September 9, 2011

Confession #30: It's hard to know when to say goodbye

It must be the withdrawals.

I was flipping through this month's Automobile Magazine, stopping at Ezra Dyer's column as usual. He spoke of a friend with a car making a horrible noise and trying to persuade that friend to ditch it for a new car. It's a decision that hangs over everyone with a car: At what time do the repairs outweigh the cost of a car payment? When do you have to throw in the towel and say goodbye?

Maybe Dyer's column struck a slightly stronger chord with me because his friend had a Saab 9-5 wagon. As I've mentioned all-too-often on this blog, I drive a Saab 900SE. I've been driving it for four years, for most of the 45,000 miles I've put on it. It's also my first car, one I got the day after my 17th birthday. There are some good memories.

My 1998 Saab 900SE
But it's also put me through some infuriating (and costly) memories. My mechanic, one my mother's been using for her Saabs since before I was born, must see dollar signs when I walk up. My lack of practical skills is pretty legendary. So while I know what's wrong with the car (the brake pads, radiator, taillight, window track, etc.) I'm not about to attempt fixing it because I know it'll end in tears. And cost more money than if he had just done it in the first place. This year was particularly bad. There was the fuel pump ($700), the radiator ($700), four new tires ($400), oxygen sensor ($300) and a couple of oil changes.

The car looks like crap, but that's partially my fault. When everything's working and I'm not shaking my metaphorical piggy bank paying for my mechanic's vacation, it's great. But now with Saab's ever-shaky existence and the fact it's sitting in my mother's driveway now that I'm in Boston again, I feel less-and-less guilty about sending it off. Now that it passes smog and has a few new parts on it, there must be someone who would be willing to give me a nominal price to unload it.

1990 Peugeot 405 Mi-16 sedan
All of this went through my mind before I got to the end of that magazine. And it was when I got to Jason Cammisa's classic car feature about a Californian with a Peugeot 405 Mi-16. Those are letters and numbers probably lost on anyone who's my age or has no bizarre fixation on equally left-field cars from the early '90s. But this was Peugeot's last stand car in the US, something much more modern than the slant-eyed 505s they'd been flogging here through the '80s. In many ways, Peugeot in the US in 1990 was the way Saab is now – financially irrelevant and trying in vain to get new customers to keep the business case viable. The 405 Mi-16 – a hotted-up powerful version of the normal 405  that was a pretentious, French alternative to the prosaic Nissan Stanzas and Chevrolet Corsicas of the time – was something that would have enticed a BMW 325i, Mercedes-Benz 190E or Saab 900 Turbo fan. It was not meant to be evidently, as Peugeot decided to pull out of the US market the following year in the wake of Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

The French retreat also meant there were just a few thousand 405s sold in the US between 1990 and 1991. They're basically worthless today, since who'd want to buy an '80s-looking sedan of questionable origin with no parts support, and build quality and reliability has never been a Peugeot hallmark. That's why it was impressive Cammisa's interview subject had a 157,000-mile 405 and a smattering of receipts to keep his odd baby alive. And it's not all for nothing. I think the Mi-16 is a pretty good looking thing these days as its Pininfarina lines have aged well (like the Alfa Romeo 164 I so lust after).

Stuff like that gives me a little hope if I end up with an orphaned Saab. It's got so much sentimental attachment that maybe one day (someday) when I end up with enough money to keep cars as a hobby, I can make it look less crappy and spend far less time cursing at it. God, I miss driving sometimes.