Cars are like tweeds. The older they are the better they feel -- as long as you can still afford the material. While guzzlers gather dust in the showroom, I keep wearing mine -- all four doors, eight cylinders, and 3,300 pounds of it.The car is a 1963 Chevrolet Impala, and I bought it four years ago from a man named Nick.
Nick was bald, Greek and quick with a smile. He had a motel in Alexandria and a wife who had come to yearn for a new Buick. The Chevrolet which Nick drove daily between home and work would no longer fit on the family's insurance policy.
Nick was faithful to the car beyond the modest and regular exercise he gave it. He had it serviced regularly at the Exxon station across the street from the motel. I was in Alexandria one day with some time to kill and in need of a good used car. I walked into the Exxon station and inquired. A mechanic ducked his head out from under a car, wiped his brow on his shoulder and motioned across the street in the direction of the Chevrolet: "Three hundred dollars. It's a good buy." He himself was about to buy it until his sister gave him her Ford Falcon in order to make room for the man she was marrying and his Camaro.
I crossed the street and found Nick. He offered a comprehensive history of the car, assured me that it had enjoyed the best of health all these years. Then he pressed the keys into my hand and said, "You go take it for a good ride."
I walked back outside to confront this beautiful American beast. Six tail lights ran across its wide rump. Impalas, frozen forever in chromed midleap, adorned each side. Clad in wide planes of heavy metal, this car seemed more suited to carrying bags of money to the bank than me to the supermarket.
This machine was foreign to me. I had never owned an American car. I went to college at a time when it was considered somehow unpatriotic to do so. If you did you were party to the deep-seated capitalist conspiracy called "planned obsolescence." All my friends drove small foreign cars which gave them good gas mileage and bad backs.
I gave the tires the ritual kick and slammed a couple of doors. They shut like hatches on a submarine. I slid into the broad front seat and turned the key. Eight cylinders, their collective machine conscience untroubled by the thought of lower expectations, their muscle unsapped by anti-pollution devices, rumbled to life. I wheeled out of the lot and into traffic.
As I glided around Alexandria my gaze kept coming back to the dashboard, bordered in chrome, free of plastic. The speedometer was broad and linear, unlike the tight circle of numbers common in today's car. I imagined the red needle which crept up past "0" and headed theoretically for "120" to be a sun rising above a distant horizon and moving across the sky. Of course it was a sun that would never reach that distant, impossible number. It was a sun that would never set.
After fiddling with the radio and checking out the lights, I turned on the windshield wipers. They went on, but they would not turn off. I returned to the motel, wipers rubbing against dry glass. Nick laughed. "I forgot to tell you about that." He opened the hood and, with a pet rock he kept under the front seat, tapped the wiper motor as though he were cracking an egg. The wipers laid down. I bought the car. Nick said: "Be sure and let me know if anything goes wrong. And bring it back for a visit anytime.
Nineteen sixty-three: the year the car was built, a simpler time it seems. The cover of my 1963 Chevrolet Owner's Guide is a beach scene. A woman, with a look of mild ecstasy, towels herself off beside a bright red Impala. One ad that year pictured a man and a woman in fresh tennis whites leaning against their yellow Impala in a sundappled field: "It looks more luxurious, and that's because it is !"
My car gets 15 miles to the gallon, which is pretty luxurious these days. It was built back before Germany and Japan had risen completely from the ashes to visit a plague of Beetles, Rabbits and Corollas upon Detroit. Back before the Ayatollah moved home from the suburbs of Paris.
But my car has also traveled 128,000 miles, which is a good reason to at least tolerate its substantial thirst. It endures. I bought it a new pair of shocks one winter in Vermont, where salt on the roads really eats up cars. The mechanic thumped the Impala's heavy steel coat appreciatively: "Now this is a car. Christ, nowadays, they're making 'em out of paper."
This is a car, I sometimes think to myself when I slip behind the wheel, unharassed by buzzers and warning lights. Surrounded by all that armor, I am a modern-day knight ready to venture out and uphold honor on the highway. In a world of inflated dollars, a world searching for substance, the car is a brief, true link with the past -- the now faraway year of 1963, the year when Camelot ceased to be.