Kicking the tires - by John Sealander

Kicking the tires - by John Sealander

I have always had an odd relationship with automobiles. I don't particularly like to drive, but cars have still managed to occupy a central position in my life. My mother used to delight in telling people that the first word out of my mouth was "car." I drew cars on Big Chief tablets while I was supposed to be practicing my handwriting skills in the second grade. Later, while my pre-teen friends collected cardboard images of Micky Mantle and Whitey Ford, I collected Dinky Toys. These precise little English die-cast models eventually became as collectible as baseball cards, but they were certainly no substitute for the real thing.

I never owned a car in high school because my parents thought it built character to ride the bus to school. My bus riding days came to a close, however, the minute I accumulated enough money to buy my own wheels. It was only two wheels initially. My first vehicle was a spiffy little two-cylinder Suzuki motorcycle I bought from a friend for $500. Even though it was affordable and a great attention getter when I drove it one winter with my leg in a cast, it wasn't really what I had in mind. I always had my eye out for a vehicle with a few more possibilities. Something that could transport me out of my humdrum existance into the realm of my imagination.

I found this vehicle, my first significant automobile, in the want ads section of a Tulsa newspaper during my senior year in architecture school. It was a white, mint condition 1964 International Harvester Metro-Mite van owned by a retired couple in the dry cleaning business. The couple had just taken delivery on the van when the husband got sick and they had to sell their cleaning business. They'd never even gotten around to painting their logo on the side. One look and I knew this truck had been waiting for me. It was a squared-off miniature step-van that was just the right size for a single man of limited means to live in. I decided right then to convert the truck to a rolling summer residence and set about finagling a way turn it in for credit as an architecture project as well.

The finished vehicle was a thing of beauty. I worked for three months to construct precisely mitered birch shelves and a hinged bed that folded to become a sofa. There was a small refrigerator, a two burner butane stove and plenty of room for everything I owned. This was no hippy van. This was no counterculture machine. Even though I was quite enamored with Buckminister Fuller, Stewart Brand, Ken Kesey and Ant Farm at the time, the truck looked like it had been designed by Alvar Aalto. I drove this odd machine straight through my two remaining years in architecture school, through my first three jobs in Aspen, Moscow, Idaho, and Eugene, Oregon, all the way to Seattle and the start of my career in advertising.

I might still have the trusty little land yacht today if it wasn't for a cryptic note I found on my windshield while I was grocery shopping in the U-District. It was from a young plumber who said he had been looking for a vehicle exactly like this for over four years. He wanted to buy it. I took this as an omen and sold the truck to him two days later. For the next eight months, I didn't have any car at all. I was happy enough bumming rides from friends and riding downtown busses for free around Seattle. One day however, I noticed an elegant silver Citroën Maserati sitting in a showroom window and everything changed. I had to have that car. It looked like something the Jetsons would have owned and had "Sealander" written all over it. I never even took a test drive. I just sat in the driver's seat in the showroom window for about five minutes and that was enough. Even though I was a bit chagrined to discover later that this illustrious vehicle was the car of choice for well-to-do gay hairdressers, I could not be swayed. I bought the car. I was a little nervous about getting a car loan, because I'd always bought everything strictly cash before, but my boss at the ad agency said I'd be working the rest of my life and in the whole scheme of things, owing money for a car was no big deal. He was right.

I still have the car. I never drive it anymore, but it serves as a well polished and slightly sad reminder that I once lived a much more whimsical and exotic life than I do now. I've owned several other Citroëns over the years, but when parts and service became totally impossible, I began to yearn for something reliable and virtually indestructible. I thought my wish was granted when I saw a bright red, one-ton diesel, crew cab Ford Citroen SM For Saledually pickup sitting on a Fort Worth car lot. This time I did take a test drive, but only around the block. I remember thinking that the truck didn't exactly turn on a dime, but was still convinced that it was a wonderful, if slightly impractical vehicle. Within a week, my girlfriend refused to ride in it, my dog wouldn't get inside, and my neighbors began to ask if I was starting a lawn care company. Although I kind of liked the smell of diesel fuel, it must have been an acquired taste. My friends universally hated this truck. It took two batteries just to start the engine and when it refused to turn-over on cold mornings, they just laughed. After about three months, I noticed that other than a few bull riders at the Mesquite Rodeo and assorted scruffy entrepreneurs with ten lawnmowers in the back, I was the only person in downtown Dallas driving a vehicle of this stature. It took me a while to get the message, but I eventually I managed to get the truck hopelessly stuck, wedged between floors in a office parking garage. I let some air out of the tires to extricate myself and realized it was time to sell. A retired policeman proved that dreams die hard by buying the thing from me two days later.

For a while I really wanted to get a Hummer. What more appropriate vehicle for me at this point in my life? This humongous urban assult vehicle was the embodiment of bitterness. It was uncompromising and more than a bit hostile. A Hummer definitely follows its own set of rules. The thing is seven feet wide if it's an inch and must weigh well over two tons. The tires look like they belong on an earthmover. You never have have to worry about making small talk with your passenger because they're so far away it feels like they're somewhere in the next state. The vehicle is so noisy you couldn't hear anyone anyway. I certainly couldn't hear the salesman who was taking me on a test drive. Even though the interior of the Hummer I was driving was big enough for a ping pong tournament, there were only four small seats, set as far apart as possible. I have no idea where the engine was, but it certainly didn't sound like it was under the hood. The noise was deafening. At freeway speeds your teeth started vibrating and the sensation of engine noise, wind, and aluminum body panels squeaking together were reminiscent of fingernails on a chalk board.

Nevertheless, all this chaos seemed just about perfect until I realized a regulation sized Hummer wouldn't even fit in my driveway. Then the salesman casually mentioned that you had to get all four wheels aligned every time you had your 3000 mile oil change. "How much would this be," I asked. He had to go find out from someone in the service department, but eventually came back with a figure of around $500. Hello? All the sudden this car seemed a lot less exciting. This was a vehicle built to be serviced by an Army Motor Pool with your tax dollars, not by me. Not only was this noisy, 5MPG behemoth almost impossible to drive above the speed limit, it cost $500 for an oil change. I started looking for something else.

I eventually bought a Land Rover Defender 90 Land Rover Defender 90just before they pulled them off the market because they didn't meet current air bag regulations. This sturdy and marginally practical aluminum toy seems to satisfy my need to kick the tires for a while. Lord knows what will catch my eye next. It's a safe bet that whatever it is, it will be the only one on the block.

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