My Next ( And Final?) Car

Not long ago, I wrote a speculative shopping list that I called My Next Bike (MNB). In that essay, I explained that nothing about the essay should suggest that I absolutely will acquire another motorcycle, but it laid out (in a messy, rambling kind of way) some thoughts I had about buying another motorcycle. This current essay is an extension of those musings and should be considered just as (in)consequential.

The truth is, I started out as a ‘car guy’, not a ‘motorcycle guy’. While I enjoyed motorcycle ownership a great deal and learned much about myself in the process, I have much more extensive experience of owning cars. As a consequence, I tend to gravitate to cars when thinking of personal transportation.

Living in Southwestern Ontario…well, cars are a 12-months-of-the-year personal transportation option while motorcycles are not. Still, it seems that a best of two worlds approximation is possible in the form of a convertible.

About twenty years ago, while hanging around the perimeter of a paddock where my daughter was taking a horse-riding lesson, I happened to be chatting with an older man (frankly, someone who was probably then about as old as I am now) who had asked if I rode horses. No. No, I’d never ridden a horse. It didn’t appeal to me. If I were to ride anything, it would more likely be a motorcycle. The older man laughed a bit and pointed at a battered old black Jeep and said, “That’s my motorcycle.” I also laughed and we continued chatting about various things. His point, of course, was that he took the kind of open-aired thrill from driving his Jeep that others find in riding a motorcycle. I’ve had occasion to both ride a motorcycle and drive a convertible and they definitely aren’t the same thing. But there are whispers of similarity.

I was reminded of convertibles and my own experience of owning one while I examined Plato’s Phaedrus Dialogue and the underpinning mythological story of Phaethon, the son of Helios – the Greek sun god.

In Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig used a motorcycle as a metaphor for the self. Riding a motorcycle, Pirsig argued, is being out in the world and living. It’s the self selfing the self ( to recall the useful phrase of Homeless Kodo Sawaki). It’s cutting edge reality. Being isolated in a car behind a windshield, meanwhile is like watching life through a TV screen. Pirsig seemed to feel that being inside a car isolates and alienates a person from the road and the world they are driving through. There is a great deal about that observation which is quite accurate. For Pirsig, of course, he was attempting to depict via metaphor, the human condition. In his analysis, it appears the motorcycle was a more accurate vehicle to convey a metaphor for individual human experience than was a car. This open-air freedom and vulnerability was one aspect of the extended metaphor that he built.

Exploring and exploiting that metaphor, any protective bubble that takes us away from the real life we are living is a concern; we should want to minimize the effects of those bubbles so we can genuinely live our lives. At least, for myself, I have arrived at a time in my life when I feel a motivation to do so.

All well and good. What does that have to do with purchasing a car?

A convertible offers some of that ‘in the scene’ experience that brings a driver (a human being!) back to the reality of the world they are driving through. Ironically, on a motorcycle, wearing the protective gear – and particularly a helmet, creates for me a similar bubble that Pirsig identified and attempted to shed. For me it seems the protective gear is, in some senses, tighter to my field of vision. The helmet’s face shield is literally closer to may face and creates that same tv-screen that a windshield might. Even claustrophobically so. On that basis, a convertible might be a terrific option to put me back in touch with the smells, sights and realities of the world that I occasionally must navigate through.

As with my earlier motorcycle-themed essay, this essay does not dig into the many vehicles that appeal to me…only with the ones that actually make it onto my conceptual shopping-list. I’m also omitting trucks as that is ‘yet another topic’.

MNC: The leading contenders for MLC circa August 2022

To begin to understand my interests, I feel compelled to start at (or near) the beginning of my automotive explorations, and with the critical relationships that were a part of them.

For me this seems to be the case because owning and operating a vehicle is meaningfully connected to a sense of self and identity. Not only does the choice of a personal vehicle carry a statement of who we are and what our values are, it relates to the people and circumstances that surround us at those times.

