The man-child will be turning 20 in a couple months. So I started thinking about what he might like in the way of a birthday present. Since I am a mere guy, my gift ideas are typically late-to-need, and frequently rubbish.
But this time even my dodgy skills were sufficient to grasp the obvious: a car.
He goes to a large college, so getting out to do even simple errands like food shopping are a multi-hour chore involving schlepping groceries on public transport.
And dating. Feminism be damned, there are at least two things young women expect: the guy will drive, and he will be taller. At just a tick shy of six feet and still growing, my son has the latter knocked, but comes up short in the former.
As it happens, deciding on which was just as easy as what: a BMW.
Woah, Piketty fans. Calm down. You bangers on the inequality drum, you reflexive looters, give it a rest for a second.
Born in 1991, it is old enough to drink, which would bring a whole new meaning to DUI. TOSWIPIAW and I bought it before we got married. Both critters came home from the hospital in it. With more than 220,000 miles on the clock, it has traveled nearly the equivalent of going around the world nine times.
This thing is seriously old.
Since it is twice the age of the median US car it is clearly a rare survivor; the vast majority of its peers have long since gone to the knacker's yard. For those that remain, many, perhaps most, have emotionally attached owners.
I'm not one. Really. No, really.
Afflicted with a Mittyesque notion of being, except for profound deficits in bravery and talent, a Grand Prix race car driver, I have always been drawn to cars with sporting pretensions. And possessing a modicum of mechanical aptitude has meant I could make tolerable a series of cars that others with more sense would shy away from. In order, starting when I was in college: MGA, Porsche 911, Alpha Romeo, Mazda RX-7, Triumph TR-6, and another 911.
Average age when they fell into my grease stained mitts, 13 years. I kept most for six to 12 years (I held on to the Alfa for only six months; long enough to have my fun, dumping it before it caught fire.). The second 911 was 27 when I sold it in 2007. The reason in each case was clear: I was various combinations of unable and unwilling to pay for anything newer. (BTW, each was a daily driver.)
So this car, a 1992 325i, the first new car I, 37 at the time, had ever owned, is either another example of thrift, or further manifestation of illness. Also, and I'm not sure which theory this supports most, underneath its commonplace sedan exterior it is seriously fast, with razor sharp handling, brilliant brakes, rear wheel drive, and a manual transmission.
As if that isn't enough for a mere car, it also bears lessons in economics and social inequality. And road trip.
A car, like most material goods, is a wasting asset. Just driving one off the lot will take 10% off its resale value. Within a half dozen years, no matter how delicately driven and meticulously maintained, it will be worth about a third of the gaping hole buying the thing left in your wallet. This is why, in the mere terms of dollars and cents, it saves much more of both to buy a 2-3 yr old car; or, if one must buy new, to keep the thing a bloody long time.
Unfortunately, no matter how pristine even the most fastidious owner keeps a car, its market value will inevitably decline below the cost of a major repair. The critical problem here is that an old car with, say, a newly rebuilt engine is worth scarcely anything more than the same car with an old, but still functioning, engine. Spending $4,000 on rejuvenating that mechanical festival of suck-squeeze-bang-blow will be no help at all should you be rear ended by someone finding out they cannot, in fact, successfully juggle texting and driving. The imprudent juggler's insurance company will pay out the market value of the car, and not a dime for the engine.
And that is in addition to the more obvious accumulation of failures as a car ages. As the miles and years accumulate, decrepitude and increasing unreliability make the sum of remaining market value and ongoing repair costs better spent on selling or knackering the thing and replacing it with something newer.
The market obviously believes this optimum tradeoff to be at 11.4 years, hence the current median age for cars.
So how does keeping a car twice as old make any sense at all?
Without some backstory, it doesn't. When the car was seven years old, a mere child, I heard about premature water pump failures. Uncharacteristically and unfathomably, I didn't jump all over replacing it. I think I convinced myself the pump would give signs of impending failure.
It did. Just like an earthquake.
I paid the price, first with my very annoyed wife stuck on the side of the road. Towing: $60. Water pump: $35. Unfortunately, that isn't the end of it. Beknownst to me, the failure was fairly violent. The bearing had seized, bending the housing, shattering the impeller, derailing the drive belt and running the fan into the radiator. Far less obvious, a piece of the shattered impeller found its way into a water passage, insidiously causing uneven heating between the #2 and #3 cylinders, making them ever so slightly oval. Two years later, at 155,000 miles, and at least 75,000 miles before what should have been its time, the engine was junk. Since cars are designed to last about as long as their most costly component, at the time it still made sense to replace the engine. However, doing so threw a monkey wrench into the car's lifecycle.
