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Crash and yearn

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My green 1995 Volvo station wagon was not a great car. The power steering gave out on Interstate 81 once. Twice, I had to replace the air conditioning system, an impossibly involved procedure that required removing the dashboard, steering wheel and air bag. And the car was in the shop so often for repairs that my neighbor across the street shook his head in disbelief every time I brought it home from the mechanic.

The car smelled like rotten milk and Cheerios because, for years, I’d find old baby bottles, desiccated snacks and juice boxes shoved under the seats.

But I absolutely, unconditionally and devotedly loved that car.

I recognized the telltale whirring sound of the 850 Turbo engine whenever a parking attendant brought the car up from the garage, and felt a familiar small surge of joy, knowing we would soon be on our way. I was in that car so much for my job as a reporter that one editor took to calling me chief of the Volvo bureau.

I thought I’d have that car forever, even after it hit 150,000 miles and the odometer broke. I told my kids that I wouldn’t get a new car until they turned 16, and then the Volvo would be theirs. Heavy as a tank, the steel-reinforced vehicle that had carried them safely in their car seats as babies was to protect them through their crazy teen years.

But, 12 years and one month to the day after I’d started driving it, the Volvo was hit on a particular stretch of Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast. I was in the left lane, and I wasn’t speeding or, for once, talking on the phone. So I saw with perfect clarity the white Ford Aerostar van pull out from the curb and sail blithely into the right front of my Volvo, just behind the wheel, flattening the tire, crunching the tire well and, I learned later, making an accordion of the suspension.

The insurance company told me that it would cost more to repair the Volvo than the old thing was worth. They’d decided to total it.

I felt dizzy with disbelief. I began to argue, then to plead tearfully that I’d kept the car in excellent condition. An agent named Tim told me that he could understand why I was upset. “You dumped all this money into a depreciating asset,” he said. “It’s like, you pay doctor bills all your life and you’re going to die anyway.”

Though Tim wouldn’t change his mind and agree to repair the car, he said that if I could produce maintenance records proving how well I’d taken care of it, maybe he could give me more than $3,000 for it. I went to my files and faxed page after meticulous page of more than a decade of repair bills. When I added them all up, I realized that I’d spent far more to keep the Volvo on the road — $35,000 — than I had spent to buy it in the first place. And I’dbought it used.

I was shocked. And more than a little ashamed. But it had never occurred to me not to fix the Volvo when things broke. The car had become a member of the family. And you take care of the ones you love when they’re sick.

* * *

I began to wonder why I loved this car so blindly. And I wondered whether others adored their cars, too. Friends started to tell stories — of the man who loved his car to the point of obsession and, after he died and the time came to spread his ashes, a wind picked up, blowing them all over the car. Everyone there thought it only fitting.

I put a posting on The Post’s Story Lab blog, asking: “Have you ever loved a car too well?” One woman wrote that she kept the plates of the ’72 AMC Gremlin that she had owned for 14 years and still had dreams about. Another wrote of a ’71 Chevy Nova hitting black ice and flying, unscathed, through a tree. “I proudly drove that ugly, wonderful car with the damaged hood like it was a perverse badge of honor,” she wrote. The Nova did finally die, and nearly 30 years later, “I still mourn the loss of that car.”

Marie Sherrett of Upper Marlboro said she loves her blue 1997 Honda Civic LX with more than 213,000 miles on it because it is the color of her youngest son’s eyes. She named the car “Bessie” and has learned how to fix nearly every part of it herself, because the manual stops giving maintenance advice after 130,000 miles. “I know exactly what it’s going to do, how wide it is, how long it is, what it can do, what it can’t do,” Sherrett said. “If only I could get ahold of Honda’s advertising people, I have the best slogan for them: ‘I Am One With My Honda.’ ”

The stories poured in of “Susie” and “Brownie.” “Chip’s Chariot,” “Cyclops” and “Chuggy,” a 27-year-old diesel Mercedes. People had fallen “head over wheels” they said, for every kind of car imaginable: “tricked-out” Jeeps, sturdy Toyotas, a 1967 Mercury Cougar, sleek Jaguars, dented and faded Chevys, vintage Saabs.

John Colby of Great Falls still had the 43-year-old ad he answered in London’s Evening Standard for the used 1953 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith he bought as a young naval architect for $2,400. Kelly Spencer wrote of driving away from her wedding reception in her 1981 Honda CRX. Twenty years and five kids later, she finally agreed to donate it. “I stood upstairs as the tow truck took the car away and cried my eyes out,” she wrote. “I really felt as though it was a friend and my youth was gone.”

People like us are a mechanic’s dream and a car sales rep’s nightmare. The marketplace loves our loyalty but fears our stubborn refusal to constantly trade up for the next new and shiny model to keep the economy humming.

