Car Culture Shock

Car Culture Shock
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I wasn’t a total automotive neophyte. I mean, I had driven rental cars all over France and Italy. During summer and winter holidays each year I had returned to the US and trafficked New York State’s highways and byways often enough.

And I had owned vehicles practically since the day I received my driver’s license as a teenager. But American car culture had perceptibly evolved since I moved to Paris four years ago. Something had changed. Something was different in me, in everyone else, or perhaps in both.


Okay, we all know that “being American” and “owning an automobile” are effectively synonymous. And I would have to have lived in a bubble to overlook the current trend, er… obsession with “bigger is better” automobiles in the US. But my regular visits and relative familiarity with current consumer patterns did little to prepare me for the turbulent re-entry I would experience as I readjusted to the American automotive mentality after my stint as an expat.

With SUV #1, by George DavisEver seen a 1972 Toyota LandCruiser FJ-40? Arguably the coolest, chunkiest, gas-hogging-est prehistoric SUV, the FJ-40 series enjoys rare distinction as one of the longest running production 4x4s, manufactured continuously between 1960 and 1984 (or even longer if you want to count the Bandeirante, a clone manufactured in Brazil until 2001.) I’ve loved FJ-40s for as long as I can remember. Evoking a rugged safari lifestyle, they would have been featured prominently if J. Peterman had attempted an automotive catalogue.

Upon relocating to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the mid-‘90s, I promptly purchased two essentials, a motorcycle and an FJ-40. If I were prepared to submit the rational to the romantic, to swap a professionally promising Washington DC lifestyle for the “Land of Enchantment” uncertainties of blue sky Santa Fe, then it was only sensible to complement (supplement?) this quixotic move with the perfect transportation. I sought and bought the perfect steeds (certainly two Rosinantes are better than one,) a rocket-fast motorcycle and a 1972 Toyota FJ-40.

Ahhh… the LandCruiser. That two-tone wonder, more artifact than showroom restoration, could climb trees, or so I liked to claim. I never did much more than drive around Santa Fe feeling a bit like a late 20th century Hemingway, but I did use it to slog through a mountain snowfall or two, and I did manage to sell it a couple years later for more than I had paid for it. And I spent some time under the hood, tinkering and absorbing the vernacular that has served me well for negotiating with mechanics and playing chameleon among some challenging types of company.

It bears mentioning that my decision to sell that uber-SUV was hastened each time I pulled up at the gas pump. It was staggering to be reminded constantly that a smallish, two-seater could get fewer miles to the gallon than an eighteen wheeler! Perhaps I exaggerate, but the acquisition of a modern-thirty-miles-to-the-gallon-and-comfortable-and-quiet-on-long-drives-sedan compelled me, albeit begrudgingly, to thin my herd and pass the FJ-40 on to another dreamer with deep pockets and a shallow environmental conscience.

Why mention the FJ-40? Perhaps to dissuade the critic who would dismiss the present rumination as preciously altruistic. Perhaps just to remind myself that so recently my own automotive preferences ran to the gargantuan and gas guzzling. Or perhaps simply because this rhinoceros of a vehicle represents the only interesting point of reference among my otherwise insipid history with four wheeled locomotion. In short, consider my scarlet letter prominently visible as I attempt to convey a bizarre tale of reverse culture shock experienced between June and September 2003, the first exciting months of my US repatriation.

“Whose car?”
“Mine,” I offered at once confident and proud.
“Nice. I just bought the same car.”
“Really? I just bought mine on eBay!”

By way of introduction, I site an uncanny encounter late this autumn. A jogger with a beautiful husky keeping pace stopped by to introduce herself. She was a new veterinarian in town, and my new-to-me Subaru Sport had attracted her attention. Although she had moved from London and I had moved from Paris, we launched into remarkably similar car shopping chronicles. If not for this brief encounter, I would probably have let my story slip into dusty oblivion in the interstices of my memory. Chocked it up to re-entry weirdness and let it go. And it may well be re-entry weirdness, but having discovered that much of my story existed in duplicate, recording and sharing the story became inevitable.

