Late Models: Phil Gulley Reminisces About His Rides

A brief history of all the cars in my rearview mirror.

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0115-GULLEY
Illustration by Ryan Snook

Last fall, I was walking past my neighbor’s house and noticed a 1999 Toyota Corolla in his driveway. “Nice car,” I said. It doesn’t take much to excite a Quaker.

“Want to buy it?” he asked. “It only has 75,000 miles on it.”

I didn’t need another car, but one should be open to opportunities, so I asked him the price.

“$3,500,” he said.

“Sold!”

I drove it home and showed it to my wife, and then sat at the kitchen table and wrote down all the cars I’ve owned since 1977, when I got my driver’s license. The Corolla is number 13. I zipped through my first six cars in 10 years, trading them in after 50,000 miles on the counsel of my grandfather, who cluttered my childhood with bad advice. Cars today are a lot better than when my grandfather drove. A car with 50,000 miles is just getting started.

My first car was a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. Technically, it wasn’t my car; it belonged to my brother Glenn. But when he joined the Coast Guard, he said I could drive it. So I drove it to Dugan Chevrolet and traded it in for a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle. I would have asked my brother’s permission, but he was in Guam at the time. I wrote him a letter the next month, thanking him for his generosity. He was busy researching native beers and their effect on the human body, so he never wrote back. My third and fifth vehicles were 1982 and 1986 Toyota trucks. I wish I’d never sold them. They’re probably still being driven somewhere in Africa.

Of the 13 cars I’ve owned, the worst was number 11, a 2006 Ford Freestyle. I bought it on a patriotic whim, selling my eighth car, a perfectly good 1996 Honda Odyssey, because I was mad at China for taking all our jobs. The Odyssey was made in Japan, but like many people, I don’t let logic stand in the way of patriotism. Though I hated my Freestyle, I felt vastly superior to everyone else for the seven years I drove it. Yes, American soldiers were at war in Iraq and Afghanistan during that stretch, but I’d like to think driving a Freestyle was my contribution to the war effort.

You’d think the Freestyle would have turned me against Fords, but it didn’t. The best vehicle I ever bought was number nine, a 1998 Ford F-150 pickup, which my son Sam drives now. Car number 12 is also a Ford, a 2013 Flex, the most expensive car I’ve ever owned. It’s such a nice car that I’ve forgiven Ford for manufacturing the 2006 Freestyle. If I lower the second and third row of seats, I can fit a twin mattress in there and still have plenty of room for luggage. When my wife and I take a long trip, I lie on the mattress and read while she drives. I like to read, and my wife likes to drive, so everyone is happy.

I got a good deal on the Flex because it’s ugly. It costs about $35,000 new, but I bought it used for $23,000. It had 15,000 miles on the odometer. It’s dill-pickle green. It’s amazing how much money you can save if you don’t mind how goofy your car looks. While I don’t care if my cars are attractive, I do care if they’re clean, so I carry a dust rag in order to tidy them while I’m waiting at stop signs. You’ll never find a French fry under my car seats. No squashed M&M’s, peanuts, or popcorn, either.

I like my Ford Flex so much that when I registered it with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, I bought a personalized license plate—“QUAKER”—for it. That has gotten me out of three speeding tickets so far, since no one ever suspects a Quaker of breaking the law. When an officer pulls me over and sees my plate, he assumes his radar gun has malfunctioned and lets me off with an apology.

If it were possible, I would go fast in the Corolla, but that would be like my mother running a four-minute mile. She just can’t do it. All the Corolla does is usher me from Point A to Point B, but it gets 39 miles per gallon in the process, so it has become my car of choice. It’s pure driving—no Bluetooth, no hands-free devices. It keeps all my hands and feet gainfully employed, shifting, steering, clutching, accelerating, and braking. I recently read an article that predicted by the year 2025 all cars will be driverless, which means my wife can lie down on the mattress with me. Ain’t technology grand!

I used to enjoy buying new cars, but now I like seeing how many miles I can wring from one. When I get the itch for a new car, I hire Scott’s Finishing Touch in Avon to detail my old sedan, inside and out. Having an old car cleaned is every bit as satisfying as getting a new one. Then I buy a pine-tree thingy to hang from the rearview mirror, and I’m good to go for another year. Actually, I probably won’t live another year, since the pine tree contains benzene, acetone, and formaldehyde, all of which give us cancer and cause our children to be born with 12 toes.

People who haven’t accomplished much of anything feel important because they drive a nicer car than their neighbor. And perfectly decent human beings, like me for instance, are made to feel like losers for driving a 1999 Toyota Corolla.

“Times bad for you?” my neighbor Joe asked the other day when he saw my car. “Books not selling? Church cut your pay?”

“I had one of those once,” my friend Brian chimed in. “About 16 years ago, in high school. I shared it with my sister.”

I take their disdain in stride, comforted by the knowledge that my dogs like the Corolla. They’ve figured out how to lower their windows and grin into the wind, their ears flapping, gossiping back and forth about the sights, every now and then demanding to take the wheel and have a go at it.

I was hiking in a farmer’s woodlot last spring, looking for mushrooms, and came across the skeletal remains of a Model T with a good-sized mulberry tree growing through the roof. From 1913 through 1927, Henry Ford manufactured 15 million Model T’s. I don’t know what happened to the rest of them, but one of them ended up 10 miles south of Paoli. The farmer was the fourth generation in his family to farm that land. In his house, there’s probably a photograph of his great-grandfather standing next to the Model T when it was new, the picture of success. We derive too much of our self-worth from the cars we drive. We would do well to remember that someday our new car will end up rusting away in a field, with a tree growing through it.

 

 

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