Ghost in the Machine

by admin on January 25, 2009

For years, my fuel economy has been going down.

The first car I ever owned was an ’87 Geo Spectrum. You never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It was a re-badged Isuzu I-mark, a no-frills compact with a 5-speed and a 1.5l engine.

It also got 47 miles per gallon.

Now I have never been a real lead-foot. I try to pay attention to where I am driving, and get there alive. Still, 47 MPG without trying was always pretty nice. The car had a ten gallon tank and gas was just under a dollar a gallon in those days. Sure was nice to go almost 500 miles on never more than $10 at the pump.

When that car finally died…Well it sort of never did die.

My friend Steve had the same car, only two years newer and with the Chevy name instead of the Geo.

This was right after Steve had finished college for computer engineering, and was now off to his corporate job. That also meant buying a “real” car.

On his way to the dealership to trade in the old Spectrum, the hood flew up, smashing the windshield. He pulled over, tied the hood down to the car with some networking cable, and drove right back home. The car was now worthless.

It sat in the parking lot of his apartment complex for a year or so, right up to the day my old car’s engine quit.

When he heard of my car problems, (and typical lack of funds) he immediately offered to sell me his old car for nothing more than the cost of the new battery he put in not long before the hood and windshield became such close friends.

So now I had two cars. One with no engine, and one with no windshield or hood. It only made sense to move the hood and windshield from the older car to the newer one.

The hood was easy. Undo four bolts, move the hood, put those four bolts back in. Not bad. The brown hood on the white car looked pretty funny, but nothing a can of spray paint couldn’t fix. I also moved a few interior panels form the old car into the new one. The brown plastic didn’t match the gray plastic of the newer interior, but having rear speakers in this car felt pretty luxurious.

Moving a windshield would prove to be much more difficult than moving a hood. Difficult enough that I decided to call the pro’s.
In one phone call, I had arranged for “the guys in the little red trucks” to come out and remove the shattered windshield from the ’89, then pull the good windshield from the ’87 and put it in the ’89. We agreed to $100 for this service, and that the window repairer would bring with their least expensive windshield to fit the car in case the old one cracked during removal, as they couldn’t guarentee that wouldn’t happen.

That Saturday morning, two glass installers showed up, said hello, then got to work on the car. I was amazed at the array of specialized tools these guys had. Hooks and picks and wire saws. Things to pick away caulk. Suction cups on sticks.

It took these two skilled men FOUR hours to accomplish the transplant. In the last 3 hours, I could see them checking their watches and glaring at each other. It was obvious that they had not planned for it to take that long.

When they were finally finished, the senior installer printed an invoice on his portable truck computer printer, angrily crossed off the printed-out numbers with a magic marker, and wrote $100 in their place.

I handed the man my hard-earned $100 and bid him good day. Through the black marker ink, I could read that what the cost would have come to was close to the neighborhood of what I originally paid for my old car.

The old car was dragged off as a donation to the fire department, to be cut to pieces in practice of passenger extraction and “jaws of life” training. At least it still had some use in it.

But now I had the REincarnation of my first car. It was given a fresh body and VIN, but still had the same soul. In fact it had more character than ever, with it’s patchwork of tinted and clear glass, gray and brown interior and brown and white skin.

That car moved sofas, attended drive-in movies, and logged tens of thousands of miles on the road. It got me to work, and drove me to meet my girlfriend.

The new “reformulated” 10% ethanol was mandated by law in my area. Fuel economy in my car dropped from 47 mpg to 30, although it did eventually go back up to 35. That’s still better than anyone else I knew, with the exception of a friend or two with a Geo Metro.

Of course, it wasn’t a new car, and Wisconsin’s salted winter roads took its toll on the car’s body.

The whole underside of the car started rusting out. The rocker panels were just about gone. So, it was time for me to try some body work. I made new rocker panels from some long strips of aluminum. I ground down rust and bondo’ed holes in the body. It wasn’t pretty, but at least I did it my self. I was proud of my work, worts and all.

Still, it would be great if there was some way to camouflauge the poorly finished bodywork. By now I had bothered to paint the hood white to match the rest of the car. As images of army camouflage whirled in my head, I looked at the white car and realized there was only one thing to do.

Paint it like a cow.

I grabbed a roll of self-adhesive contact paper and a razor and started cutting Holstein shapes and pasting them to the automotive body. My ever-handy Rustoleum paint can rattled and sprayed, forming patterns of slick, black blobs.

Peeling away the templates, I now had something truely unique, my first rolling experiment; the Cow Car.

Did I mention this was the day before my wedding?

I had to scrub like heck to get all the black over-spray off my forearms, and then get to the dinner

The wedding was wonderful, even without my wife’s mother, who passed away only six weeks earlier from cancer.

Death is hard. There’s no controlling it, no stopping it. Just an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. And an absence. The big hole that’s left behind when that person is no longer there to fill it.

That’s when I started working on projects. It was something I could do. Something I could control and build and take pride in. A way to “work it out of my system”.

The day after the wedding, all of my wife’s out of town relatives waited outside the hotel for the taxi to take them back to the airport. It was time for us to go to. I walked into the far corner of the lot where my brother had dropped it off. He filled up the gas tank. For some reason, I always remember that.

I pulled the car up to the hotel carport – all the relative stared. My new wife stared. She hadn’t seen the new paint job yet.
Then they all burst out laughing.

It’s hard not to smile when you see a car painted with such obvious frivolity.
I was always amazed by the positive reactions to the car.

People would constantly honk and wave and smile. One time I was at a traffic light and saw a flash of light. I looked over and saw a car-load of cute college girls smiling and taking photos of the car. I smiled back.

