One Man's Clunker is Another's Classic Car

A matter of esteem: Even with its scratches and dings, this writer’s broken-down car was an outsized source of pride

Until recently, I drove — and loved — a junker car, a dark blue Suzuki Esteem. I rationalized my affection for this 13-year-old subcompact with the thought that it was unique. I would chuckle to myself as cool hot rods and gleaming classic cars passed me on their way to auto shows at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, thinking, “I see your kind every year.” I’ve spotted only one other Esteem in the Valley, and that was in 2002, shortly after I’d bought my sweet crumbling baby for $2,000 (used) from a dealer in Kingston.

Okay, so the model was discontinued that year, and pronounced my 2000 edition “an also-ran at the economy-car track meet.” But, hey, it had its virtues. It got me to and from the Poughkeepsie train station five days a week at 38 miles to the gallon. My stick shift-phobic kids never asked to borrow it. The cassette deck in the dashboard kept me connected to my tape collection (which includes Smithsonian-worthy relics from my days at Bard College). And I could park it anywhere — unlocked. Even the most desperate, spiral-eyed car thief would surely rather walk or crawl than steal that rattler with 176,000 miles and multiple battle scars on it. Driving a beaten relic begets a certain perverse pride and fearlessness. My Esteem took the best shots this ol’ Valley had to offer, and kept rolling. A deer crushed the hood. A turkey put a huge dent in the front bumper. Road salt snacked on the underside. The rear passenger door handle broke off in my hand. I did my part, too, adding what I liked to think of as a racing stripe by scraping my equally ratty 2002 Grand Caravan into the driver’s side doors.

Alas, my Esteem ended up one repair away from the scrap heap. Finding parts eventually required an extended national search, which became painfully clear after the key broke off in the ignition. While I occasionally dreamed of a midlife crisis car, the sad fact was that my car had become my midlife crisis.

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When my beloved auto failed inspection last fall, it went to a junk dealer for $150. On the plus side, I was left to ponder snazzier wheels. Lacking funds for a Corvette or Dusenberg, I scaled back my wish list. After weeks of due diligence and running a gauntlet of transparently shifty salesmen, I settled on a nearly mint condition, sporty red Ford Fiesta with a sunroof and 35,000 miles on it.
Yee-hah and welcome to the future.

Having piloted a barebones jalopy for so long, my new car feels like a Lear jet. It has hands-free Bluetooth, voice command functions, and a multitude of buttons on the dash I still haven’t figured out. (One apparently does the laundry.)

But I’m haunted by the specter of buyer’s remorse. I had a heart-in-my-gullet moment when I saw something dripping from the Fiesta’s engine. I raced to my mechanic while praying I was still covered under the lemon law, but the puddle in my driveway turned out to be condensation from the interior climate control system.

All in all, my new ride is pretty nice. Yet I find myself gazing longingly at my boxes of cassettes, and I confess to white knuckles on the wheel — now I really dread an encounter with anything on the road or driveway. I have yet to see another Fiesta around here, so I may well be driving something unique. But the first scratch on it will surely break my heart. 

» More from John Rolfe

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