“I’m gonna drive it ‘til the doors fall off,” is the mournful boast of beater drivers everywhere. No one really drives their car until the doors fall off. But I did.
It was a 1985, 4-banger Mustang I bought off the showroom floor. It was red. It was love at first sight. It was a big mistake.
I’ve always driven clunkers, and, while the door falling off the Mustang was a singular phenomenon, I’ve been fascinated by the fact that their other parts follow pretty much the same order of failure.
The first to fail is the helpful alarm that buzzes when you open the driver’s door with the key in the ignition. If you’re seeking proof of satanic forces, look no further than the fact that you always realize you’ve locked your keys in the car at the precise instant the lock clicks shut.
The next to go is the gas gauge. This isn’t so bad because you usually have a pretty good idea how much gas you have – until you don’t. One night, I ran out on the Crosstown Expressway but happily realized there was a gas station at the next exit which I thought I just might be able to coast to. But as I exited, a blockhead on the access road refused to yield. If I braked, I wouldn’t make it to the station, so I yelled, “I can’t stop!” Terrified, he locked up his brakes and I crawled to the pump.
The electric windows are next. This is doable, so long as the AC works.
Then comes the coup de grace: The AC’s final, catastrophic failure. It’s always between $1,200 to $1,600 to fix which is always between $1,200 to $1,600 more than you have.
If you’re forced to drive during a Corpus Christi summer with the windows up and a broken AC, you might as well put lumps of biscuit dough on an ungreased baking sheet in your lap because you’re cruising around in a Dutch oven. So, you break down and get the windows fixed.
Some try to prove how tough they are by climbing Everest or cage fighting. But they’re nothing compared to summer driving without AC. I did it for years, and it completely changes your focus. You become as aware of wind direction as an America’s Cup skipper because the survivability of every stoplight depends on whether there’s a breeze blowing through your car. Shade is also lifegiving, so you cozy up to tall buildings, 18 wheelers, and shade trees.
I was well into the Mustang’s broken AC phase when the door fell off. It was about 12 years old and had six trillion miles on it. The Gulf Coast’s salty air had done its worst, and rust was all that held it together.
That day, I parked at an office building, and as I opened the door it broke off with a loud crack and crashed to the ground. It was a big shock to me, but not as big as it was to the woman pulling into the space next to me.
I jammed it as best I could into the back seat and drove doorless to my long-suffering mechanic, Donny. He came out of his shop, and I howled, “I’m getting rid of this beater!” He put his head in his hands and wept softly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My son’s starting college,” he sobbed.
Taking pity on Donny, I had him weld the door shut.
I drove it another few weeks, but now I had to enter through the passenger door, very carefully Fosbury Flop over the spiky K2 of the handbrake, and plummet to the driver’s seat. I was pushing 40 by then, and this was a bit much.
I’d been to the dealership several months before, but sticker shock had sent me running. This time, my wife and I headed there with our two rambunctious kids determined to make a deal. The plan was to buy my wife a new car; I’d get the keys to her clunker, and we’d trade in the Mustang.
It took five excruciating hours because the salesman kept leaving to implore the sales manager to approve the deal’s latest iteration. It would have taken less time to interrupt Edsel Ford’s Saturday golf game and ask the great man himself.
Finally, all that remained was appraising the Mustang.
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the screaming kids, or the five hellish hours of financial embarrassment, but, whatever it was, I told the salesman, “You know, I was here a couple of months ago, and it was appraised then.” He found the record on his computer and gave me $500.
I hustled the family out to our new car just as the salesman headed for the Mustang. As we drove off, I suddenly remembered I’d left my beloved Van Halen 1984 cassette in the tape player. I skidded to a stop, ran to the Mustang, jackknifed in the driver’s window, snatched the cassette, gave the approaching salesman a quick wave, and ran back to our car.
As we drove away, I watched in the rearview mirror as the puzzled salesman yanked harder and harder on the door handle.
Score one for the Beater Brigade.
Peter Merkl is a longtime resident of Corpus Christi.
This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Beatermania: Author reminisces on a lifetime of clunker cars and jalopies