The car was the embodiment of anti-road rage. Even on days of dark and dreary mind, my car was there for me and brought a smile.

I still remember the day when the car car died. It’s easy to remember. You see, it was September 11th.

September 11th, 2002. One year after the attack on the Twin Towers – and my brother’s birthday.

Of course, his birthday was now a National Tragedy. We had planned a birthday party to cheer him up, complete with a custom birthday cake with Cheetara of Thundercats fame on it.

On the freeway, after picking up my sister, the engine started acting funny and stopped completely. I pulled over to the side of the busy interstate, nothing but asphalt and on-ramps as far as the eye could see. Coolant hissed and steamed from under the hood. I later found out that those one coolant hose on the car that was almost impossible to check had given out. Coolant leaked out and the engine seized. It was a hot day for September.

My hung head low over the engine compartment as car sped by, without a car. No more smiles. No more girls with cameras.
One distant voice hollered “And it’s ugly too!” as the doppler effect carried it past.

In the back seat, Cheetara melted into a pool of frosting.

I always remember that as a tough day. My friend Eric took a look at the car, and declared it to be a horse with a broken leg. Shoot it, and carry your saddle to town. He took care of hauling it off to a junk yard.

Next came the automotive equivalent of a series of one night stands. Junky and cheap station wagons, unremarkable econo-boxes, vans, borrowed vehicles, whatever worked and got me a few weeks of transportation. I still have the proof of a dozen license plates nailed up in my garage.

That’s when Steve again came to my automotive aid. “Get over here, he only wants $100 for it!” was the excitement in his voice, telling me of his next-door neighbor who was trying to quickly get rid of a ’93 Dodge Shadow.

I eyed the car. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it. It had an automatic transmission – which meant it wouldn’t even have close to the economy of my old car. It was a two-door, so not as good for passengers in the back. The trunk was tiny. The only redeeming quality was that it was in fact a hatchback.

I put down my $100 and drove that car for the next 100,000 miles.

It became the car I loved to hate. It was too small for towing, but too big for good fuel economy, but it was always exactly good enough for whatever I needed it too be, and not quite bad enough to be sick of and sell.

That was until gas prices started going up. And this car had the worst fuel economy of any I had owned so far.

I also decided that I would get better utility out of a small pickup truck than I would from the car. I bought an S10 with a 5-speed and the EXACT same size engine. It would get better fuel economy in regular driving than the car, and tow better as well.

I now had the truck a few months, everything was working on it, and it was time to get rid of the car.
I sold it for $500 to a girl from the city. Well, her father actually, he’s the one who paid and signed the title. “Yeah, I GUESS I’ll take it.” she mumbled. She was every bit as excited to buy it as I was.

Finally free of my abusive relationship with the Dodge, I was already into other projects. The truck was great for pulling my home-built “teardrop” trailer camper. Building that camper was my way of working through my father-in-law dying of cancer.

The truck was also great for hauling my electric motorcycle out to events. Now I was on an exciting new adventure of building an electric car.

This time, it wasn’t about working through any issues of mortality. It was about proving something to myself. Seeing what I could do. Proving myself against all the voices in my youth that I would never amount to anything. So, I started building one more project.

The electric car.

It ended up being a Geo Metro, a car which had been a satellite to my life – my sister drove one, my best friend drove one. To this day, my brother-in-law has the last one of anyone I personally know. The Metro is also a return to my automotive roots, a re-badged import that has far more character than an SUV driver could ever imagine.

The “Electro-Metro” took on a life of its own. I never knew the where its story would take me. Junk yards, energy fairs, even the court-room. I have met more people and had more experiences in the the last year than it seems like I had in the rest of my life.

In the latest chapter, I was finally able to get the emissions testing exemption taken care of .
A few days ago, the license plate sticker came in the mail. I finally bothered to brave the cold and put the sticker on the car.

The stack on previous stickers sat thick on the salty bottom right corner of the plate. I decided to use a chisel to remove all the old stickers to make a clean, new place for this special one. As I cut through the old stickers, I literally cut through time as well.
How many years back did this go? Years, lots of them. I couldn’t read any of the dates undernieghth, but it bore the uncanny similarity to counting rings on a tree stump.

I finally made it down to the bare plate and stuck on the sticker. I went into the house to get my camera to snap a photo to share with my friends.

It’s amazing how looking through a camera changes things. You often see things you otherwise never would, even though they are right in front of you.

Smack in the middle of the plate was the sticker from 1999. And I don’t think that was the oldest sticker on the plate either.
This plate had been on one car or another, with me, for over a decade.

How far back did it go?

The image struck an unusual familiarity with me. How can I have seen this plate so many times before, and yet I had seen it elsewhere as well?

I went into the house. Many of our pictures, in frames, are in boxes still from the smoke damage we had to our house this summer.

I dug through the box of photographs that hung on our wall, and found a small, white, double-frame. It held two photographs and a key.

On the left is the photo of my wife and I, the day after our wedding, taken by one of her relatives, waiting to go to the airport. One the right is a photo of her and I at my parent’s house the next day. We kneel in front of a “Just Married” sign hanging on the back of a white car with black cow spots. Together, we frame the license plate – the same plate hanging in front of me on a Geo Metro that I have poured my blood, sweat, and tears, but NOT gasoline into.

Somehow, through deaths and marrige, ups in life, and downs that I try not to remember at all, my first car is still there for me.
I know that inanimate objects don’t have souls, but if they did, I know that one would be smiling at me from heaven right now.

I’m still driving the same car, I just didn’t realize it until now.

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