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The Emotional Journey of Buying That ‘Last’ Car

A look back at autos of the past and their place in memory

spinner image couple driving in an retro convertible car

When I complimented a 70ish friend on her new black sedan, she replied, “It’s fine, but it’s not what I imagined for my last car.”  

Her comment made me dream of all the vehicles I’ll never own, like that classic green Porsche or a yellow vintage Jeepster.

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Then, ouch. I realized my “last” car is only a trade-in away, and that my car is now the most tangible measure of my life span. There are other last things, of course. I’m pretty sure I already own my last vacuum cleaner, my last dog and my last pair of skinny jeans. But it’s the car — such a visceral symbol of independence — that so clearly proclaims the finite nature of time.

This comes after almost 60 years of driving, during which I’ve owned at least nine cars and shared several others. My first was a Chevy II convertible whose engine imploded after two months. There was a bright orange Volvo that I got at a discount precisely because it was a bright orange Volvo. There was a rumbling, four-speed Toyota Land Cruiser that broke down on every camping trip, and a succession of Subarus that were always sticky with Cheerios, raisins and dog hair. “You don’t drive a car,” my husband once said. “It’s a luncheonette.”

​​I’ve easily driven over one million miles, including two trips across the country and one across Canada. I drove a Land Rover with only two working gears through Morocco. I circumnavigated Nova Scotia and survived a week of driving on the left-hand side of the road in New Zealand with a teenage backseat driver. I’ve driven thousands of miles to soccer, dance lessons, sleepovers and dorm rooms with kids giggling, arguing, screaming, pouting, crying and/or barfing. I’ve taught three children to drive, including on a standard shift. That alone should get me to heaven. My passengers have included at least a dozen dogs, also sometimes barfing. Or worse.

​​I’ve had my driver’s license longer than anything I own, with the possible exception of one sweater that, let’s face facts, I’m never going to wear again. So many of my memories were made in cars, some happy, some bittersweet: playing the alphabet game on family car trips; getting lost on back Maine roads; rushing in labor to the hospital; driving my father to see his dying wife. Unlike the rest of life, the car always came with a soundtrack, like that summer night in Los Angeles involving a boy and a Corvette, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass.

When to give up driving?

​I did not start out as a great driver. I managed to bang up the car twice in the first three months of being licensed, to the point where the court decided I needed a six-month break from driving unsupervised. Since then, I’ve done pretty well except for an occasional lapse in spatial sense, like the time I backed into a pole in an empty CVS parking lot, or when I tried to drive my husband’s new Buick through the narrow stone portico at my sister’s house. The worst crash I ever experienced — a head-on collision — was not my fault and we all walked away without injury.

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​​A 91-year-old friend just bought a new car — my new definition of optimism. But that won’t be me. Recently, I worry: Are my reflexes still sharp enough? Do I pay enough attention? Could I hurt someone? My eyes struggle with street signs and depth perception at night, particularly in the rain. And at some point, driving stopped being fun. Now I have to concentrate in a different way, and I find a long day’s drive leaves me as tired as if I’d walked all those miles. ​​

Yet, give up the car? It’s a horrifying thought. I don’t live in a city, where there’s accessible public transportation. Ride-hails are expensive — $30 to go from my house to the car dealer eight miles away. I do not have children or close relatives nearby. Frankly, driving with some of my older friends is a bit terrifying. And self-driving cars seem more of a fanciful notion that might be embraced by the next generation, but probably not mine. Without a car, I fret I will be isolated, frustrated, alone.

Nonetheless, I have promised my children that if they say it’s time, I will relinquish the keys to my last car without objection and be stalwart. But I'll still dream of the open road and all its promise.

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