Beloved Buggies : In the Land of New Cars, Some Owners Prefer Their Old Reliables

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Is it possible to have a meaningful, long-term relationship with a car?

Sure, there’s that first surge of desire when you spot it across a crowded showroom--that’s easy. So is the honeymoon: Sighing as you take your first drive together down Pacific Coast Highway, checking the oil every hundred miles or so, polishing and repolishing chrome that’s already blindingly bright.

But how many of us keep it going after the miles start adding up? When pundits speak of our romance with the automobile, they’re not talking about the joys of growing old together. Most drivers are a fickle lot--staying faithful perhaps through the final payment, then trading in their beloved for a younger, prettier model.


Most, but not all. When we asked Life on Wheels readers to tell us about their longstanding relationships with high-mileage cars, the response was resounding.

Letter after letter came in, many with photographs and detailed documentation of oil changes and parts replacements--amazing for Orange County, where most of the cars you see on the freeways are post-1980 models.

In sorting through the mailbag, we concentrated on 1979 and earlier cars, all but two--both 20-year-old stay-at-home types--with at least 100,000 miles under their hoods.

As a group, the oldie owners have common traits. They’re as likely to have heirlooms inside their houses as vintage vehicles in their garages, and many of them acknowledged they just aren’t the type to throw things away.

Some of the stories were so moving or amusing or both that we decided to present those correspondents with awards. No, the prize is not a new car. The winners will have to make do with the glory.

And now, the envelopes, please:

To Kenneth Fish, the “You Were Always On My Mind Award,” for his faithful--well, at least in spirit--devotion to his little sand-beige Porsche. In recognition of his touching story, we had hoped to get Elvis, Willie Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys to perform the song together for Fish, but that just didn’t work out.

“It’s always bothered me that Americans just use up a car,” says Fish, a teacher at Corona del Mar High School. “A junkyard makes me sad, to see so many things tossed away like that.”

Fish didn’t exactly “toss away” the four-wheeled love of his life. But he did make the mistake of selling it, only to buy it back--at a higher price--16 years later.

These days, Fish and his 1969 Porsche 912 Targa are the Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith of Pacific Coast Highway. But it wasn’t love at first sight.

“It was the only car that I was sorry I bought,” he says. “It was like I had been talked into something I didn’t really need and couldn’t afford.”

Fish had never been a one-car kind of guy. In his 48 years, he has owned six Porsches, five Volkswagens, two Studebakers, a Chevy, a Plymouth and a pickup truck. He had never become emotionally attached to one until the Targa, but by the time he realized the depth of his feelings, it was too late.

Less than a year after he drove it home, Fish sold his Targa so that he could afford to continue his graduate studies at UC Irvine. After that, he says, “I always kicked myself for selling the most satisfying car I had ever owned.”

To make matters worse, he would see the car now and then on Pacific Coast Highway or Balboa Island, where its new owner was keeping it in pristine condition.

Oh, if he had looked long and hard enough, Fish could probably have found another car just like it. But that wasn’t good enough. He wanted that one.

Then it happened. A student who had heard his tale of remorse rushed into the classroom one morning and said, “Did you know your car is for sale?”

“I was there that afternoon with a check,” he says. “It’s completely stupid, you know? They’re just mechanical things. But somehow, they develop a personality.”

The Targa, for example, which has a mere 76,000 miles on the speedometer, isn’t wild and fast the way so many Porsches are today, Fish says. Instead, he uses words like “refined” and “precise” to describe it. And when he’s driving it, he always remembers his manners.

“When I come home and put it in the garage, I say, ‘Thank you.’ And if I grind a gear or something like that, I always say, ‘Excuse me.’ ”

To Kathie Wolin Gardner of Laguna Niguel goes the “Like a Virgin Award.” The bonus is that Madonna will not come to Orange County and sing the song for her personally.

Not only had Gardner never owned a car before she bought her 1969 “WonderVolvo,” she had never even driven one.

“I moved here from New York 21 years ago,” she says. “In Manhattan, cars aren’t just unnecessary, they’re a nuisance.”

Not so in Orange County. The salesman couldn’t believe it when she admitted she had never driven before. But she learned.

After 185,000 miles, Gardner allows that WonderVolvo isn’t quite as wonderful as it once was. “The heater, air conditioning, choke, radio and other unimportant things don’t work,” she says. “Two back windows were permanently screwed in after each fell out, and the two front wing windows don’t really close, after the securing knobs fell off. I can get from zero to 60 in about 20 minutes.”

Still, Gardner says, WonderVolvo has never let her down. Most memorable, perhaps, was that day in November, 1968, when her near-new car got her to the maternity ward in time with about a tenth of a gallon of gas to spare.

