No, it's not an old pal from college, or my Chicago days, or fandom this time.
It's my classic 1979 Ford Thunderbird.
Seriously, I've had that car for nearly 20 years. My mother bought it new, then gave it to my brother when her eyesight got too bad for driving. My brother handed it over to me when he wanted something newer. I used it in California, drove it (several times) down to Phoenix, and I've been driving it here ever since. It endured being rear-ended by a truck, hooking the wheel-well of a red-light jumper, storms, Arizona sunlight, and the usual plastic parts wearing out and needing replacement. In the last few years most of its trim and paint flaked off, and I kept it covered with primer-gray spray paint which the rust was beginning to show through. I had hopes of someday having enough money to get it restored, but other things took precedence.
Seriously, that was one tough car. It had full-frame all-metal steel-cage construction, which made it heavy as hell but also remarkably safe. I could get 15 or even 20 miles per gallon out of it by driving it carefully. It could carry amazing amounts of weight at highway speed (I used it to transfer most of my gear from Berkeley to Phoenix), and never had a major part failure.
So what happened? Alas, 'twas the fuel line betrayed it at the last.
This morning I started up the car to drive down to the local DES office, in order to renew my po-folks health insurance. On the way, I stopped at the local veterinarian's office, where I'd recently taken a couple of my cats, to pick up some feline antibiotics. Good thing I did.
When I started the car up again, I noticed a strong smell of spilled gasoline from under the hood. I also noticed that the alternator light was on, no flickering, and wouldn't go out. The car had had some electrical problems before, so I turned the engine off and started looking through my wallet for my AAA card. That's when I smelled smoke. I looked up and saw that the smoke was coming out from under the hood. Apparently the fuel-line had cracked and leaked into the engine compartment, where either the starting-motor or the engine's heat set off the gas.
Needless to add, I grabbed my gear and got out of the car fast. As I stepped away I saw that the smoke was thickening. I crouched behind a thick palm tree and kept digging for my Triple-A card while the smoke got thicker and darker. One of the animal hospital's staff came out and asked if she should call the fire department, and I agreed. A moment later the smoke blackened, and flames started shooting out from under the hood. A few seconds after that, both front tires blew out. I ducked further behind the tree and finally managed to get my card and call AAA. The tow truck arrived at the same time as the firemen. The firemen stayed, and put the car out. The tow-truck driver took one look, and then took off.
In about 15 minutes the fire was out, but the old T-Bird was a mess. The firemen had to pry up the hood and the trunk lids, which left them pretty thoroughly ruined. Everything plastic or rubber in the front half of the car was either burned away or charred beyond recognition. There was no way in hell I could salvage that car, though there were still a lot of good parts (everything steel, plus the rear tires) left on it.
So I called Rasty to come get me, and we started calling wreckers. AAA wouldn't tow the car to a junkyard, and the wreckers AAA recommended wouldn't send their own tow-trucks. I began to see a bit of petty conspiracy here. So we looked at the back page of the local NEW TIMES paper and found several ads for "We Buy Wrecked Cars -- Title or No". I chose the last one in line, on the assumption that he'd be a little more hungry for work than the earlier listings. The guy who answered the phone had a distinct accent, and -- this being Arizona -- I had a pretty good idea what that meant. So, the first words out of my mouth were: "I've got a wrecked car to sell you." He asked: "Wrecked how?" I said: "Engine fire. It's out." He asked: "What kinda car?" I told him: "A classic 1979 Ford Thunderbird, with a 395 V-8 engine. The rear and spare tires are intact, and so are all five rims." There was a pause with some scurrying sounds behind it, as he looked up the specs, and then he came back and asked: "How much you want?" "$200," I said, "And you tow it." Next thing he wanted to know was the address where the car was, and I knew I'd made a sale. Meanwhile, Rasty and I pulled everything of value out of the back seat and the trunk (except for the spare tire, which wouldn't fit his Bronco anyway).
Well, the tow-truck got lost on the way to Mesa from Phoenix, but when it finally showed up I saw it was a sturdy van with a trailer and winch attached. When it parked and four Mexicans hopped out, I made some more good guesses. As they strolled over to the car and looked it over, the guy who seemed to be in charge asked: "You got title?" "I do," I said, "But my copy was...in there." And I pointed to the burned-out glove compartment. His face fell, and I knew I'd have to do some negotiating. "But," I promised, pulling out my old driving wallet with all the car-registration and insurance papers I'd gotten in the last 10 years, "I' ve got proof that I have it. We just need to get another copy." "How much you want again?" he asked. "$100," I said, "And you know you're getting a bargain." He did, because he accepted the price at once, without haggling, offered to drive me himself to the nearest DMV office and pay for the new copy of the title, and the transferring fee, himself. 'Twas clear that he really, really wanted that V-8 engine. Rasty guessed that he already had a car at home -- or in Mexico -- that he wanted to drop that engine into.
So off we went to the DMV, got the copy of the title and transferred it, I gave him the cars keys, old registration papers and specs, the guy gave me a brand-new $100 bill and hopped into his tow-van. As they drove off I watched the T-Bird roll away until it was out of sight, feeling as if I'd lost an old friend. Well, at least I knew its engine would go to a good home -- and probably its frame, rims, tires and doors too. I felt an odd sort of kinship there, seeing that I'm a member of Lifesharers -- an organ-donor co-op -- and I expect my usable parts to go to good homes when I'm gone too.
Meanwhile, first thing tomorrow, I've got to call my insurance company and cut off my car insurance as of yesterday, and try to get some of my money back. We're saving every penny to get a house, but eventually we're going to need another car too.
I doubt, though, that I'll ever get another car as good as that solid old T-Bird.