Before we were married, Mrs. UpintheValley wanted to buy a new car to celebrate her new teaching job. Also, to reliably get to work.
I was enlisted as her consigliere while we toured the car lots and she test-drove all the economy models.
“Get the Civic,” I advised. “It won’t leave you by the side of the road.”
“But the Dodge Neon is sporty. And less expensive. And it’s made in America.”
“The Honda Civic is made in Ohio.”
“The Neon is $1500 cheaper, and it’s got power. I want to support American cars.”
What could I say to that argument other than to wish her well? The Neon was sportier. It did have more power. It also came with…quirks and deficiencies. For example, changing gears in the middle of the intersection of Beverly and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, the shift knob went loose in her hands. By loose, I mean it was, without warning, no longer connected to the gear box. It flopped helplessly like a dislocated arm while she gunned the motor, which was effectively in neutral and we coasted to a stop in the middle of the evening commute in a state of bewilderment.
I’ve owned a lot of beater cars over the years. I once crossed the country in a ’68 Buick Skylark on four tires so stripped of tread the steel belts were poking through. But the gear box separating from the shift lever on a car with less than 20,000 miles? That was something new. Chrysler was telling her something, and it wasn’t that it put great store in engineering.
Roll forward in time (and past a number of repair trips to the dealer) to the 70,000 mile mark. There we are, descending the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley on our way north to SF. We have two dogs in the car. It’s July and a 105 degrees. The heat closes in on us. We hit the A/C button and —
Poof! – the engine comes apart. Literally. One of us said to the other, ‘gee, it’s hot,’ and then we pressed the button that said ‘Cool’, and the top half and bottom half of the engine separated. Every rod bent in an instant. We coasted to the shoulder. We had half a bottle of water in the car. The dogs sucked that down in thirty seconds and sat there panting, staring at us.
Chrysler, in its wisdom, decided it could put the timing belt on the same flywheel that turns the water pump. So when the water pump broke down, as they are known to do around, say, 75,000 miles, snap went the timing belt, and with it, the engine. What would normally be a $2oo repair became a totalled car.
After that, Mrs. UpintheValley bought a Honda Civic. You don’t see Neons on the road anymore.
The Civic, along with the iPhone (and yes, the Samsung Galaxy), is one of the great design achievements of Western Civilization. Here’s the report card after 145,000 miles: no repairs. None. No failures to start. No strange noises, no breakdowns. Just maintenance. Last summer, the clutch pedal started sinking to the floor. In the intervening years, the Civic had become the neglected middle child of our transportation arrangements, having been usurped by a younger, flashier Honda CRV and my love of bicycling. So we parked the Civic for six months until we had money to fix it. Left it outdoors. Didn’t even start the engine once.
Yesterday we took it to Peruvian Ivan. ‘It’s not the clutch. It’s just the slave cylinder. No hydraulic fluid. You need to maintain the fluids.’ He charged the battery. We turned the engine over….
Purrrrrrrr. Idling at 700 rpm, like the day it rolled off the assembly line, as silent and loyal as Christine. Like no time had passed at all. I took it out on the freeway for a spin, just to shake the cobwebs loose.
Then a strange thing happened. What should I encounter on the 405 but another Civic, same year, same model, same color, a veritable Jungian double of our very car, in flames on the side of the road. That’s the car you see in the photo above.
I don’t known how the fire started. I can only guess at the oneiroscopy of such Jungian happenstance. What are the odds? But setting it alight would appear be one of the few effective means of getting a Civic off the road. That car is nearly indestructible.
I started thinking about destructibility as intent. Chrysler could have built the Civic, but it chose not to. It’s not like American engineering hasn’t landed dune buggies on Mars. Or built the Vitamix. Or the Golden Gate bridge. Before the schematics are sent to Chinese sweatshops, all i-Products are ‘designed in California’. Yet somewhere in Detroit it was decided sound business sense was served by putting the timing belt on the same flywheel as the water pump. So what if if the car is done in four years? The warranty is only good for three. Then we’ll sell them another one. Better yet, lease. Honda can only sell a car once every ten years. We’ll sell three and make more money.
If you think in three year product cycles, this sort of makes sense. But if you think in terms of greatness, of permanence, of leaving a mark upon the world, it’s a form of suicide. Sort of like Apple during the years of the Steve Jobs banishment.
This world and all its works are perishable. Pursuit of greatness for it’s own sake may be the most noble response to our shared fate. Otherwise we’re just cashing checks.