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A Motor Tour Down Memory Lane

A lot of great old cars sit in the mind's garage of Philip Gulley — along with a few clunkers.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

I began driving in 1977 and bought my 15th car this past spring, my fourth Toyota. I’ve also owned four Fords, three VWs, three Hondas, one Subaru, and an Eagle. In the interest of accuracy, I didn’t buy one of the VWs, I appropriated it from my brother Glenn when he joined the Coast Guard. He was on a ship at the time and had no use for a car, so rather than let it sit in our driveway and rust away, I decided to do him a favor and drive it. The next year, knowing he’d want me to be happy, I forged his name on the title and traded it in for a newer VW. For the first 30 days, the length of the warranty, it ran superbly, then blew its engine on the 31st day. That was God’s way of telling me never to buy a VW, though I forgot and bought another one 26 years later, only to have the transmission fail after 65,000 miles. It’s embarrassing to admit that even with two degrees in theology, I sometimes forget how much God hates Volkswagens.

You’d think pastors would have access to a steady stream of barely used cars driven by little old ladies, but I’ve only scored one from a church lady, a 2015 Subaru Forester my wife currently drives. Just once I’d like an elderly church lady to open her garage door, pull the cover off a 1967 Shelby Mustang, and say, “This belonged to my Eddie. He bought it new the month before he died, and it has sat here ever since. I want you to have it.” Even though I’m a pastor, I’ve sometimes doubted the existence of God, but getting a 1967 Shelby Mustang from a church lady would renew my faith in a benevolent deity.

I’ve been lucky car-wise, apart from the three VWs and one Ford, which gives me a success rate of 75 percent. In baseball, I’d be batting .750 and headed for the Hall of Fame, but if car-buying were a test, I’d have a C. I’m comforted by the fact that even people who know a lot about cars sometimes get stuck with a clunker. I had a car-nut uncle who once purchased a Chevrolet Vega, the worst car ever made. Until the day he died, whenever he made a boasting pronouncement about cars, I’d say, “This opinion brought to you by the man who owned a Chevy Vega.” I conducted his funeral and even mentioned his Vega during the eulogy, lest people forget.

My new-to-me 2016 Toyota Camry replaces the best car I’ve ever owned, a 2013 Ford Flex. Not replaces as in takes the place of, since I still have the Flex, but replaces it as
the car I drive to Ferguson Hardware when I need a nut or bolt. The Flex isn’t dead yet, but it’s on Social Security and thinking of spending the winter in Florida. When it dies, as all cars eventually do, I don’t want to scramble to find a car, settling for whatever might be available, which is how my car-nut uncle ended up with a Vega. So I was proactive and acquired a Toyota Camry, one of the best cars ever made. Do I look like a bespectacled engineer with a pocket protector while driving it? Yes. Do I care? Not a bit. I’m 60 years old, have been married for 37 years, and wear pants with expandable waists. My days of wooing women with a 1974 VW Beetle are no more.

A friend of mine, anticipating a gas shortage this summer, urged me to buy an electric car. Otherwise, he warned, I’d be stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, which sounds like the perfect summer to me. I have a hammock in our screenhouse and a pile of books I’ve been itching to read. The idea of not spending my summer on interstates and airplanes, sleeping in strange beds, and spending money I don’t have on things I don’t need sounds positively wonderful. If I run out of gas, I can always sit in the driveway in my Toyota and listen to the Cincinnati Reds on the radio, like my father did every summer of my childhood. For much of my youth, I thought the primary purpose of the automobile was listening to Joe Nuxhall announce the Reds games, the memory of which still enchants me these many cars later.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.
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