My elderly farm truck died — finally, utterly, and completely — two weeks ago. It won’t start at all. It’s a 1993 half-ton paperweight in the driveway. Life has been so hectic I haven’t had a chance to do much about it.
But yesterday my friend Allen kindly accompanied me to car dealerships to look at possible replacements. Allen has been driving trucks and heavy machinery for almost sixty-five years (he steered for his napping father, at the wheel of a logging truck, at age 6). He agreed to be my expert and Protection against Sharkish Car Dealers.
I have to go through a dealer because I have to finance whatever I buy. However initial calls and emails to local dealerships had been discouraging. No one has much, if any, inventory on their lots.
At the Chevy dealership half an hour away, Allen and I looked over the few available trucks and drove one. (The salesman started a nice-looking 2004 truck for us but Allen made a cutting gesture with his hand. “Engine’s rough,” he said briefly to me. “Want it to purr like a kitten.”) I couldn’t hear anything in the engine.
Others he was dubious about, looking at their tailpipes. (“Black.”) I felt like an idiot trotting at his heels, as all I could see were obvious things like rust or scratches, neither of which concerned Allen at all. It soon became clear that the main job I was good for was reading the years and prices off the windshields.
Then we saw a 2000 half-ton pick-up. The dealer explained it had been used as a short-distance commuter car by a corrections officer. Though almost ten years old, it was immaculate. “He didn’t use it as a truck.”
“We’ll try that one,” Allen said. (“Heard it pull in,” he muttered under his breath to me. “Smooth.”)
It was also much nicer than anything I could imagine myself using on the farm. That gleaming vehicle pulling stumps? Hauling the manure spreader? Fighting mud? Still, the price vs. mileage was the most reasonable of all the trucks available. I drove it off the lot but quickly realized that having a mechanically ignorant fool (me) test-drive anything was pointless.
I pulled over and Allen took the wheel. To my surprise he floored the gas. We rocketed forward with a squeal of tires. I grabbed for the handgrip on the dash and looked over at Allen, sure that he must be teasing in some way. But no. He had the unsmiling, intent look of a doctor listening to a child’s chest through a stethoscope.
He swerved back and forth. He stopped the engine, got out, lay on the road under the front bumper, and had me fractionally turn the wheels. I wondered what people thought as they drove by and saw a white-haired man on the pavement. Allen’s face was frowning and serious. He got up and had me pop the hood.
I opened my door in alarm. “What is it?”
“It’s an engine!” At last he smiled.
Allen is a person of few words. I am not. (Sometimes he holds the ear nearest me in mock pain.) But I am very fond of him, and I trust him.
“You gonna blame me if it don’t work out?”
“No, of course not.”
“You want to, we can drive the others. But this is the one I’d buy.”
I was hesitant because the truck has an extended cab and other luxuries (power windows! a CD player!) that made me anxious about overspending. But the truth was that there was nothing in my hoped-for price range. We went down the street to the Ford dealership and looked at other options. However even the smaller used trucks were more expensive.
We could not understand it until Allen said, “Lots of trucks back there —” and began walking out behind the building. I hurried after him. There sat a dozen used trucks and cars, all marked CFC on their windshields.
Cash For Clunkers.
These did not fit any definition of clunker to me. Most of them were beautiful, much nicer than anything I could afford. The dealer found us out there and explained that many of them had low mileage. However, they’d all been traded in on newer models and the government required that they be crushed and destroyed.
Though I am an environmentalist through and through, this seemed shocking and wasteful to me. Somehow I’d pictured the “clunkers” in the government program being rusted-out dinosaurs like my old Silverado. Not shiny, practically new trucks and SUVs being traded up. Especially in this rural area, rightfully called “the Appalachia of the north” — where towns are far apart, where public transportation is almost non-existent, where winter snows are fierce, where many men need trucks for work, and where too many poor families cannot afford any vehicle — I question the wisdom of the crushing order.
It is also clear that by removing so many from the roads, the Cash for Clunkers program has driven up prices on all used cars, putting them further out of reach of many who need them. One dealer told me that to have any used vehicles at all on their lot, they’d been scouting driveways looking for FOR SALE signs in windshields.
I have been wrestling with my liberal ideals ever since. I don’t know the answer. It would be nice to sit down and kick around the problem with Barack Obama and Al Gore, both of whom I respect, support, and voted for. I’d like to hear their thoughts.
Meanwhile, if I can get the dealer to come down in price, I am going to try to buy the truck Allen recommended.
“It’s so nice though,” I fretted to him. “I worry I’d trash it.”
He gave me a wry look. “Maybe don’t drive it like a stock car over rocks.”