Before we arrive at the polyphony chapter of my story, there’s an entertaining prologue that popped up in “Car Culture Shock”, my last e-Marginalia installment. Do you remember the zippy white Mustang that we piloted around the Four Corners? Do you remember my souvenir from dear Officer Jollycopper? Well, after my fateful foray through the Southwest, my P.O.A. was to return east for a sublime summer in Westport, New York. In addition to swimming, sailing, waterskiing, fly-fishing, hiking, gardening, tennis-ing, jogging, theater-ing, dining, and all of the other “-ings” that draw many of us to this charming village on the Adirondack shore of Lake Champlain, my mission was to buy a car.

Simple task, right? Wrong. Ignore the fact that my lifestyle in Europe had spoiled me with excellent public transportation and well-near convinced me that I’d rather use good trains than own a car ever again. And skip the challenging recalibration of my psychology to accept that life in America, especially rural life in America, requires a car. My mission to once again become a car owner loomed more colossal with each passing day.

First, there was the issue of points on my license. Officer Jollycopper’s legacy affected me in a peculiar way, postponing the purchase of a car and prolonging the research phase. With all of those points on my license, I could expect a vertiginously high insurance rate on a new car, unless… Apparently I could take a New York State Defensive Driving Course and drop up to four points off my license. And Colorado was supposed to trim another two since I had paid the fine in a timely manner. That would clean the slate, restoring my previously pristine driving record and dropping my insurance rate.

Northwest Bay, by George DavisSo I enrolled in a AAA course and began researching automobiles. Scheduled for the end of July, the weeks prior to attending the Defensive Driving class offered ample opportunity for familiarizing myself with what sort of vehicle I should buy. My needs were pretty straightforward: four wheel drive (to manage my mile and a half long driveway during North Country winters), good gas mileage, second-hand (but gently used), inexpensive ($5,000-$10,000) and comfortable for long road trips. Oh, and if it were green and traffic-stoppingly cool looking, well, then I’d just have to live with that!

The good news was that the second-hand automobile market was (and is) swamped with four wheel drives. And even better news, because of the glut, prices were (and are) relatively low. So it looked like two of my needs were going to be pretty easy to fulfill. I began researching cars. For starters, I discovered that virtually every automobile manufacturer in the mass commercial market produces at least one 4x4 model. I also discovered that the SUV, ubiquitous with the 21st century American lifestyle, was not only the principal way of delivering four wheel drive, it also (as a class) represents the worst fuel efficiency in almost thirty years. I have to admit, there was a part of me that longed for an SUV, first and foremost because that’s what dominated the market. Abundantly available, the prices were surprisingly low, especially compared to the exorbitant cost of vehicles in Europe. And there’s also that Darwinian survival instinct that begins to click in: if everyone else is driving these tanks and I’m in an efficient compact what happens in a collision? Fears of extinction fueled my “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” rationale. And yet, the more I read, the more I compared, the more disgusted I became.

I’m not prepared to jump onto the proverbial soap box about fossil fuel consumption, US foreign policy, excess production, the automotive lobby, petroleum lobby or any of those other “hot” issues directly or indirectly related to the SUV phenomenon. Not here. Not now. And I have to admit, I’m still trying to sort it all out myself. But it was quickly clear to me that I had no business buying a vehicle, no matter how cool and robust, that gets fewer miles to the gallon than the behemoths that lumbered the tarmac when I was growing up. Not when we can produce super-efficient, lower polluting, long lasting cars that cost less to produce and hold their value as well as (or better than) most SUVs. I’m no scientist, nor have I made a thorough analysis of the current automotive industry, but suffice to say, by the time my Defensive Driving course was supposed to take place, I had made up my mind. I would not be purchasing another Toyota LandCruiser—old or new—and I would not be buying one of their many relatives that had all but obscured the alternatives.

So my search narrowed, but simultaneously extended. Or the timeline for my search. Remember that list of “-ings” that had drawn me back to my North Country home? Well, I got so swept up in swimming, sailing, waterskiing, fly-fishing, hiking, gardening, tennis-ing, jogging, theater-ing, and the like that I slipped right past the date of my Defensive Driving Course without referencing my Day-Timer or my Outlook Calendar. The course was scheduled to take place at a community college almost an hour from my home. Two days after the correct date, I waltzed into the appointed classroom to discover that I had missed the course by forty eight hours! Aaargh. Embarrassed, I returned to the parking lot, sat in my borrowed car and proceeded to place call after call until I had managed to enroll in another course a couple of weeks later.