Over the years, social scientists have measured the human capacity to become overly attached to inanimate objects such as cars. Perhaps we are lonely, they surmise, in pain from disappointed romance, or our very identity has somehow become wrapped up in our cars.

Psychologists at the University of Michigan have found that humans tend to love cars with “anthropomorphic” qualities, such as a front grille that seems to be smiling, and sometimes go to ill-advised lengths to keep those vehicles alive. “This may potentially increase consumers’ maintenance cost beyond economically defensible levels while reducing producers’ sales,” they warned in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2010. Zipcar officials found that when they gave each of their rental cars a name, customers took better care of them.

Nancy Sirianni, assistant professor of marketing at Texas Christian University, spent years studying why people love their cars so much.

She read up on the psychology of love and found that the same types of bonds humans share for each other could be found between a human and an auto. “There’s passion, love at first sight. You see the car. You love it. You drive it,” she said. “There’s intimacy, where you get to know every detail, all the little noises, the chip in the paint here, the dent there. Then there’s commitment: This is something you want to keep forever. Some people don’t even want anyone else to drive it. You put all three together, and you have consummate love. Like an enduring marriage.”

Her article, “Truly, Madly, Deeply”: Consumers in the Throes of Material Possession Love,” published this year in the prestigious Journal of Consumer Research, found that people also can love their guns. They’re buddies with their bikes. And they are alternately pleased and frustrated with their fair-weather friend the computer. But nothing came close to the love they found that both men and women can feel for their cars.

“We found caring, nurturing behavior that we don’t usually see in our consumer throw-away society,” Sirianni said. “People would buy special wax or only take it to the best shop, like a new mother and her baby, only going to the best pediatrician in town.”

She said car marketers needed to take heed of people like us. “A lot of companies haven’t thought about this — they treat their more passionate consumers like they’re weirdos, and that’s a huge, huge mistake,” she said. “Subaru is just beginning to tap into it, with their ‘Do you remember your first love?’ commercials showing a guy driving a new Subaru, but his old one is still parked in the driveway.”

Debby Ames, who lives in Bethesda, had never thought about why she has held onto her red 1987 BMW 325ic convertible, a car she loves so much that she has dropped thousands into repairs, as I did. When a speeding ticket arrived in the mail not long ago, she promptly paid the $40 fine, then proudly hung the photo of herself and her convertible on the fridge because they both looked so good.

“I have become the car,” she said. “Truthfully, you’d have to call a psychologist to figure out why.”

I pressed her.

“I don’t do change well?” she ventured.

I pressed some more.

She sighed. “I guess it’s because I got the car when the kids were young and we were a family,” said Ames, who has since divorced. “And I wanted to be a family more than anything. It was the family car.”

* * *

When it came time to clean out my Volvo, all of the dog-eared maps in the glove compartment, the Mad Libs, coloring books, games and plastic McDonald’s Happy Meal toys — like the orange hand-clapper that my kids used when they wanted to drive me crazy — in the pockets in the back seat, I called the service station where it had been towed. I found out that the car already had been taken to Baltimore, where it would be sold with other salvaged cars at an insurance auction.

As I readied to go to Baltimore the next day, my 11-year-old son, Liam, asked whether he could go with me.

“I loved that car, too,” he said. “And I never got to say goodbye.”

So I pulled him out of school for the day and, driving a rental car, we headed to Insurance Auto Auctions’s lot on Hawkins Point Road outside of Baltimore.

We found our Volvo in a vast, sad lot of broken cars and trucks, some disturbingly twisted, with shattered windshields and hoods crushed with such violence as to be beyond recognition. My car, though it was no longer mine, looked barely scratched. I had a key. (I still do.) I wanted nothing more than to just get in, start her up and drive away.

* * *

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that from 5 million to 6 million autos get into accidents every year. Of those, salvage experts estimate that more than half are totaled, deemed not worth repairing, like my Volvo, and shipped to salvage auctions such as this one. From there, the cars 15 years and older are typically sold off to recyclers who crush them and sell the scrap, or to dismantlers who want the four-to-10-year-old cars to disembowel and sell as parts, explained Winston Wheeler, president of the American Salvage Pool Association, “the voice of automotive remarketing,” according to its recorded phone greeting.

Sometimes the mangled cars are bought by shippers, put in containers, as is, and sent to Bolivia, Mexico, Indonesia or 100 other countries where the labor to repair them is cheaper or the parts are needed, Wheeler said. In rare cases, the salvage cars are bought by a mom-and-pop car lot or a mechanic, rebuilt and resold, though the title will always say “salvage” and carry a story.

I asked what would happen to the Volvo.

