Pinto to Protege: My life as told in cars

Everyone has a life story that can be told in cars. My first car, a 1967 Pontiac Catalina, was roughly the size of the battleship Potemkin. My father wanted me to have a comfortable ride for my weekly commute from Baltimore to Richmond to finish college.

The old Pontiac was indeed a smooth ride, but my father had not considered that the car would be parked three days a week on an urban campus in a community of street parking and narrow alleys. Parallel parking was a skill I had not mastered by age 20. By the time I had my diploma, the car was missing much of its chrome, having lost it in various demolition derbies with dumpsters and telephone poles.

After I was employed and married, my husband decided it was not fitting that it cost more to replace a tire on the Pontiac than the car was worth, so he bought me a used Ford Pinto. The windows rattled, and there was that exploding gas tank problem.

The same month I made the last payment on the Pinto, I traded it in on my first new car, a Chevrolet Chevette, the Ford Focus of its day. I drove it for years after the last payment, and then one day I made a left turn from a right lane and was t-boned.

No one was hurt, but the Chevette was totaled. I visited it at the junkyard every day for a week before it disappeared. I called to it and cried through the chain link fence, apologizing for killing it, begging its forgiveness. It had nothing to say to me. For some sins, there is no absolution.

In despair, we began the search for a replacement. It was June, and every halfway decent used automatic in town had already been snapped up as high school graduation presents. I left lot after lot in tears, refusing to be paired with cars even a high school boy wouldn't want.

Just when it seemed my marriage would not survive the trauma of another car salesman, we found a Toyota Corolla. It was six years old and cost the same as my Chevette did new.

My husband was annoyed. It was supposed to be his turn to get another car, not mine, and the marriage did not survive past the last car payment. I drove the Toyota back into single life, and for the next six years was at the mercy of every unethical mechanic in the world. They'd bring out greased bundt pans and cracked Magic 8 balls, claiming they were my clogged or dysfunctional car parts that needed costly overhauls. What did I know?

By the time I paid for two head gaskets, even the Toyota felt sorry for me. It drove itself through a red light and not only were we t-boned by a work van, but we were spun around twice and hurled into two other cars parked at a dirty bookstore. Everyone in the bookstore fled, even the drivers of the damaged parked cars, leaving only my eyewitness account that the Toyota had indeed committed suicide to spare me any more expense.

Now I had to buy a car without a man for guidance. I searched the used car lots at night, when all the salesmen had gone. I found a Tercel and returned to the lot the next day to buy it. Then I noticed the car next to it, a Mercury Tracer, the same color as my Chevette and with a similar body shape. I felt the forgiveness I had never received from the Chevette. It had come back to me, reincarnated as a Tracer, but I recognized my old car's soul immediately. When I sat in the driver's seat, it gave me a hug.

That car is 13 years old now and has 200,000 miles on it. I drove it for seven years. After I hooked up with the Tracer, I asked God to send me a man to take care of it so I wouldn't be at the mercy of mechanics. He said I would know him by this sign. The first guy who offered to change my oil, without my asking, was the Chosen One. A year later, the Chosen One appeared and changed my oil. During the next six years, he would either change or oversee the replacement of every single part of the Tracer's motor.

Recently I bought my second new car ever, a Mazda Protégé. It cost almost four times what the Chevette did, but it plays CDs, and you can lock it with a remote even when you're across the street.

When we went to "just look," I learned the Chosen One had a character flaw. Although he can fix cars, he cannot haggle. We were ushered into three different arenas of clipboard-armed babbling salesmen before we drove out with a car, and each time we left a room, with handshakes all around, the monthly payment was higher.

I'm looking at four years of macaroni and cheese, but I like my new car. I still feel a mystic bond with the Tracer for rescuing me at my lowest ebb, and I see it every day because the Chosen One drives it now. I still cry about the Chevette. I can see it in my mind's eye, brand new on the lot, and crushed, behind a chain link fence. The Protégé, with any luck, is my last car. It will drive me into senility.

That's my life as told in cars.

Mariane Matera is a Richmond driver and essayist.