These days, the car gets Gardner--and sometimes her car pool--all the way to her job in Los Angeles and back. “WonderVolvo’s engine--second radiator, fourth battery, second- and third-generation hoses--still starts up every morning and takes me wherever I’m going.”

To Jay Jones of Santa Ana goes the “I’m Getting My Act Together & Taking It on the Road Award.” Among other distinctions, Jones’ car happens to have the highest mileage of our pack: 486,000 and counting. That’s its own reward.

Unlike some old-car owners, Jones never worries about whether his car might fall apart. If it does, he’ll just put it back together, the same way he did the first time.

Well, maybe not quite the same: When he bought the 1968 BMW 2002 from a UCI fraternity brother in 1978, “the engine was in crates, with grease all over the well-worn interior.” But the price was right: $400.

Jones and his father towed the car and its components home and returned it to stock condition. But they couldn’t stop tinkering, so they modified the engine, suspension and interior, put in a sun roof and, on and on for the next 10 years, about $25,000 worth of changes, just counting the parts: A limited-slip differential, a close-ratio steering box, boxed flared fenders, rechromed bumpers, new paint and interior--even new carpeting in the trunk.

The BMW’s first 300,000 miles took its original owner all over North, Central and South America.

“I thought it was ugly at first,” he says, “but I learned to love it. I’ve had the opportunity many times over to buy a new car. But once I locked on to that little thing, I don’t know if it’s sentimental value or what, I just stayed with it.

“I’m attached to it, without a doubt. If I got a dent in that car, it would be a big blow to me. Some people would say, it’s just a car. But it’s my baby.”

Dennis and Maureen Nagel’s 1965 Plymouth Satellite has lasted a year longer than their 22-year marriage. And they expect both will last many more years, thank you.

Their car is the winner of our “Matchmaker, Matchmaker Award” for the supporting role it has played during their courtship and marriage.

She bought it new in Tacoma, Wash., just before moving to Garden Grove to take a teaching job. And since they were married in 1966, Dennis Nagel has kept the car going, changing the oil and spark plugs, taking care of batteries, tires and brakes, installing a mail-order lifetime muffler and finally a rebuilt engine in November, 1987.

“It’s not high tech, and many times we miss the air conditioning and the fancy digital stereo radio,” Dennis Nagel says. “But the way the old Plymouth serves the family reliably, I don’t see the end in sight.”

He drives a company car now as part of his job, and Maureen Nagel, who gave up teaching to bring up the couple’s two daughters, uses the Plymouth, which has traveled 165,000 miles.

“She wants a new car, of course,” he says. “I guess I’m the rock on that one. I don’t think it’s really necessary for what the car’s being used for.”

“We tease him about it,” Maureen Nagel says. “The kids think it’s silly that we don’t have a newer car. But I’m really not ready to part with it.

“I know there’ll be a time when it will have to go its way,” she says. “But in the meantime, I’m proud of it. Rarely a day goes by without someone looking at it, at a stoplight or whatever, and I know they’re thinking, ‘This car is really in good shape.’ ”

The “Bucking the Trend Award” is hereby presented to Frederick H. Kohler of Laguna Niguel, for keeping his own counsel when it came to choosing a car. If he happens by the office when I’m there, I’ll treat him to a gallon of gas at today’s prices.

Kohler can honestly say he has never seen another car like his 1974, 2-door, aqua-and-black Pontiac Catalina hardtop, which has 170,000 miles on it.

Some of his friends told him he was making a mistake when he bought the car, complete with 8-cylinder, 400-cubic-inch engine, during an energy crisis.

“I come from the Wall Street area of New York,” he says. “I know those things come and go.”

Mary Tierney of Brea gets a prize she can use, but not for official business: “The Honorary Nickname of Sally Award.” After all, whoever heard of Mustang Mary?

“Being new doesn’t mean being better,” says Tierney, owner of a 1966 Mustang convertible. “I think that 22 years ago, cars were built to truly last, and now they just have to make it through the 60-month payment period.”

She bought the car used 16 years ago and rewarded it last year--after 178,000 miles--with a new engine and transmission. “It was well deserved,” she says.

After all those years, Tierney says she’s still as much in love as ever: “The design and looks of this car still appeal to me, as much today as when they first came out in 1964. In fact, in a world of needle-nosed, wedge-shaped clones, I find its looks refreshing. I certainly never lose it in a parking lot.”

Thanks to her husband’s nominating letter, Hannah Wolf of Anaheim wins the “Most Like a Song by the Beach Boys Award.”

Wolf lives in Anaheim, but her husband, Gilbert, says she’s the original “Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” They bought her 1969 Pontiac Firebird back in April, 1970, but so far she has put only 75,000 miles on it.

“She loves the looks, feel, comfort and security of the car so much that she has refused yearly offers by me to trade it in on a new car,” Gilbert says. “She says she knows what she got in this car, and I’ve bought enough new ones since I gave her this one that she knows you can’t depend on new ones.”

