My Decade with the Spirit of the Open Road

I was born in Colorado and know how to drive in bad weather, but over the last decade, I drove what might be the worst winter vehicle imaginable: a 1975 Datsun 280z. Until recently, my year-round daily driver had been a two-seat, rear-wheel-drive sports car designed in the late 1960s. It was engineered in Japan to carve through turns like a rabid mongoose, ready to pounce and eviscerate the heavy muscle cars of its day. An homage to the classic Jaguar E-Type, its elongated body and sweeping lines were meant to evoke the image of vintage race cars.

Forty years later, however, on the iced-over streets of Colorado Springs, its only natural skill was spinning like a ballerina. As an added element of excitement, it was painted white to match the snow drifts on the sides of the road, becoming invisible to all but the most observant drivers. The defroster stopped working a while back, so the windshield would freeze over if there was any moisture in the air, and after the heater died, I typically dressed as though I was walking to my destination.

One time I arrived at work with my face crusted with ice because I drove the seven miles with my head out the window. I was one of the only commuters left in North America who kept driving goggles in the glove compartment. For ten years, friends and family had asked me, “Why don’t you get a new car?” They clearly had a point, but my response was always the same: “Nothing’s wrong with this one!”

The fact is, I loved this car. I didn’t love it in the way I love pistachios, or the way I love old episodes of Seinfeld. I’m referring to the love between two people who have come to truly need each other. Maybe this sounds silly to most people. I’m not oblivious to that fact. If someone spoke this way about their pet cat, for example, I’d raise an eyebrow. Everybody knows that cats don’t need anybody. I’ve heard many people use the phrase “I love my car,” but I think what those folks truly mean to say is, “I think the car I have right now is pretty darn neat.”

I surely didn’t have feelings this strong when I bought the car. I was nineteen years old and needed a vehicle to get to work. I had recently wrecked my first car: an old, heavy, four-door sedan. I drove it like a getaway vehicle in a bank heist movie, but a getaway vehicle it was not. Secretly, I blamed my unruly teenaged passengers for my accident. Regardless of the truth, I had grown tired of the additional responsibility that a back seat entailed. When I began looking for a new car, I focused on small two-door models. The Datsun not only fulfilled my single criteria, but it was the coolest car I’d ever seen for $1,500. I eagerly handed over the money and took it home on November 22nd, 2005: a few days before a record-setting blizzard. This was clearly a choice made by a teenage boy.

At times, my life with the little car felt like a poorly written adventure novel. Every winter was a treacherous journey that we survived together, although the plot and characters were predictable and repetitive. I made a deal with the Datsun shortly before our first trans-blizzard commute: if it kept me alive, I’d do my best to keep it alive too. Strangely, this isn’t a promise a human makes with an inanimate object. An assurance of safety isn’t unilateral, and the vehicle is typically expected to sacrifice itself when the call of duty is heard. Considering the sketchy safety features available in 1975, an icy car-wreck would have certainly meant death for us both. Back then, an “airbag” was a term used to describe most politicians.

The bond we formed wasn’t immediate, however. Two years into the relationship, I wanted a divorce. After narrowly escaping death a handful of times, I wanted nothing more than an appropriate “winter vehicle.” A look around the neighborhood revealed just how poorly I had chosen my car. Mailboxes were outnumbered by all-wheel drive vehicles, as if Jeeps and Subarus were handed out to new residents at the state border. Even the cars without AWD had operational heaters, which drove me wild with jealousy.

Every September, as the threat of winter loomed around the corner, I casually shopped around for a “grown-up car.” Each snowstorm convinced me that change was necessary, but as soon as the roads were dry, I’d forgotten what the problem was. Once again, driving would become blissful and serene. This was the pattern for many years, until something traumatic happened. My beloved Datsun was violated by a thief.

I rarely stored anything of value in my car, so while living in a certain apartment complex, I had made a habit of leaving it unlocked at night. The parking lot was a twisted maze that I assumed criminals would want to avoid as badly as I did. One morning in May, I found the driver’s side door wide open. Missing was the stereo, both speakers, a spare box of spark plugs, and an old battery that I had stashed behind a seat. I was filled with rage, even though no real damage was done: no windows were broken since the door was unlocked; the stereo was nearly as old as the car; the speakers were both garbage; the plugs were inexpensive; and the spare battery was completely dead.

For the first time, I had felt the unwelcome presence of a stranger in my car. I was disgusted. I could feel the assailant’s hands on my own body as I imagined the event. As I hunted through the Datsun taking inventory of what was stolen, I apologized to it profusely for being so careless. How could I leave it alone and defenseless all night? Why didn’t I park closer to home? Where was I when it needed me?

Having suffered no real loss, life went on as usual. At the time, I had a lengthy commute up the interstate to work. I’d generally pass the time listening to music or the banter of radio DJs. I now found myself in awkward silence as I drove every day. At first, I hated it. The auditory void constantly reminded me of the stranger’s hands that had been all over my poor car. Before I could replace the stereo equipment, something magical happened.