Borrowing cars had become an art and a vice, but I recognized that I would soon overextend my welcome (or perhaps I already had.) This had to end. I had to buy a car. But I loathed the notion of buying, registering and insuring a car while all of those menacing points still plagued me. So I prolonged my research and awaited the class. The veterinarian’s shadow story paralleled my own with an uncanny verisimilitude. All except for the Defensive Driving course and the dread points…

We had both returned to an SUV crazed homeland. We had both initially sought hearty 4x4 vehicles that were gentle on the environment. We were both interested in “recycling” a car rather than buying new. We had both familiarized ourselves with our buying options and recoiled from the consumptive vehicles that filled the roads and used car lots. We had both been courted by a “green in common”, a mutual friend who devotes most of his intellectual, emotional, social and financial capital to a passionate quest to restrain development and preserve natural habitats in the Adirondacks, urged and encouraged to consider buying a hybrid like his Toyota Prius. But we had both eventually settled on Subaru Outbacks. In fact, we had both decided that the Outback Sport, was what we needed. But as my second attempt to take the Defensive Driving course neared, I couldn’t consult the veterinarian despite the similarity of our paths since we had not even met yet. Instead, I used the Internet for my research. Little by little I came to know my future car, its value, quirks, going rates, and so forth.

Roadside Wild Turkeys, by George DavisOn the day of my Defensive Driving course, I headed off to a conference room in a Holiday Inn in Plattsburgh, New York only to discover that the instructor had cancelled the course but failed to notify about half of the attendees. We commiserated and left. Twice I had enrolled, and twice I had failed to attend. (Confidentially, I’m exercising my creative license to omit another class, a third that I missed in August…) Was there a message here? I enrolled once more, this time in a class that would take place over an hour away and would be spread over a two night period. Less than ideal. Especially considering my family and friends were about ready to disown me for continually borrowing their cars. And, to be honest, I was chafing to buy a car. After deciding on what to buy, I had been tackling the question of how to buy an Outback Sport.

Friends, recently relocated to Winter Park, Florida from Rome, Italy advised me to try CarMax. He painted a picture of the “Walmart of automobile dealerships”. I was daunted by his description despite his assurance that they had bought a super car easily and efficiently. And I was relieved to discover that my northern location preempted further consideration since they are not (yet) present in the northeast. I met with dealers and walked through their lots. I responded to classifieds and discovered that Subaru owners are a special breed. They are fond of their cars and even fonder of recounting anecdotal moments that capture the wonders of their Subarus. Mostly they were selling their cars with the intention of buying another Subaru. In fact only once did a seller deviate from this formula.

A man from Lake Place, of 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics fame, was selling his Outback to buy an enormous Ford conversion van. I was surprised. This was a rather notable deviation from the pattern I was becoming familiar with. He explained that he had discovered an after-market kit that he could install in his new diesel van that would permit it to run on vegetable oil. In particular, he intended to run his new van on fryer oil discarded by local restaurants. He had already lined up several fuel sources and was ready to make the leap to cost free commuting. I wondered aloud about the environmental impact of running a vehicle on french fry oil, and he sited US government studies proving the clean emissions, and demonstrating the efficiency. Needless to say, subsequent conversations with others have raised my suspicions.

Sunrise Over Vermont, by George DavisBut the real evolution in my car buying process can be credited to eBay. As I progressed toward car ownership, I had repeatedly been referred to eBay, not necessarily as a place to buy a car, but as a good reference point for ascertaining value. Again and again sellers recommended I check eBay to get a better sense for how price related to model, year, mileage, extras and condition. Even dealers used eBay as the barometer for what vehicles are worth. I was fascinated, so I headed off to to see what I would find.

Although I had made a few purchases on eBay over the last couple of years—fly-fishing equipment and antique fountain pens—I was not well acquainted with “The World's Online MarketplaceÔ”. I was shocked to discover that almost 25,000 automobiles were available for sale on eBay Motors on any given day. And with the top bidders pushing auction prices on some collectables near to a million dollars, I realized that this was the real deal. People were actually buying and selling cars online. Amazing!

My research took on a whole new dimension. I had entered the virtual realm. It was fascinating. Although it struck me as riskier to some degree, easier to pass off a lemon for example, it was also considerably more welcoming. More customer-centric. Gone was the charming but slippery car salesman. Suddenly I was the one directing the process. I could contact sellers directly rather than dealing with a middle man, and I could ask questions and request additional photographs and search titles and even go off to test drive vehicles on my own terms. And I was increasingly impressed with the efficiency of this marketplace, not just in streamlining the sales process, but in actually creating a used car marketplace large enough to promote market efficiency. The enormity of the marketplace and the auction format created a value-driven exchange. Revolutionary!

