Behind the Wheel: A smokin' hot Taurus worth fighting for

Sunday, January 3, 2010; C03

We've invited you to tell us your stories about cars and driving.

My father is a quiet, dedicated NIH scientist. He has spent most of his career researching a deadly disease affecting women in their last trimester of pregnancy. Through the years, my father has made steady progress toward a cure, but unlike most people in the District, my father never talks about his job. Instead, he considers the day his car passed D.C. inspection one of his crowning life achievements.

My father's 18-year-old Ford Taurus should not have been allowed on the moon, let alone in the capital of the free world. The car rattled and banged down the street, and after rain got into the door panels, whenever my father accelerated you heard a distinct and unnerving splash.

When the Taurus was 10 years old, my father was warned by two mechanics to get rid of it immediately. The car was unsafe. Instead, my father saw their diagnosis as some sort of disease to beat -- similar to his research -- and kept driving his Taurus.

The fact that the Taurus was still going eight years later was something Dad would frequently remind the rest of the family with one-sentence e-mail updates:

"Just put new tires on the Taurus."

With the exception of my father's car, I don't think the D.C. inspection station has ever seen a truly bad car.

This is a city where people buy a new car every five years. The biggest repair these people ever have to do is replace a brake light. Although mechanic after mechanic told him the Taurus was a bad car, my father continued to pass D.C. inspection because, engine aside, the brake and dashboard lights were functional.

A couple of years ago, before the expiration of one inspection, the "check engine" light came on in the Taurus.

This is definitely something that will keep a vehicle from passing D.C. inspection, and my father flew into hysterics. Although I was surprised to hear that this light was actually working, I felt bad for my father.

We went out to the Taurus together and examined the dashboard. After some trial and error, we found the correct fuse and I pulled it. The light went out, and my dad sprang to his feet and threw his fist into the air -- a move I associate with athletes breaking a finish tape, not my father in his wool socks and polyester pants.

Dad sped off to the inspection station, and I went into the house and had lunch with my mother. I knew better than to tell her what I had done.

Later, my phone rang. I barely recognized the shrill, breathy voice on the other end. It was my father. "I passed!" he shrieked. I held the phone away from my ear. "Can you believe it?"

Shortly after passing D.C. inspection, my father received more devastating news about the Taurus from his mechanic. The steel suspension holding the engine was rusted through. The engine could, at any moment, drop out of the car.

My father and his mechanic huddled behind the hood of the Taurus. Over the years they have become close. They discussed the cost of taking the engine out and replacing the suspension, and the possibility of replacing the engine while they were at it. My father went home and discussed this idea with my mother, who put her foot down: It was time to pull the plug on the Taurus!

I didn't know what to say to my father. We sat in uncomfortable silence in the kitchen.

"Who knew the Taurus would live this long?" I offered.

"I know," my father sighed.

A few weeks later, my father called to see if I wanted to meet him for lunch -- "I'll pick you up!" He sounded perky on the phone, and I held my breath, wondering if he'd show up driving a new car. Instead, the Taurus came banging and smoking around the corner. I gritted my teeth and waited for the familiar splash as the Taurus stopped at the curb.

Dad smiled when he saw me and rolled down the window. "Just put air in the tires!"

-- Adele Levine, Wheaton

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