I want to recognize that the are essential personal observations of my own experience. Someone for whom personal transportation is nothing more than moving from point A to point B, this kind of over-indulged speculation may be meaningless at best. Fair enough. But maybe there are observations that relate to the metaphors and avatars of your self and experience that correlate. The type of home or community you live in, the clothes you prefer to wear or some other external detail of your life that provides some symbolic anchor of experience.

So back to cars…

I have known families that were devoted to a particular brand or even model of vehicle. Brand X or nothing. It seems to me the loyalty is not so much to the brand as it is to a family connection that goes something like ‘Our family has been driving you-name-its since grandad and grandma began driving in the middle of the last century.‘ I’m not mocking this – it seems to be a real and meaningful phenomenon. In Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig ended the book with Chris asking the narrator if he would be able or allowed to have a motorcycle when he grew up. This is exactly the kind of connection I am referencing. An expression of kinship.

The earliest clear memories I have of cars in my family are of a blue 1969/70 era Chevrolet Biscayne sedan and a brown 1971-74 era Plymouth Satellite station wagon. I feel relatively certain that the Biscayne had an inline six-cylinder engine (back then, they were called straight-six engines) while the Plymouth almost certainly had a V8 and probably a big block. These were the vehicles that my father operated when I was something like six to ten or eleven years old. I think that he preferred the Biscayne over the Plymouth. At the time, my parents had purchased a parcel of acreage and the station-wagon was procured to support the camping and maintenance trips to the land and nothing more. The wagon was a practical or pragmatic choice based on functionality. In those days big, old wagons were the all-purpose utility vehicle of their day.

In fact, my father usually referred to anything built by Chrysler in a slightly derisive tone as being a “Chrysler Product”; this nomenclature established that he didn’t think they fully deserved to be called cars and that he rather disapproved of them. So my interest in old Chryslers did not come from my father’s preferences, though I do have strongly positive recollections of that station-wagon.

Of the two cars my father owned in that period, I have stronger memories of riding in the Satellite wagon. It was huge car and perfect for travel to the acreage. I can recall laying in the cargo area with a pet dog and cat on those long rides.

Around those same times, my brother was a teenager and began (what I assume to have been) a life-long affection for Chrysler cars. Indeed, and perhaps not entirely coincidentally, he eventually managed to acquire a blue 1971 Plymouth Roadrunner with a big block V8 when he was in his early twenties. It was a beast, though it didn’t really last all that long due to some too-expensive-to-correct issues. I am not entirely certain what inspired my brother’s preference for Chrysler cars compared to other possible options, but I wonder if my father’s wagon may have had some connection.

My comments are necessarily as distant as my relationships with the individuals that inspire them. Despite the undeniably formative nature of my family relationships, I was not able to remain close to these men in my adult life. We don’t have to be close to our kin to recognize the static patterns that we share with them. These patterns, memories and reminiscences are a kind of highly-specific family cultural heritage. They are concepts which serve as connections. At least, that is the situation that I recognize.

Eventually, in my late teens, my first car was a blue 1973 Plymouth Satellite Sebring coupe with a small block 318 V8. All three of the Plymouths mentioned so far were manufactured on that same underlying platform of Chrysler B-body cars. It is a certainty that my first car purchase was motivated by a respect and familiarity established by my father and brother. And it shouldn’t go without notice that it was my father who brought the old Sebring to my attention on a side-road in Grafton, Ontario. My car was identical in most regards to my brother’s. Same fundamental fuselage-styled coupe body. Same colour. The differences were primarily about the engine and transmission.

I acquired the Plymouth for a few hundred dollars when I was in my teens and knew virtually nothing about owning and maintaining a vehicle. Nor did my family have a significantly-developed culture of devotion that would allow or tolerate a long-term project such as restoring a failing vehicle. The result of my inexperience and incompetence was that it eventually sat unused (i.e. broken down) long enough that it was unceremoniously towed to the scrapyard….where it was probably pounced-upon by someone with more mechanical wherewithal. I really ought to have tried to learn about car ownership in a more active way to keep that old car running. But I didn’t.

In Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he spends some time talking about gumption and gumption traps. I have frequently experienced these gumption traps…times when the necessary repairs outstripped my competence and patience. Times when I didn’t give the vehicle the time, attention and resources it needed to stay on the road. Times when I just wanted the machine gone. Maybe some other car would bring me less grief. Time after time, it turned out not to be true.

Despite my disappointments, I developed or maintained an appreciation for Chrysler cars for a long time. In fact, my second car was also a Chrysler – a yellow 1978 Dodge Omni 024. At the time, I enjoyed that little Dodge a great deal. It had a tiny Volkswagen 4-cylinder engine and hummed along just fine despite the relatively low horsepower numbers. In fact, I think I had a greater affection for the ‘mini-Mopar’ than I did the B-body. It seemed to be a car more sensibly sized and in keeping with my needs and identity. It is one of the vehicles that I ought to have given more time and attention to. But I didn’t.

Dodge OMNI 024: Two Doors, Four Cylinders. Oh, OK.

Would I want to purchase another B-body or Omni today? Despite the nostalgia that comes with reflecting on these things, not overwhelmingly so. The point in the reflection is rather to identify the appreciation for other Chrysler models that I would actually be interested to re-acquire.

I say re-acquire because one lesson of having owned many vehicles over several decades is that sometimes you’re better off with things that you are familiar with. Sometimes the ‘familiar’ is still right for you at a particular time in your life. Every car has some kind of repair bugaboo that will keep you troubled, so going with something you aren’t familiar with brings a new learning curve, new surprises and new problems (along with the new joys).

At this time, when it comes to vehicle ownership, it seems reasonable to assume that any given $3,000 car – if given serious and dedicated attention – will never be as expensive as any given $30,000 or $40,000 car. In this age when governments and others want everyone to buy a new electric car…well those figures also compensate for rapidly inflating fuel costs.

Chrysler TC by Maserati: It existed because an auto executive wanted to irritate a past employer. I can’t prove that, but it’s probably true.

These kinds of sentiments were expressed in a quaint-but-true book titled Why Trade It In: How to Keep your Car Running Almost Indefinitely written by George and Suzanne Fremon published at some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I often wish I hadn’t tossed my copy as it has some sentimental value for its practical, sensible approach to owning and maintaining a car for the non-mechanically competent. The Fremon’s book offered philosophy in practice rather than philosophy in conceptualization.

Robert Pirsig advocated that we develop competence to overcome the gumption traps in our lives…the Fremon’s advocated pragmatic preventive maintenance to avoid problems in the first place. Each of these is a sensible philosophy and are not mutually exclusive. We should make choices that minimize the probability of things shutting us down…while also developing our competence to fix things when and if they go wrong. This fundamental attitude goes far, far beyond the relatively superficial matter of owning an item of transportation.

Now that I’ve backed-up very nearly to irrelevance – let’s get to the shopping list.

When I was in my early thirties, I owned a green 1987 Chrysler Lebaron Convertible with a 2.5 cylinder 4-cylinder engine (curb weight 2900 lbs). I enjoyed owning that car a lot more than any vehicle I had owned up to that point. Also more than many of the vehicles I’ve owned since. I even managed to do some work on the car myself, which helped me to gain some level of confidence in maintenance matters. I definitely would purchase another one – indeed the Lebaron of that era tops my (current) list for My Next (Final) Car (MNC).

Dodge Daytona: The hatchback Lebaron. Not “dissimilar” to the Dodge OMNI…nor the Mitsubishi Starion

The LeBaron model I owned was one of the so-called J-Body cars which Chrysler manufactured from 1987 to 1995. As an evolution of the Chrysler K-cars, they are not greatly appreciated by car collectors. Despite this, I still have an affection for cars in the series..Lebaron Coupe and Convertible and Dodge Daytona/Chrysler Laser hatchbacks (G-body, technically) the Chrysler Touring Coupe (TC) by Maserati.