I began following Subaru Sport auctions, tracking the buyer trends until I felt like I was ready to begin bidding. Initially I was hesitant, an overly anxious bidder, letting auctions slip from my grasp after carefully verifying that the vehicle was what I wanted. I was regularly surprised by the high prices that Subaru Outbacks (all models) demanded as auctions entered their final days. And I was repeatedly bested by bidders who slipped marginally higher bids in during the final seconds. As time went on and I became more familiar with the auction mechanism and more familiar with the beast I was stalking, I became bolder. I learned to bid more strategically, more aggressively.

A week before my Defensive Driving course, I finally closed a deal. After plenty of due diligence I made my move. I used eBay’s “Buy It Now” function to purchase a green 1996 Subaru Outback Sport. I’d bought a car! But the transaction was far from done. In addition to transferring the title, driving the car home, registering it and inspecting it, there were two other obstacles. The first was the insurance. I had to buy insurance for my new car before I could complete the purchase and drive it home. The nightmare had come true. A whopping insurance rate.

Why, you ask, did I not wait to purchase a car until I had taken the course and reduced my points. Actually, I had discovered that the Defensive Driving course would cut down my points so far as the Department of Motor Vehicles was concerned, but they would still appear on my record and would result in hefty insurance rates whether I took the course or not. Either I had been misinformed or I had misunderstood. My car purchase could have happened long ago!

Ferry to Vermont, by George DavisThe second obstacle was arranging to pick up the car in a small town in the Pennsylvania Poconos. From Manhattan, where I have been spending about half of my time since returning to the US in June, I was driven about an hour and a half west to Broadheadsville where I met with the seller at a title transfer agency. In less than an hour I drove away with my new-to-me Subaru Sport.

I had bought a car online. Most of the anxiety I had felt during the past week diminished as I drove through rural Pennsylvania. Most, but not all. It still remained to see what the Subaru mechanics at home would say. But with each passing mile the worries subsided.

I began tracking my miles per gallon, and by the end of the week, returning from my second day of the Defensive Driving class with a newly inked certificate in hand, I was able to confirm definitively that my new car consistently got at least thirty miles to the gallon. Several days later, I arrived at the Subaru dealership for a “twenty seven point inspection” or some such thing. They went over my green machine with a fine-toothed comb, changed the wiper blades, changed the fluids, checked the wear on the tires, and returned an unusual verdict. She was in amazing condition! And the invoice for everything came in under what they had estimated due to a standard prognosis for a Subaru of similar year and model. I drove away from the dealership feeling pretty damned pleased.

At last I could relax. And I did. Ever since, I’ve been flooded with the simple satisfaction of having my own

Snow-topped Subaru, by George Davis

transportation once again. Being the captain of my own ship has brought back nostalgic memories of my first car, my first license, and my first driving experiences. Not unlike the feeling you have when you get your first bicycle as a young child. Or the first time you ride that bike on the road. The world fills with possibilities. I am free to wander and explore on my own terms, to get lost, to discover, to pull off a country road next to a stream for a half hour of fly-fishing in the late afternoon. I find myself relishing so many of the pleasures I’ve so easily (and so often) scoffed at over the past several years.

For better or for worse, I had been lulled into a somewhat European perspective on automobiles. Perhaps cars are a largely unnecessary luxury, better used sparingly or at least with restraint. But my return to the US and re-submersion in our American car culture has reminded me of the satisfaction of owning a vehicle, the freedom that possessing and driving my very own car gives me. Sounds shallow? Arguably. But unabashedly true.

Let’s face it. Most Americans love cars. And we depend on them. So much more than we can easily explain to our European neighbors so perplexed at, and quick to mock, our car culture. Yet it’s been reassuring to discover that it is possible to have a safe, four wheel drive (actually all wheel drive, to be perfectly accurate) car that gets great gas mileage and that’s compact enough to fit into any parking place I can find. And it’s immensely pleasing to tell people that I purchased the car on eBay, for this company has certainly revolutionized the way we relate to previously owned automobiles by developing and supporting one of the single best recycling operations in existence. And at last, I can offer to drive my friends rather than the other way around. That’s definitely going to make some folks happy.