, offering up that week’s Ford Expedition.  Another time he handed me the keys to a Honda Prelude, since there was no one else available to drive it.  That was followed a couple of weeks later by a Chevrolet Blazer.  Hands down, this was the best part-time gig ever!

The 1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS in which I did some things that I’m not proud of during the press event.


Around May, I was asked to attend the press lead in for the new Subaru Forester and Impreza 2.5RS held at a resort in the Cascades about an hour from Seattle.  The experience was not unlike football fantasy camp, loaded with a bunch of players you either loved or at least had heard of.  There were journalists from Automobile, Motorweek (unfortunately, not John Davis), Truck Trends, New Car Review, and, most notably, John Phillips from Car & Driver.  The highlight of the week, besides the (illegal) 100+ MPH jaunts along the roads surrounding the resort and riding in a Rally-spec WRX driven by ‘Possum’ Bourne at Seattle International Raceway, was sitting at Phillips’ table at dinner while he regaled us with stories about C&D‘s old Shitbox Challenge.  The “challenge” primarily involved the C&D staff beating on a fleet of Chevettes.  He was pondering whether they should start it up again with the Ford Aspire.


Paul Eisenstein of The Car Connection and Jay Koblenz of New Car Review at Seattle International Raceway.


This photo of the new Subaru Forester was the same one Jay Koblenz used in New Car Review.


Rally driver ‘Possum’ Bourne shows Car & Driver’s John Phillips a good time in a rally-spec Impreza WRX at Seattle International Raceway. Only Phillips got this level of treatment.


Just before our wedding at the end of 1997, my fiance and I left Capitol Hill – we had moved into a charming little apartment around the corner from my dumpy first apartment two years prior – for Arlington, VA.  Our new complex had a large parking lot with free parking, which opened the door again to car ownership.  That car, and the car we purchased after it, proved the old adage that some days you’re the bird, and some days you’re the statue.