Without music to drown out the world, a symphony of mechanical sounds took its place.  My car had been singing to me, but for five years I didn’t listen. Only now could I hear its voice, and it told me everything. It told me that second gear was its favorite. It told me that my rear tire pressure was low. It said that I was two weeks overdue for an oil change. It told me that the cold morning air made it feel young again. I discovered that the idling engine played the rhythm from Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Most surprisingly, I found out that the car I had been calling “Zed” and “The White Knight” was actually a girl. I learned that she was ruthless and cunning, and despite her age, she absolutely loved being pushed hard into the corners. I had now truly met my car for the first time, and she was the most beautiful creature I have ever known. Her voice was the only music I’d ever need.

I eventually received another stereo as a gift, but it went uninstalled. After a few months of the passionate dialog we now shared, I had little desire to return to how things were. There was no song or afternoon traffic report I’d rather hear than the rumble and ticks of my gorgeous companion.

The next winter came and went, and I never even thought about buying another car. The weather was terrible and cold, but I now understood the Datsun’s soothing voice, which even warned me when an icy patch had claimed one of the tires. As the years went on, the division between car and driver dissolved even further. We became an extension of each other’s will, a sum greater than the whole of its parts. I wasn’t sure if my subconscious was now operating the car, or if the car had become my subconscious. We were inseparable.

Then, almost exactly ten years after we began our life together, I was driving my friend Nick and myself to work one morning, and we were stopped at a red light. A few cars were ahead of me when the light turned green. As soon as some cars crossed the intersection, the sharp wail of an ambulance’s siren shattered the still morning air. It was very close, but nobody could figure out where from. The cars that had not yet passed the intersection, including myself, immediately slowed to a stop. I could see the other drivers craning their necks around as I was, trying to locate the approaching ambulance. As I twisted around to survey the road behind me, I was shocked to see that large Chevrolet Blazer hadn’t stopped. It wasn’t slowing down, and it was ten feet behind me.

I only had time to utter the first half of the word “no.” As soon as the Blazer made contact, the Datsun was thrown forward into the intersection. At the moment of the collision, Nick and I sounded like deflating balloons. He had been drinking coffee, which now covered every surface of the interior. Time froze as we absorbed what just happened. After a brief check to see that we were both alive, I tried to jump out of my seat. The door was jammed shut. A heavy shove from my shoulder popped it open.

My heart sank and my throat tightened as I circled the rear of the Datsun. Every noise and color in the world suddenly faded as I examined the damage. Nick and I were uninjured, and many people would soon tell me “it could have been worse.” Looking at the concave remains of my car, I knew the truth. My best friend had just been killed.

The resulting police investigation quickly confirmed the other driver’s guilt. His insurance company didn’t even attempt to dispute liability, and a claim was filed. The Datsun was quickly declared a total loss, and a check for $2,000 arrived in the mail. To everyone but me, the situation had worked itself out rather smoothly. In fact, I had received more money than I had paid for the car ten years earlier.

Unfortunately, that money wasn’t enough to fix her, which was my only desire. Had I still been in my early twenties, I would have saved the extra money and eventually restored her to life again. But times have changed. At age thirty, I now have considerably more responsibility. Besides commuting to work and college, I have a step-daughter whom I need to get to school as well. Being without a vehicle just isn’t an option for me anymore. I need to be able to keep my family safe as well. I can’t ask a thirteen-year-old girl to take the same risks I did every winter.

Sadly, I already knew all of this to be true. I spent that $2,000 on the only responsible choice–a newer car. Certainly the youngest vehicle I’ve ever owned, I bought a 1987 Toyota 4Runner. With a reputation for indestructibility, it’s a middle-aged workhorse with 320,000 miles on the odometer. Its hearty 4WD scoffs at weather that would have totally destroyed the Datsun.

Although I know I’ve made the right choice, it stings me to think about it. I miss the car that delivered me to adulthood. I miss its quirks and its problems, and the excuses they would give me to spend several hours under the hood with a case of beer. I miss getting thumbs-up from car guys who appreciated the piece of history that I kept on the road. I miss feeling connected to every single bolt that held that wonderful beast together.

As I drive to work in my Toyota, thinking about my decade with the Datsun, I notice that the blinker doesn’t work right. The temperature gauge is out, and the crank for the window is broken. I sip my morning coffee and realize there are no cup holders. Once in a while, the key will fall out of the ignition while the engine is running. This truck comes with quirks of its own, which will take time to learn. The Toyota has a lot to teach me, if I listen.

I reach down and turn off the stereo.

***

AlexAlex Koss was born in Colorado Springs, CO, where he lives with his girlfriend Sarah and her teenage daughter. He is currently an art student at Pikes Peak Community College, where he is making preparations to pursue a BFA. Alex enjoys sculpture, writing, illustration, and painting. He also claims that he can cook, and he loves the outdoors although he spends much of his free time on the couch.