Sunday, January 2, 2011

Essence versus Appearance

     The first car I bought was the "Oldo Nova". It was not an attractive muscle car with perfect paint, sleek rake and shiny Cragar mag wheels. This Nova was not a fixer upper or a project car; it was a beater, a wreck, a refugee from the crusher. It was a "fishing car", a euphemism for a car that has so little value it doesn't really matter if it makes it back from the trip. A four door white bomb whose interior was incredibly more abused than the exterior decay could ever hint at. I loved that car. It wasn't my first car and it wasn't my first love. My father had given me his 1967 VW Bug and we rebuilt it together. I learned a lot. The car that I first fell for was a 1969 Buick GS, aquamarine with a white top and the chrome side molding that carved a line from the headlights to the rear tires.Immaculate, polished, perfect. Elusive. I had the Nova. a beater if there ever was one.
     The radio was gone,  the floorboards were rusted out, the seats were ripped and the gas gauge permanently read empty. The windshield wipers were anemic, the exhaust came into the interior if you idled.
It had a crooked sideways list from a bad shock or coil spring. It was a an incredible tribute to Detroit's ability to engineer a 'soul' into a car. It always started and if it didn't, you knew it would soon. It was solid in the places that mattered: strong frame, bulletproof transmission, a straight six motor that soldiered on. I didn't know it at the time but the Oldo Nova was as much a teacher as it was transportation.
     The Nova was the "essence" of solid, well built, sound. It functioned as it was designed and engineered to, in the era before microchips, sensors, and on-board diagnostics. If it wouldn't start, the solution was in one of two systems; electrical or fuel. You could narrow down the issue and be on your way....simple process of spark, electrical. Got battery and fire......fuel system, carburetor. 10 hard years had taken a toll on the Nova's looks but its essence was undiminished. Dependable, predictable and tank like, it went where I asked it and always got me back. I am convinced that if you divided the cars sticker price by its weight it was one of the best values of any domestic made product Americans could ever buy, just an opinion mind you.
      Thirty odd years and multiple cars later, I realize that I may have been privileged to own an uncommonly well made Chevrolet Nova that came off the line in 1970. It should not have been as resilient and reliable as it was because of  the neglect and lack of basic maintenance it had been subjected to. It survived some incredibly ill-advised excursions that I shake my head in wonder at today; hauling an apartment load of furniture from the sand hills of North Carolina through the mountains back to Kentucky. It towed a motor less 54 Bel Air to Madison County from Woodford County with a rickety bumper hitch that literally came off with the Bel Air as I attempted to back it into its new home. It made countless late night runs in which we had no idea how much gas was in the tank yet never ran out of gas. The odds are so astronomically against that when  you consider that putting in 5 dollars worth was extravagant and rare in those lean college years.
     A backward glance at the quality of that old car maybe a nostalgic and somewhat selective memory but I believe it represented an object lesson for me in discounting appearance as the sole measure of value or worth; not an easy lesson for young people in our culture of abundance and excess. I'm not naive enough to believe that the Nova cured me of that shallow "looks are everything" attitude that is endemic of college age boys, it did not. What it did do was help me have a more balanced approach to considering the value of reliability, dependability,  and consistency, in making decisions; whether about things or about people. It helped me realize that the best friends or things aren't always shiny and new. It showed me that sometimes reliable and substantial come in beat up boxes and ragged appearance, that good friends are always a call away regardless of the deluge or distance. It helped me make choices about the man I would become, the type of character I would take on as I became a husband and a father. I like to think that my work ethic was in some part forged in the lessons I learned from that car; persistence and perseverance will overcome, determination and integrity will endure.
     I will never forget the mysterious vanishing transmission fluid and how the Nova would defiantly continue to go when the dipstick showed nothing. It would shudder and lurch and I knew it needed 2 or 3 quarts of transmission fluid and it would be good  for another 500 miles. I couldn't find the leak. It would leave small drops on occasion but nothing indicating the amount of fluid I was going through. Finally, I got underneath and traced the line that ran from the transmission to the radiator and was still baffled until I noticed the aluminum line crossing the frame and a solitary red drop poised to fall. The line had rubbed the frame and worn a hole; it sealed when the car was off but opened enough to leak with the vibration of driving. I remember how good it felt to have solved the mystery and also impressed that the transmission was so resilient.  My detective work had taken months.

Hopefully we have learned that the latest and greatest is not always the most desirable, that tried and true will be a reliable and dependable choice for the short and the long term. We have a tremendous heritage as a country with innumerable heroes who have shown us character, steadfastness, heroism and consistency. We are a brand that denotes quality and integrity and we owe it to our previous generations to show our children's children what American made looks like. Be the model you'd love to own.