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A Car Tells The Story of a Father’s Love

by George on February 2, 2011

The first time I bought a car, independent of my father’s wise counsel, was a lesson on how not to buy a car. It still brings tears to my eyes whenever I reflect on it, but not for the reasons you might think.

The last car I bought with my dad was a 1973 Dodge Challenger; it had barely 33,000 miles on it when I bought it in 1977, about a year after I left high school. Its 318 cubic inch V8 was not the 340 Rallye-spec model I craved, but it had air conditioning, Dad thought it was in great shape – and it fit into my humble budget.

1973 Dodge Challenger

My 1973 Dodge Challenger

Over time I would add headers, dual exhaust, Hemi-spec sway bars, firmer shocks, and Rallye wheels to get it closer to what I really wanted, but the initial purchase was the beginning of a love affair. This relationship was both passionate and enduring, but I failed to recognize – until it was too late – how deep the love had grown.

Time will seemingly test the virtue of all things and my relationship with my beloved Dodge was no less immune to this than it was to the elements. By 1985 my beloved car had 198,000 miles on it. The pace and cost of repairs was difficult to cope with and the specter of rear quarter panel rot has started to rear its head. As much as I loved the car, it needed body work that was clearly out of budget.

One fine day in May 1985 I brought the Challenger to my local Dodge dealer to weld yet another crack in the exhaust system. Since planning was not yet a skill I possessed, I’d neglected to find a ride from the dealer to an actual house with furniture you could reasonably sit on for more than ten minutes. For those of you unfamiliar with life in 1985, be assured that car dealers had yet to discover that hospitable waiting rooms or shuttle services were a worthy investment for service customers. Anyway, since my typical rescue parties were unavailable I was left to consider other ways to entertain myself while seemingly marooned. Oh well.

I almost immediately decided to kill some time at the Subaru dealership across the street. Not that I had any intentions of buying a Subaru, but given the choice of a mid-80’s Dodge showroom and a mid-80’s Subaru showroom, it did seem like the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, at that point in my young life, I knew very little of true evil.

Evil found me that day among the rows of new Subaru models neatly arranged for easy inspection. Evil, of course, is actually a less-than-pejorative term for a car salesman.

Evil easily seduced me with charm, easy conversation, and the offer to drive a new car. Drive a new car? To me, that seemed like an amazing way to kill some time! Unfortunately, I had no sense that I was about to be “slammed” (a car-sales industry term) into a new car. Thankfully, the Challenger was on a lift, nose-in, so it would never see my betrayal coming – until it was too late.

Somewhere in the dizzying process of purchasing a Subaru, my father somehow became aware that I was seeking asylum from the confines of the Dodge dealer and came to rescue me. By the time he arrived at the Dodge dealer and was redirected to the Subaru dealer across the street, my dalliance with the Subaru dealership had almost concluded.

I’d bought a new car of my own accord – eschewing my father’s wisdom for a transient feeling of liberation. Caught up in the excitement that only a new car would provide, it never occurred to me how my father might feel about being excluded from this event or how I would feel once this momentary euphoria was gone. Only in my adult life – occurring so many years later – would I lament how I managed to both marginalize my father and sell my automotive passion down the river in one fell swoop.

Unfortunately, without the “papa-bear” protection my father always provided I was ripe for a screwing and that is precisely what I got. Not only did I leave the dealership with a 60-month auto loan and a double-digit interest rate on a butt-ugly pseudo-truck (the lamentable Subaru BRAT), I’d bought the “environment package” and rust-proofing, too! Sadly, this wasn’t the worst of it; the Challenger became a disposable financial asset in this case. It became my $800 down payment on perhaps one of the homeliest vehicles ever produced.

When my father finally arrived at the dealership he seemed somewhat bemused by my efforts and no doubt relieved I was buying a Subaru instead of say, a Corvette. He suggested giving the Challenger a final ride home so he could remove the stereo and speakers he so lovingly installed a number of years prior. Good idea.

I took the new Subaru back to my apartment to get the Challenger’s title. The next day I would go to my parent’s house to escort my father and the then stereo-less Challenger back to the dealership to conclude the trade. It seemed like a good plan, but while my father and I were passing time in the showroom waiting for the salesman to find a dealer plate that would allow me to drive the Subaru off the lot, I had time to consider what all this meant.

I reflected on my time with the Challenger – all the trips, the modifications, the loving care we each gave the other – and a lump began to form in my throat. My right foot began drawing little circles on a showroom floor tile; my hands were in my pockets as my eyes followed the movement of my sneaker. I cleared my throat and blinked back tears that had begun to form as I reminisced about my Challenger. My father saw this and drew near. His bear-like arm went behind me and his familiar, meaty hand clasped my shoulder and he gave me a squeeze, “Don’t worry, you are going to like the new car. You really will,” he said. I wasn’t so sure.

