The Beauty of the Beater

While exiting my car the other day I nearly gashed myself on a World Trade Centre’s worth of rusty metal formerly known as the running board of an ancient and disreputable SUV parked beside me. When I returned to my own car and fired it up, I shared a grin with the SUV’s owner.

That’s because when it comes to the Secret Society of Beaters and Rattletraps, I am a charter member. We own 4 cars. I have been known to beg: Please can we sell all of them and buy just one decent car, please? The best of them is a giant Ford Expedition we don’t even keep at home in Montreal because who would want to park it? It stays out West on the family farm for bashing up and down the mountains. Its nickname is Moody Judy, ominously.

Note bumper rivets!

The car I am currently driving is our winter model, a 10-year-old, mostly silver, Ford Focus station wagon. It has been variously known as the Mousemobile and the Dustmobile, but I’ve currently dubbed it the Lowrider, owing to the almost complete absence of a left rear shock, giving it an unsettling oscillation at anything over 80km/h.

When it began to show irredeemable signs of wear, we drove it out West to become our first beater for bashing around the Rockies. It spent winters parked in an old barn, where it acquired some furry tenants and the moniker Mousemobile. We managed to evict most of them, but still haven’t got rid of the smell. It also spent time ferrying kids across the farm’s dusty roads to ‘The Back,’ the swimming hole at the far end of the property. I still come upon bits of that fine clay covering remote corners of the car. Which doesn’t say much for my ‘detailing.’

The silver paint on the hatchback is slowly flaking off to the original white. After we were rear-ended, my husband refused to pay the price the insurance wanted to replace the part new, preferring to scrounge one that sort-of fits from a junkyard. A can of silver spray paint mostly covered the white paint. Replacing the bumpers was ridiculously costly for something that is just vinyl-covered Styrofoam. So we just riveted the ripped ones back together. What original paint remains is losing the battle to rust.

cofOur ‘summer car’ is known as the Sacred Relic. When my husband’s mother passed away, we decided to take her lovely green Subaru Forester, which had only 35,000 miles on it. I was celebrating Movin’ On Up until the transmission fell out next to an 18-wheeler on the Trans-Canada highway near Kingston in the rain. Transmission #2 never really worked. Transmission #3 mostly works, unless it is too cold. It’s best to park on a hill. And please ignore the smoke. But, it is the last will and testament of my sainted mother-in-law…we cannot junk it!

davThis sort of stubbornness eventually can become cool: our fourth car is a 20-year-old mostly blue GMC van of the ‘If this van is rockin, don’t be a-knockin’ ilk. Passersby may not knock, but they sure do comment. We keep it for camping and biking trips (and transporting transmissions). One spring I expect to go out to the garage and find only rust flakes in the outline of a van – an oxidative vehicular crime scene.

We are accidentally located in equally ancient and decrepit house in an otherwise ritzy area of suburban Montreal, and are one car up on blocks in the front yard away from being dubbed the Dorval Hillbillies. Part of this situation is due to my impoverished state as a writer, but most of the blame falls at the feet (or wrenches) of my husband. A chemistry professor by day, he spends his time flapping his lips or typing on a computer. Getting down and dirty under a rusted rattletrap seems to be his form of therapy.

My female friends describe this situation as a marital deal-breaker: “Yer Honour, he made me drive a beater!” Luckily for my marriage, I was born on a farm. Life experience can be a little different there. I learned to drive at around 9 years of age, in an ancient ¾-ton truck lacking most of its floor, whose reverse gear was but a distant memory. At any time there could be a dozen or more combustion engines on the place, scarcely a one in good working order. My brother still keeps the ancient Case tractor he–unusually–survived overturning. I guess he figures he owes it a comfortable retirement.

My rural background also gives me a slightly different perspective: What is the point of driving a gazillion-dollar BMW through the salt storm otherwise known as a Quebec winter? In the self-righteous rural Presbyterian outlook I grew up with, ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption were despised. The wealthiest landowners drove the worst vehicles: partly owing to the afore-mentioned philosophy; partly because most farmers were cash-poor; and partly in the faint hope they wouldn’t be recognized, and might convince some vendor to give them a discount due to their apparent poverty. If you wanted to marry a millionaire out in the rural west, best search amongst the dusty, battered trucks.

I also like the way a beater allows you to mess with people’s assumptions: if I get crowded by some high-status car, all I have to do is make one erratic move for the driver to back off. I think they fear I might pull out an Uzi.  After all, what have I got to lose? The hole in the muffler doesn’t seem to be getting any larger, giving it a rather dangerous growl I’ve grown to like.

And I do enjoy the cognitive dysfunction of stepping out of a rusted-out, smoking (not in a good way) car wearing more Patagonia or Lululemon on my back than the car is worth. You might be tempted to point out that if I spent less on clothes we could afford a better car. Don’t worry, someone’s already told me so.

He’s under the car.


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