“I find Volvo to be a lower-end vehicle in the auction market just because there aren’t that many to repair,” he said, unlike the wildly popular Toyota Camry, a hot auction item. “I’m based in Florida, and in our world, it would probably be scrap.”

The Volvo, its license plates removed, had a stock number scrawled in blue grease pencil across the windshield. Liam sat in the driver’s seat, pretending to be 16 and, as he’d always imagined, driving his car. We put the last of our things — the toys and bottles of spray cleaner that never could keep up with the bird droppings, my daughter’s hula hoop — in a couple of boxes. Then Liam went around to the front of the car, put his arms around the bumper and laid his head on the hood.

And that’s when it hit me.

My husband and I had bought the Volvo when I was six months pregnant with Liam. After I had been told for years that I would never be able to carry a child. This is the car that brought both my unexpected miracle babies home from the hospital. I remember being so proud to drive that car, with its built-in car seat, and its back-seat pockets that could so easily carry all those toys, extra bottles, juice boxes and plastic bags of Cheerios. I called it my “mom car,” because, finally, after so much heartache, I was going to be one.

I patted the dashboard of my damaged friend one last time and took my miracle child home.

* * *

If the Volvo were to be ground up as scrap, I wanted to be there to stand witness. If it were to be shipped overseas, I wanted to know where. Perhaps even keep in touch with the new owner. See what my car was up to.

Winston Wheeler said he sees people like me at his Florida salvage yard all the time. “Every day, someone comes to get their personal belongings, take pictures, give their car its rightful burial, if you will,” he said. “It’s funny how attached we get to our vehicles. It’s lived our lives with us.”

The one Wheeler never forgets was the ’68 Chevy Nova his dad got him in the 1980s with bench seats, roll-up windows and a hand shifter on the front of the wheel. “It was a horrible car,” he said. “But just like you never forget the birth of your first child, you never forget your first car.”

The insurance auction company said that I could come to the salvage auction to see who bought my Volvo and to call in three months. When I called in two, the Volvo was already gone.

Dan Oscarson, vice president of global buyer marketing for the auto auction company wouldn’t tell me, for privacy reasons, who the new owner was, but he did agree to forward an e-mail to them on my behalf. “Because this car has a piece of my soul,” I wrote, “I would really like to know what happens next.”

But the new owner, perhaps not surprisingly, was “flat-out not interested” in talking to me, Oscarson said. The owner had licenses to export cars as well as to take them apart. So perhaps it was on its way overseas, he said. “In our country, we would throw something like a damaged door panel away,” Oscarson said. “In Bolivia, they’ll pound on it with a blockhead hammer for three days to make it right.”

I imagined my green Volvo tooling around the Andes, perhaps with a flock of chickens in the back. Would it be happy there?

Over the next several months, I called auto parts dealers, dismantlers, junkyards and rebuilders, trying to find the Volvo. Car-love expert Nancy Sirianni, only mildly surprised, said I was showing an unusual amount of commitment to a car that was no longer mine. “It’s very romantic,” she told me. “Like searching for a long-lost boyfriend.”

A man at B&M and King George Auto Parts Inc. in Clinton told me to give up. That finding my Volvo at this point would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. “Maybe it’s in Nigeria,” he said. “I watch these salvage auctions all the time and see where the bids come from. A lot of Nigerians love Volvos.”

After more fruitless searching, I ran a Vehicle Identification Number search online. Though owner information is not released, you can see when I got the title in 1998. Then when the insurance company did. You can see when it was auctioned off as salvage. But here’s the thing. The next month, it was declared rebuilt by the Maryland State Police and once again, resold.

Tony Landini of Beltsville Auto Recyclers Inc. said that if the car was rebuilt in Maryland, it most likely is in Maryland still, probably bought by a local mechanic who figured he could fix it and sell it as a family car. “Most of the shops where cars get totaled out can fix the cars. There are very few that really deserve to be in a salvage auction,” Landini said. “But these insurance companies just don’t want to mess with people like you, calling up all the time and complaining. So they take a short cut.”

The Volvo, it appears, has been resurrected. And perhaps it is making grocery and carpool runs for another family, its built-in car seat occupied by another precious child. I hope it is having a good life.

Still, the kids and I, without thinking, all snap our heads when we see one like it on the road. “I just really miss the Volvo,” my daughter, Tessa, will often say.

I did eventually buy another car. One that came with three years’ worth of repair work for free at a shop right around the corner. Truthfully, I bought it because the salesman, seeing how distraught I was, sat me down, gave me a bottle of water and said: “Man, you’re so stressed out. It’s only a car.” So now I drive a silver Volkswagen Jetta wagon. It’s perfectly fine. It gets good gas mileage and takes me where I want to go. It just can’t take me back.

Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at schulteb@washpost.com.

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