Moreover, aside from big ticket items, I almost never have to pay a mechanic. That cuts maintenance costs by more than half. Add to that a reasonably finely tuned eye and ear for things getting dodgy, and a pilot's deeply ingrained preference, reinforced by experience, to replace things before they fail, this car reached its 22nd birthday in unusually good fettle. It wasn't an eyesore, had no accumulation of aggravating gremlins, and depreciation was a done deal.
With the critters gone at school, we had more cars than drivers at home. Rather than sell one just to buy another, I decided to give my son the statistical outlier. Makes sense, right?
Ummmmm, perhaps not.
Being blessed with a spacious garage, a reasonably extensive array of tools, and decades of learning from mistakes, I can take things as they come. However, since my son has none of those things, and goes to school 2200 driving miles from home (a great many bringing "trackless" to "wilderness"), I had to take a rather more comprehensive approach.
Because the engine in these cars has a life expectancy of about 230,000 miles, the rest of the car is designed with that in mind. Among other things, that includes suspension bits that most people never even think about: the bushings and ball joints separating modern cars' ride and handling from that of Conestoga wagons. Beyond that, the car's air conditioning had quit working several years ago. That verges on irrelevance up here in Alaska, but practically constitutes a life support system in eastern Washington, where temps are routinely in the high double digits from late spring to early fall.
Almost time to start setting money on fire.
Right about the point where we discover we need new half-shafts. Add 30% to project cost.
The parts list came to $3500. Brakes, struts, shocks, control arms, tie rods, unanticipated drive shafts, bushing sets, and an AC compressor (just to name the big chunks) have a way of adding up. Onto that monetary bonfire that would leave even Congress in awe, toss another $2500 for persuading professionals to dedicate their time, expertise and specialty tools to do things like pressing old bushings and bearings out and new ones in, and a four wheel alignment after it was all said and done.
Back together. All it took was dodgy economics and lavish swearing.
So how does putting $6,000 into a car worth only $3,000 to begin with make any sense at all, unless prefixed with "non"?
Especially since I have no affection for the thing. Really, I don't.
In pure monetary terms, it is looking stupid-ish. For $9000, there is a decent array of cars with half the mileage to be had. All gutless, mushy, slush box, front-wheel drive econoboxes, to be sure. Against that, all the running gear on this near-antique is now newer than than the econobox alternative. And it's a known quantity. So there's that.
But still, at best the margin is razor thin, and only a fool ignores loss risk. To balance the books, the car has to last 42,000 more miles, and have nothing more than normal operating and maintenance costs along the way. Why? That yields depreciation of 15 cents per mile, which is what it had going in.
Of course, mere dollars and cents are rarely the total measure of economic decisions. The joy of working with my son on an extensive and complex task is impossible to measure. And the knowledge he gained will save him buckets o' bux along the way.
So, (Dodgy Economic Decision) + (Unquantifiable Rationalizations) = TOTAL WIN!
Funny, that's how progressive math works. Start with the desired answer, and mathify as required.
Tying economics into car maintenance is obvious. But how can it possibly bear upon family inequality? That seems an awful lot to ask of wrenches, screwdrivers, and the occasional sledge hammer.
Never mind the money, this project took three solid weeks of physical and mental labor. As well equipped as my garage is by amateur standards, I don't have a lift. Jack stands give enough clearance to work underneath, but no more. Repeatedly getting off the floor, then right back onto it with yet another right tool this time amounts to a day long workout. Hauling on wrenches and twisting screwdrivers all day gives hands every reason they need to ache all night. Sussing a series of unfamiliar mechanical tasks left my brain as fatigued at the end of the day as my body was.
All on something I was going to give away.
There were some ulterior motives here, of course. Besides a chance to teach my son some of the manly arts, there was the pleasure I felt in his pride at making his own, substantial, contributions to the project. More importantly, he now has skin in this game: this car wasn't just something handed to him; rather, it contains a substantial amount of his own labor and ingenuity. As a young man, thoughts of his own mortality rarely, if ever, intrude upon his cortex. However, the thought of rendering pointless all his work just might.