I’m aware that the Chrysler Lebaron is not a vehicle that ranks terribly highly as a collector vehicle. Indeed, the Lebaron, along with its K-car foundation, is often derided as something of a joke. But that doesn’t strike me as a necessarily bad thing. I’m pretty sure that a degree of humour and lightness is a good thing.

My family and I lived in Eastern Ontario when I purchased my (first) Lebaron. It was the first (and only) convertible that I owned. I have several fond memories of driving it as a commuter and as a part of our family experiences during those times. Driving along Eastern Ontario’s two-lane highways with my wife and daughter in that car remains one of the automotive experiences that I enjoyed most.

Two of Eric’s Chryslers circa 2004

The Lebaron I owned was a convertible and here I think I’d prefer to say it was a phaeton – a car without a permanently installed roof. Well I suppose a car that has a retractable roof means its permanently installed – but I still prefer the term because it has the connotative link to Greek mythology and the sun. Phaethon was a son of Helios, the Greek sun god. And that reminds me of listening to The Cult’s 1989 song “Sun King” in that very same car.

I ended up giving-up on the Lebaron when I lost confidence that it would ever be a reliable daily-driver vehicle for the 90-minutes-per-day of commuting that was a part of my life at the time. The car’s electrical systems had left me stranded a few times too many. Despite the flaws, there remain several features of the model of car that appeal to me even now.

Perhaps now, I’ve reached a time when long-term projects of a recreational and devotional nature are possible for me to consider.

The 2.5 engine in that car was essentially a conceptually scaled-down version of the bullet-proof Chrysler ‘slant six’ engine. It is my understanding that the 2.5 is not the ‘same engine’ with two cylinders lopped-off – but that they wee designed by the same engineers. Let us say that they Chrysler enthusiasts of the old school don’t really mind considering these engines to be ‘Mopar’ engines. The slant six and the little four-cylinder are both very durable motors. And even the bit of work I needed to (and was competent to perform) was relatively easy. Additionally, the 2.5 was a non-interference engine. This means that despite a broken timing belt that I encountered while owning the car, the engine was not destroyed by valves connecting with pistons. That beats the vast majority of contemporary engines that will most assuredly be destroyed if their rubber timing belt breaks. The 2.2/2.5 engines can be turbo-charged to achieve ridiculous horsepower numbers. This isn’t a big consideration for me, but it is nice to know how strong the engine is without that added stress.

Lebaron GTS Circa 1985-1989

As an off-shoot of this I would absolutely try out owning a Lebaron GTS if a nice, clean one were to be obtained for a reasonable price. Maybe it’s because it’s a hatchback masquerading as a sedan (or vice-versa). Maybe I just like odd-ball designs that don’t seem to appeal to others.

More probably it’s because of the nomenclature and design connection to the M-body Chrysler that I tried owning on two occasions – the first time being a gold-coloured Plymouth Caravelle (in the USA, Plymouth Fury) sedan and the second time being a white Caravelle coupe. I really wanted the M-body to work for me. But some of those too-expensive-to-repair-at-the-time gumption traps struck. and I wasn’t able to stick with the M-bodies. The Chrysler version of the M-body was called Lebaron and also New Yorker Fifth Avenue; the Dodge version was the Dodge Diplomat.

I have owned and operated an unreasonably large number of vehicles. The vast majority of them were used vehicles purchased for relatively low purchase costs. In most cases, a new vehicle has seemed like both a waste of money and something that doesn’t quite fit my budget.

An important detail for buying a used car is easy/cheap maintenance. All cars, new or used, require maintenance and repairs eventually. So an older model with fewer electronic bits to go wrong, reasonably plentiful supplies of parts is a good choice. The Lebaron was made in huge numbers. While they’re getting rare, there are always a few of them around for sale in operating condition. And often they’re offered for a whole car pretty much at the same price as a transmission or motor would cost.

