The Aged V: A Brief History
On the surface it was an unassuming economy car—another metal box on wheels anonymously cruising the streets of Massachusetts. This soulless vessel would prove to be more than a way to get from here to there. For me, it became a repository for my attention, time, aspirations and neglectfulness. After all it was my first car, and it would be whatever I chose it to be.
My Father’s Car
First of all it was my father’s car. He bought the 1976 Chevy Vega hatchback from Mirak Chevrolet of Arlington, Mass. Contrary to conventional wisdom he picked this used, runt of the litter despite its history as a rental car. Perhaps he was haunted by the intangible qualities that would later intrigue me. Or more likely, his Yankee frugality could not pass up the price.
In 1980 I was a senior in high school and spending less and less time with my family and enjoying every moment of the high school daze. When cancer quickly took my father’s life in December, I was jolted from my daze and brought closer to my family. That’s when my father’s car became my first car and in its own way helped me ease back into the world of high school, friends and young adulthood.
I suppose the Vega was one of GM’s feeble attempts at providing the American public with an economy car. The aluminum engine block saved weight, but was not the best choice for longevity, since the metal was prone to warping. Besides, the ungainly mass of the side doors easily canceled out any weight savings achieved in the engine. Its gas mileage was not great and it had little power.
My Vega was painted a shade of gray that often passed for silver. The factory installed air conditioning was fading faster than its apple red interior and the sound system consisted of a stock AM radio. However, the hatchback and fold down seat were handy for transporting my other mode of transportation and backup vehicle, a 12–speed Fuji bicycle.
I christened the car the “Aged V” inspired by a doddering, elderly character, Aged P, in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations—an appropriate name for a doddering, aging lemon of a car. We read in English class that the protagonist, Pip, described the Aged P as “clean, cheerful, comfortable, and well cared for, but intensely deaf”. Substitute the word “deficient” for “deaf” and you had the Aged V.
My father had transferred an old license plate number he had forever to the Vega. I thought it was the coolest random arrangement of numbers—62524. My grandfather had 62523. In one fit of madness I broke that historical chain by getting a set of “AGED V” vanity plates. Today, I wonder what I was thinking, but at the time it seemed a very sane decision. It was one way of marking the car as mine, and it gave it some badly needed personality.
Primp My Ride
In my mind’s eye I saw the “V” as a distant cousin to the Camaro Z28. All it needed was a few modifications to bring it closer to my vision. In reality it was a Ford Pinto knockoff and my feeble modifications did nothing to bring it closer to even that humble standard.
Originally, the only music that emanated from my car was from the AM radio. I bought a used cassette deck and speakers from my friend Chris. After a couple of hours of work we had “Yes” reverberating through the car’s frame like a pipe organ echoing through the grand halls of a cathedral. The only mishap during installation was a misplaced hole in an interior side panel that I eventually concealed with a makeshift poster of The Police, cut from a “Zenyatta Mondatta” album sleeve and laminated in Saran wrap.
When I was in need of a mentor, an acquaintance of mine, “O.B.”, took me under his wing. He was a proud owner of an Astre, Pontiac’s version of the Vega. Being an Astre enthusiast and therefore a proponent of Vegas, he wanted to improve upon my paltry mechanical skills enough to properly maintain my newly acquired charge. He showed me the basics like where the distributor cap was, and how to change and gap the spark plugs. Our big project was by–passing the pollution control system. Did it improve the engines performance? Marginally at best, but as far as I was concerned I might as well have turbocharged the engine.
Another acquaintance of mine, Mike, actually owned a Camaro Z28. It had a T–roof with removable glass panels, a concealed radar detector and a nice sound system. Mike had an air of mystery about him. He never allowed his picture to be taken. He also once told me that he had been in a “very bad” accident, as he stared at his faintly scarred right hand. Nonetheless, he had the seatbelts removed from the Z28. “They irritated me,” he mumbled. Inspired by this bold move I cut the irritating shoulder strap from the Aged V’s driver’s side seat belt. Ahh, the freedom!! But not too much. I was too safety conscious to eliminate the lap belt too.
What Cost, Freedom?
In the fall of 1981 I was off in the Aged V to Montréal, Québec to start university. I had drained my bank account with investments in the car—giving it a fresh set of all–season radials, repairing a damaged oil pan, and trying twice to repair a leaky air conditioning system. There was never any doubt that I would take the Aged V to school. I definitely needed the freedom to make road trips whenever I pleased.
Once again reality interfered with my ideal. The road trips did occur without incident. But because of student visa restrictions, I was forbidden to earn any money. And the bills were mounting up. I dabbled in forgery to make a fake campus parking pass, avoiding the $30 per month parking fee. But more obstacles kept popping up including high Québec gas prices, severe winter conditions and the fact that I had to attend classes, study, and take exams.
The Neglected Loved One
The Aged V spent the next semester sitting in my driveway back home in Massachusetts. It did not appreciate the fact that I was continuing on with my life 300 miles away while it stared at the same spot for four months. The V felt like it was getting punished, and it couldn’t figure out why. It became obsessed at figuring out ways to get back at me.
I flew home in April to pick up the Aged V for an end of school–year road trip. I planned to visit friends, go back to school, take my last exams, collect my things and return home for the summer. On the way out to visit my buddy Collin in Schenectady, New York, I noticed a disturbing vibration in the front wheels that the stereo system could not drown out. I added a couple of long days to my Schenectady stay while I waited through the weekend for a garage to open. The garage replaced the wheel bearings, and the Aged V had completed part one of its revenge scheme.
The next afternoon, I was back on the road to Montréal, but my car had other plans. Around Troy it decided to spew fire from its carburetor. It was back to my favorite town for another full day in the garage, more money and completion of part two of the revenge scheme. Later, after spending far too much time in Schenectady, I headed back to Montréal, worrying about the exams I hadn’t studied for. As I approached the Adirondack Mountains I read a sign, “You are entering 80 miles of the most scenic highway in America”. Great, the sun had set an hour ago.
Afterword: A New Focus
After that trip, things were really not the same between us. We enjoyed each other’s company, but I no longer showered the Aged V with attention. We kept it strictly business—oil changes and short trips only. The V spent autumns and winters at home in the driveway. In 1988 it could no longer go on. It spent its last days on the lot of a repair shop with a for sale sign on it. When there were no takers, it was towed away to the junkyard.
Now, years later I am a proud owner of a Ford Focus sedan. Contrary to conventional wisdom I picked a used, runt of the litter despite its history as a rental car. Perhaps I was haunted by intangible qualities that may later intrigue me. Or more likely, my Yankee frugality could not pass up the price. It has no nickname, it’s not my first car and it will not be my last.
But maybe I’ll spring for some vanity plates. I wonder if 62524 is taken?
Originally posted 2005