(first posted 9/7/2013) My mother-in-law, Helen, passed away a few weeks ago. She was not what we would call a “car person”. Mrs. JPC had mentioned to her a time or two that I write for an old-car website, and her reply would be something like, “That’s nice. Kroger had apples on sale, so I made an apple pie. Here, let me cut you some. Do you want some ice cream with it?”
I think Helen had maybe four cars throughout her entire life. The first was a big Chrysler, purchased for her when she got married in the 1950s. A car person (or a social climber) would have been happy about it, but to her it was just too big. She called it a boat and seldom drove it. Her driver’s license lapsed around that time, and she saw no reason to renew it; as a city dweller, she simply saw no reason to drive a car and concentrated her energy on raising five kids.
When her middle daughter got a driver’s license, Helen decided that maybe the time had come to renew her own, which she did. She latched onto an older VW (either a fastback or a squareback), which was a car she felt sufficiently comfortable in. Still, there wasn’t much reason to drive it, and the car didn’t get all that much use.
In the ’80s, her marriage ended and she was left with five grown kids, a house and not much else. Now, for the first time in her life, she really needed a car in order to go back to work, and (also for the first time) picked one out for herself. Her car would have to be two things: small (she wouldn’t drive anything big), and inexpensive. With her kids’ help she chose a silver Chevrolet Spectrum sedan, which was in her driveway when I met the future Mrs. JPC.
I got to drive it once. It was a perfectly wretched little car. The little four-cylinder engine was barely able to overcome the three-speed automatic, one of the few extra-cost features on Helen’s Spectrum. Power equipment? None. Actually, I was amazed that she had the kind of strength to wrestle with the car’s stiff manual steering during parking maneuvers. And it was such a treat on a hot day, as the “vent” blew heated air at the driver. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long reach to the other three window cranks to give the hot vent air somewhere else to go.
But I never, ever heard Helen complain about the Spectrum (or about much of anything else, for that matter). Its job was to take her to work, until she retired; a half-mile to the grocery store; a half-mile to church for Sunday Mass; and a mile or two to visit her nearby kids and grandkids. “I made a cake to bring over. Would you like some now, or should we save it for later?”
The only time the Spectrum ever made it onto an interstate highway was when her next-to-last grandchild was about to be born, in Dallas. It was decided that Mrs. JPC would pack our one-year-old kid into the Spectrum and accompany Helen from Indianapolis to Dallas to help out. Why, I asked the Mrs., don’t you take your Honda Accord? It would be more pleasant and comfortable by an order of magnitude (if not two). It was explained to me that if Helen felt the need to drive somewhere in Dallas, she would never drive the Accord–too big, you know.
I decided right then and there that Mrs. JPC had cleared one of the first hurdles toward eventual sainthood by driving that Spectrum all the way to Dallas and back with a one-year-old in the back. It goes without saying that Helen did not take a turn at the wheel, since she would live her entire life without ever driving a car on an interstate highway. Fortunately, their trip was in November, so the lack of air conditioning would not be an issue.
After 10 or 11 years, the Spectrum had racked up something like 34,000 miles. You see, the thing was such a penalty box that nobody in the family ever considered it an upgrade, so it became the car of last resort for anything beyond taking Helen to the store or to church. And, in truth, it didn’t really cause her any trouble. But it was getting to be an old car, and her son decided it was time for Mom to get into something decent. He helped her into a nice, shiny Civic with power steering and air conditioning. Initially, there was concern that she might find the Civic too big, but she adapted.
At the time, I had a secretary whose daughter was looking for some cheap wheels. The Spectrum was starting to get rusty, and it was not much of a car. It was, however, a genuine one-owner, low-mileage car that probably was as nice a car as one could get for the money. While I was thrilled to be able to help move that miserable excuse for a car out of the driveway, Helen liked the young woman and her family and felt good about her car going to someone who really needed it.
Yes, I know that the car in these pictures is two-door Isuzu I-Mark, and that Helen’s car was the badge-engineered Chevy version with four doors. It looked a lot like this Pontiac Sunburst, which again was the same thing. And I know that this I-Mark is a bit newer than an ’86, but does it really matter? I used to look at these as rotten little pieces of automotive crap that had no real reason for existing. Yet as time has passed, I think of Helen whenever I see one of these. The Spectrum wasn’t really so much a car as it was a delivery device for the ingredients of many delicious meals, desserts and after-school treats for the grandkids. It is fitting that I found this one in the parking lot of a Kroger grocery store. Maybe somebody else’s grandma was in there that day, buying tapioca to make some pudding. We say here that every car has a story, but sometimes the story isn’t so much about the car as about the person the car reminds us of. If this is the case, I guess that I have quite a fondness for these little cars after all.