We left the dealership and went our separate ways. He drove the Challenger home and uninstalled the Challenger’s stereo. I drove to my apartment and located its title. The next morning I drove the new car to my parent’s house to meet my Dad and return both cars to the dealer to conclude the trade. I had taken comfort in the new-car smell and the prospect of completely dependable transportation, along with a factory warranty, and thought my melancholy about the Challenger had reached its inevitable conclusion – until I pulled into my parent’s driveway.

The Challenger sat in front of the garage door covered in the droplets of the previous night’s rain. The quantity and quality of the raindrops adorning the hood, roof, and trunk bore testament to a recent waxing, but it made it seem like the car itself was crying in anguish. The gaping hole where the stereo once thrived looked like a mortal wound. Tears once again welled in my eyes as I found myself lost in a thousand great memories of this car, my companion, my friend. A chapter in my life was closing but I didn’t want it to end like this.

As I ruefully considered the fate of my great love, my father walked outside. He had the Challenger’s keys in his hands and was set to drive it to the dealer as I followed behind, but he looked at me and put the keys in my hand instead, “Why don’t you drive her back for old time’s sake? I’ll take the new car.” I nodded absently, took the Challenger’s keys one final time, and gave him the Subaru’s. My father would leave first and I would trail behind him.

The Challenger rumbled to life like it typically did burbling that mellifluous tone that was music to my ears. I backed out of the driveway and looked out over the slight bulge of the Rallye hood. The car now seemed much more massive and full of menace after an evening spent piloting a milquetoast Subaru. The Challenger surged forward as I hit the throttle and effortlessly reeled in the BRAT my father was driving. At the end of our street we both turned out onto the main road. A few miles later, my father turned where I expected him to, but I took the longer route to the dealership to squeeze out just a few more minutes with my car. I cannot remember precisely the route I took, but I know that at some point I pulled over to the side of the road, slid the t-handle shifter into Park – and started sobbing like a schoolgirl. The Challenger continued at idle, the soothing soft beat of the dual exhaust rumble contrasting my emotional breakdown. I don’t know how long I was there, but I eventually collected myself and completed my regrettable trip, broken heart and all.

I tried to hide the hurt when I arrived at the dealership, but my puffy red eyes betrayed my anguish. My father could see my sorrow and tried again to cheer me up, but it wasn’t enough. The Challenger had been my life and now it was gone. No amount of logic or paternal affirmation could possibly wrench me from the emotional abyss I’d tossed myself into.

Since there is nothing worse than a broken heart I left the dealership that day chastened by the experience of this heartbreaking loss. The Challenger was gone … gone … gone.

Rancorous feelings about failing the Challenger and subjugating passion for practicality darkened my mood. Silently I raged at my miscalculations, inadequate earnings, and impulsivity. I grieved for the Challenger and my failure to save it from what I thought would be certain doom.

My only comfort was the memory of my father who, in spite of all historical expectation, didn’t intercede. My father and I had frequent arguments about cars in general and just about everything else in particular, so I expected a loud and angry confrontation when he arrived at the Subaru dealership and learned he’d been excluded from this deal. But that didn’t happen and I wondered why.

The answer became clear on the weekend after my impulsivity claimed the fate of my beloved Challenger when I wheeled the new car into my parent’s driveway on a warm and sunny Saturday morning – and found my beloved Challenger, once again – at its rightful place in front of the garage. It was back!

In fact, it’d come back home a couple of days earlier. My father bought the Challenger back from the Subaru dealer the morning after I’d concluded the sale and drove the new car off the lot.

This escapade taught me much about myself that would take years to rectify. In the immediate I was reminded that my father’s love for me was absolute and immutable. The evidence of this was not just sitting in the driveway, it was woven into the tapestry of our complex and lifelong relationship.

Somehow, lost in the dizzying self-consumption of a male man-child, I’d failed to appreciate that my father felt my grief and anguish in equal measure to my own. This epiphany let me to reconsider my history with my father. Considered in parallel with my self-serving assessments of my dizzying magnificence, I came to understand that perhaps my father’s intransigence on any number of topics was more purposeful than I’d realized. Indeed, over the next 20 years I would become acutely more aware of his virtues and try to assimilate them into my life. Without my passion for cars in general, and the Challenger in particular, this opportunity might never have occurred.

My father passed away 7 short years after he reclaimed the Challenger for this grateful son. Although he’s been gone for more than 20 years now, the memory of this event recalls the best of my dad and his love for me … and the tears this recollection typically evokes bear witness to my great love … of him.

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