The Mitsubishi Connection

Two of the vehicles I have acquired new were a 2006 Mitsubishi Outlander and a 2022 Mitsubishi RVR. These are the two extant versions of the Mitsubishi ASX design concept that have been sold in Canada. I’ve enjoyed these cars. (see my Incomplete Explorations of Fuzzy Logic). They’re the right size and have the right functionality for the things I need to do most of the time.

In my reminiscences, the Mitsubishis I’ve owned are a connection to that practical station-wagon my father owned; they’re also a connection to the four-wheel drive AMC cars that I once had ambitions to acquire. My father, brother and sister all had AMC Concords as their daily vehicles during various times in the 1980s. Indeed Mitsubishi, Chrysler and AMC overlap in many areas due to shared marketing and manufacturing. They’re kin.

I owned the operated the Outlander longer than I’ve owned any other vehicle and it had relatively few problems through much of it’s life. After the 10-year warranty ran out, it got expensive each year to repair this or that. But the experience as positive enough that we leased a 2022 version of the same car earlier this year. It’s a relatively short lease, which is why I’m already thinking about what might come next.

Mitsubishi Starion: RWD, as the Lebaron/Daytona ought to have been; it’s not a genuine contender but this model is part of the connotation for me.

All that to say, that an off-shoot of my affection for Chryslers is an appreciation for Mitsubishi cars. Many Chrysler cars are actually Mitsubishi models with Chrysler branding or Chrysler cars with Mitsubishi engines. Indeed, the Lebaron often came with a Mitsubishi three litre V6 (6G72) engine.

As I’ve continued to ponder the old Lebarons, I wonder what the car might have been like with one of Mitsubishi’s 3.8 litre 6G75 engines. In the more recent Mitsubishi Eclipse, these engines between 215 and 265 horsepower and seems like something that would significantly alter the Lebaron experience to what it ought to be.

Mitsubishi 3.8L

This reference to wondering about a different engine in a Lebaron is a kind of hint of the kind of dreaming and wondering that car enthusiasts are prone to. It’s also a hint at the kind of metaphor that Pirsig used. The vehicle that is the self, but a self that can be made better than it already is.

Electronics

Protective bubbles take many forms. Today, I can’t help but feel that electronics is one of the protective bubbles that separates us from reality. Contemporary motor vehicles, whether they are powered by electricity or by hydrocarbons – are becoming more and more bubble-like. Sensors and automated, intelligent systems (see my investigations of fuzzy logic) are separating drivers from the reality. It seems to me that most drivers of this twenty-first century understand their vehicle and their road significantly less than the driver of the twentieth-century.

So, a car with fewer electronics appeals to me considerably when compared with contemporary cars.

Cars I Have Owned

  1. 1973 Satellite Sebring (318, V8)
  2. 1979 Dodge Omni O24 (1.7L, I4)
  3. 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass (305, V8)
  4. 1978 GMC Sierra (I6)
  5. 1980 GMC Vandura (350, V8)
  6. 1994 Lada Samara (1.5L, I4)
  7. 1986 Oldsmobile Firenza (2.0L, I4)
  8. 1985 Plymouth Caravelle (318, V8)
  9. 1992 Nissan Maxima (3.0L, V6)..
  10. 1989 GMC Sierra (350, V8)
  11. 1987 Chrysler Lebaron (2.5L, I4)
  12. 1980 Plymouth Caravelle (318, V8)
  13. 1995 Ford FI50 (4.9L, I6)
  14. 2006 Mitsubishi Outlander (2.4L, I4)
  15. 1999 Ford Mustang (3.9L, V6)
  16. 2004 Lincoln LS (4.0L, V8)
  17. 2022 Mitsubishi RVR (2.0L, I4)

I have omitted cars that I’ve had in my possession but did not actually own for one reason or another.

1990 Chrysler Lebaron GTC Turbo. (Photo Courtesy: consumerguide.com)

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3 thoughts on “My Next ( And Final?) Car

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