The “Keep Cool by Singing to Yourself Award” goes to Nancy Doman of Garden Grove. With that comes a cassette tape of your Life on Wheels columnist’s a cappella renditions of both “Goodnight, Irene” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” But since she doesn’t have a tape player, maybe we shouldn’t bother. We’d like to send her a battery-operated fan for her dashboard, but unfortunately our prize budget was depleted with that gallon of gas mentioned previously.

Doman longs for a tape deck, or at least an FM radio. And air conditioning--that would be nice. So would better mileage. But she’s not ready to give up her 1970 Ford Fairlane 500, with 140,000 miles, to get those things.

“It appears that the 1970 Fairlane was one of the best cars Ford ever designed,” she says. “Now and then something goes wrong--last October the timing chain broke--and it always seems to be the original part finally dying of metal fatigue.”

A bigger, older car can offer you better protection, she points out. “It’s also a lot less expensive to insure and register an 18-year-old car.”

To Martin Sharabia of Brea, the “Honorary Automotive Ad Writer Award,” which means that if I ever decide to sell my car, he gets to write the classified.

Sharabia says he dreams of “a roomier, quieter and smoother-running car with an ergonomically designed environment that emphasizes comfort. With seats that are covered in leather, a car that’s capable of taking you from 0 to 60 in 6 seconds . . . and a 4-wheel independent suspension that would let you dance through corners with ease.”

Meanwhile, he drives a 1968 Volkswagen beetle, originally his brother’s, handed down through six family members and now his.

“After weighing the pros and cons of owning a new car, the simple fact is that if I were to sell the car with all the past memories, I don’t think I would be invited to Thanksgiving dinner anymore.”

Our final prize, the “Most Unusual Automotive Grooming Method Award,” goes to Carl Lawrence of Huntington Beach.

Lawrence calls his 1975 Jaguar XJ6C “Baby,” but he didn’t exactly baby it at first. During its first 100,000 miles, he changed the spark plugs three times and never gave it a tuneup.

At 107,000 miles, “I blew a water hose and overheated the engine, causing the engine’s head to warp,” he says. That earned it a complete engine overhaul.

That was 10 years ago. Since then, Lawrence has cut down on driving the car, which now has 150,000 miles, and for the past 4 years has taken it out only on weekends.

He changes the oil and filter every 6,000 miles, and “this vehicle has never entered a carwash. The engine and underside (are) cleaned by me on a regular schedule.”

Some other oldies but goodies:

* Janet Hinrich’s 1968 Pontiac GTO convertible with 140,000 miles, in Laguna Beach. “I get offers for it every week,” she says. “My husband answers the phone calls with, ‘She’ll sell me first.’ ”

* Alice Davis’ 1972 Volkswagen, now pushing 300,000 miles. “It is reliable, maneuverable, easy and fun to drive, and it’s paid for,” says Davis of Irvine. “As a single parent, who can afford anything else?”

* Mahitabel, Molly Harlich’s 1969 Cougar XR7. “She has been faithful all these years, seldom letting me down in a pinch,” says Harlich of Costa Mesa.

* Debbie DeSpain’s 1972 AMC Javelin SST, mileage 122,000. Aside from the major cost savings, DeSpain says, “how many Javelins do you see anymore?” Hers can be seen in Fullerton.

* Tom Stephenson’s 1974 Chevrolet Impala, pushing 200,000 miles, on its third transmission and seventh alternator. “However, it has never let me down on the road. Last time a transmission went out, I was able to drive the last 150 miles in second gear to finish the trip,” says Stephenson, who lives in San Juan Capistrano.

* Lillian Ann Sprotte’s 160,000-mile, 1963 Pontiac Catalina. “I like the solid sound of the door closing and the way it holds the road,” says Sprotte of Laguna Hills.

* Virginia McClure’s 1978 Cadillac Seville with 110,000 miles. “So what if it costs more each year for upkeep?” says McClure, who lives in Laguna Hills. “So do I.”

Looking for Mr. Goodwrench

A good auto mechanic can be nearly as important to Southern California drivers as a family doctor. A bad one can leave you veritably crippled. If you have a favorite auto mechanic, tell us. If all you have are horror stories, we would like to hear those too.

It’s Got 12 Gold-Plated Cylinders

We see cars on the road in Orange County that cost more than houses do in many parts of the country--Ferraris, Maseratis, Rolls-Royces. They’re not exactly a dime a dozen here, but status cars are common enough that most of us barely take notice when they pull up next to us. But what’s the ultimate county status car? We would like your opinion, whether it’s in your garage or merely in your dreams. Be as specific as possible when it comes to model, year, color, options, etc.

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents’ last names when the subject is sensitive.