Gimme Back My Clunker
My first car cost me $700, which I just barely managed to scrape together back in the early-mid ’90s. The purchase price of my 1975 Oldsmobile 98 included an adapter to play tapes in the in-dash eight-track player. Whenever my inexpensive patches gave way, the beast would roar like a Harley through its rotting exhaust pipe, and I’d periodically find myself without amenities like power steering. But the fixes were inexpensive and easily rigged, and the car kept me mobile for the first of my two years as a college drop-out. Without it, I’d have been unable to commute from my shared five-room apartment to my two part-time jobs — one making about $5.50 per hour at a record store and the other making a princely $7.00 per hour selling fish off a truck on a suburban New Jersey street corner.
There was something about those old cars — almost as if they had souls. Whether they were killers, like Steven King’s Christine, or cute pals, like Herbie the Love Bug, it was easy to imagine sentience in a way that modern vehicles don’t as readily permit. They were substantial; cars weren’t yet throw-away commodities.
None of which should imply that I wasn’t thrilled to trade in the 98 for a fresh-from-the-factory Pontiac Grand Am GT that made me, as a teenager with no prospects, feel a little more substantial. The dealer gave me $150, so my year’s worth of transportation wound up costing less than two months of my subsequent car payments.
Of course, if the year had been 2009 instead of 1995, Uncle Sam might have given me $4,500, more than a 500% profit on my one-year investment, on top of the year of mobility. As wrangling over additional funding for the Cash for Clunkers program continues, those of us who put in time driving cheap cars to small-time jobs might wonder whether the architects of this bit of “stimulus” considered the personal economic equations of the poorly paid. The difficulty of finding passable three-figure vehicles will probably prove proportional to the duration of government giveaways, and some folks might decide that it just isn’t worthwhile to work at all.