Obviously, this isn't the sort of thing I'd do for just anybody. Certainly not for neighbors, or even very good friends. And while I thankfully don't have the first hand experience, I doubt very much I would do it for a stepson, or even perhaps my own son if I wasn't married to his mother.
In Coming Apart, Charles Murray made the case that America is suffering a moral decline encouraged by intellectual elites, but primarily affecting the less well off. The successful espouse, but do not themselves practice, social libertarianism. In contrast, the poor practice what the successful merely preach.
The consequence in microcosm is this car project. Through it, and other less ambitious examples over the years, my son has a huge head start. Compared to the children of single or remarried mothers, he has received a far more extensive ongoing education in self-discipline, planning, work, pride in a job well done, and an introduction to some very valuable skills that very, very few women alone can provide. Moreover, he knows he got all that because he very specifically matters enough for someone else to make the investment. This is not Julia's World.
The inequality that matters isn't merely, or even mostly, that of income and wealth. Rather, it is the inequality that comes about from the presence, or absence, of things which can't be measured monetarily. The former are ephemeral; the latter gifts that keep giving. To the extent US society is bifurcating economically, it is also doing so culturally. I was brought up by a single mother, and didn't have a dad to teach me what my son takes for granted. However, in the 1960s, single mothers were still a relative rarity, surrounded by intact families. Proximity enabled learning through osmosis: most of my friends had dads in the house.
Two generations later, it looks as if we are running a real risk of "coming apart". Entire zip codes have scarcely an intact family to be found, which means essentially no involved dads to hand down those manly arts. Family advantages my son didn't earn make him a social capital plutocrat. Family disadvantages others didn't deserve make them social capital poor. That's not "fair." Unfortunately, it is hard to think of anything more constructive to do in the face of that unfairness than throwing one's hands up in despair.
And that can mean only one thing: road trip.
Having dismantled and, ideally, reassembled all the bits that hold the car off the ground, and other things besides, it was time to shift the thing from Alaska to Spokane.
Where trackless meets wilderness.
Twenty-three hundred some-odd miles of shifting, to be sort of exact.
A few words about maps. We are jiggy with technology. I have an iPad and iPhone; the man-child a Samsung Imitator S3. That said, when it comes to a road trip, I'll take a good paper map any day over the digital version. When trackless meets wilderness, the landscape isn't exactly chock-a-block with cell towers, so forget about updating. Screens are hard to read during the day. And since a mobile screen is so much smaller than a map, it is like looking at the world through a soda straw.
Despite not having a map, we were pretty certain we weren't in Kansas.
Unfortunately, sometimes we ran into heavy traffic.
Mostly not, though.
Coincidentally, my son and I drove out of Alaska seven years to the day after first setting foot there. Some things have changed.
When I was a kid, getting driven across country on the actual Route 66, whenever we crossed into another state, I looked for the line the map said should be on the ground. Well, imagine that, here it is. (In the bottom picture, the state line is carved out of the forest all the way to the horizon.)
This is an aerial view of part of our journey (right about where the distance tag is in the map above). No cell phone towers, service stations, cars, towns, people. Instead, nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles and a 22-year old car. What could possibly go wrong?
Midway through the third day, we were reaching southern Canada, which stops being quite so devoid of cell service, service stations, cars, etc. We saw a sign indicating that a road looking like being much less traveled than the one we were on ended up where we wanted to go. Despite not having a map, on the spur of the moment, and spurning mapquest's directions, we took it.
Great choice, as it turned out. Considering the amount of traffic it was an incongruously well paved road winding through the mountains. It was a beautiful drive, open enough to go fast, yet winding enough to give our new brakes and suspension a workout.
As we started on this road, I noticed a car well behind. Despite our brisk pace, it was catching up. Hmmmm. Can't have that. So I went faster. And it kept catching up. And I went a faster. And it still kept catching up. And I went a little faster, then finally ran out of stones. And it still kept catching up, until it got close enough for me to suss the competition. What I assumed had to be a guy driving sports car turned out to be some late model Chevy. With a bike on top. And a blonde behind the wheel. I had a sudden flashback to my childhood.
Unfortunately, as with all good things, this road trip came to an end. Three days of scenery veering between spectacular and merely beautiful, followed by another half day through the wide open countryside of northern Washington took us to Spokane International Airport, and my flight home.
More than the road trip ended there. When my son dropped me at the curb, he said, simply, "Dad, thanks for everything", before sliding back into the car and driving off. That, right there, was the moment his childhood ended.