Do You Love Cars Without That New-Car Smell?

Remember when you first started climbing, or skiing, or mountain biking, and you went out and bought all the gear, and then you immediately sped to a car dealership to purchase a reliable $45,000 sport utility vehicle so you could drive to all places you needed to go?

Me neither. I do remember, in 2006, when someone rammed into my college car, and I got really excited because I was sure it was totaled and I would finally be able to buy an all-wheel-drive station wagon. And I did, for $4,000. Its odometer just turned 220,000 miles a couple weeks ago. It smells kind of like dirt and feet now. One time last fall when I was trying to sleep in the back of it, I started thinking about how its trade-in value was $650, and the box of climbing gear I was spooning was probably twice that.

I always smile at advertising that uses outdoor sports to sell new SUVs, because hardly anyone I’ve climbed or skied with drives a new SUV, let alone an expensive one. No offense if you do drive an SUV — there are plenty of reasons for buying one. I’m just saying the marketing is interesting when you’re, well, essentially the guys and the girls in the ads.

Lots of Americans need a car with the functionality of a minivan, but they want something “sexier.” So they get an SUV. The SUV is sexier than a van, because that’s what climbers drive, right? It’s a sport utility vehicle, and “sport” = mountain sports. Which I guess makes mountain sports sexy.

But most of us outdoorsfolk drive something quite different than a Hummer H3, or BMW X5 or Mercedes G-Class. We drive old pickups with toppers, and then we sleep in the back. We drive old Honda Civics and Subaru wagons with rocket boxes and ski and bike racks on top. Volkswagen vans with stickers covering the bumpers and windows. When the power windows stop working, we help them up by hand instead of spending $300 to fix them — I mean $300, Jesus Christ, that’s like half a ski pass, or a new puffy, or five cams. Every windshield of every one of my friends’ Colorado vehicles has at least one crack in it. You just don’t see too many $60,000 SUVs at trailheads.

I was sitting in my friend’s living room talking to him about cars this past fall, and I made some remark about starting a then 2-month road trip in a car that had 200,000 miles on it and no air conditioning. He brought up his old truck, a Toyota pickup with a topper, and said it had broken down on the way back from his 5th wedding anniversary celebration, and he had battled whether or not to fix it or just get rid of it and buy something new. I asked how much the repairs cost, and he said $2,300. I said What did you decide, and he said I just bit the bullet and got it fixed. Ouch, I said, how many miles are on that truck?


I thought that was pretty rad.

Brian, another friend of mine who I consider to be a hero/mentor in the ways of living as a dirtbag tumbleweed, once bought a car in Tallahassee for $500. He drove it out to Colorado, then Moab, then all over the place. It went to Telluride Bluegrass. Then he decided he wanted to go teach English in China, so he sold all of his stuff, and the car. Without any mechanical improvements aside from an oil change and some new tires over his 10,000 miles of driving it, he sold it to someone for $950, within hours of posting it on Craigslist.

Brian e-mailed me this photo: “Take a look at that roof rack though. A pair of Yakima bars attached to some some 2×4 blocks with conduit tie-downs, which are then cam-strapped through the door frame. A solid rack though. You could probably lift that fucking car up by it. I am sort of surprised there isn’t a commercial design like this–it’s 100% universal!”

I bought a minivan a couple weeks ago. I needed something with most of the functionality of an SUV, without the sexiness. So I got an all-wheel-drive Astro Van. I got excited when I discovered it had two cupholders in front, and one perfectly held a Nalgene 1-liter bottle, and the other perfectly held my Pablo’s coffee mug. When I told friends I bought a van, a few of them asked, Did you sell your Subaru?

I said No, it’s a good car. This past weekend, I pulled it into a storage unit for a little rest, and three of the four zip-ties that have been holding the front license plate in place since 2008 disintegrated as soon as I touched them. The car has no rear defrost, and the rear windshield wiper is stuck pointing toward the sky where it had stopped a couple years ago when the wiring harness melted back there. No cruise control. The molding is missing from the entire right side of the windshield glass, having ripped off on a windy day crossing Nebraska in 2008. There’s a slight rattle coming from the gearshift, but if I turn the music up enough, I can’t hear it. The air conditioner compressor started slowly dying a couple years ago, just after I had put $1,400 into a new transmission and clutch. Baki, the owner of Roos Only, my auto shop in Denver, had opened the hood, unplugged the wire to the A/C compressor, and said, “There you go. You get some money, you get it fixed.”

But I didn’t get it fixed. I sweated my way out of Denver last July, starting a five-week road trip that turned into six months, and I put 16,000 miles on that car, drove the entire length of the Pacific Coast, to the Sawtooths, City of Rocks, the Bitterroots, Tuolumne, the Wind Rivers, Zion, the Grand Canyon. I had some of the best people in the world in the passenger seat of that car, and the only time I wanted to apologize for it was when my friend Greg and I pulled up to the valet at the Wynn Casino in Vegas, you know, sorry it smells like a dude has been living in here. But instead I just handed the lady a $5 tip.

Like I said, it’s a good car.


36 replies on “Do You Love Cars Without That New-Car Smell?

  • Beth

    There’s nothing better than a good car. I miss my old red 5 speed Cherokee (even though I replaced it with another old red 5 speed Cherokee…)

  • Rebecca Shannon

    oh man, this is very appropriate for me right now… #1 I have never had a new car. #2 I grew up in NH which means snow & mud, which means Subarus and the occasional Toyota truck. #3 The suby that I drove out to CO (which has driven several times to the Tetons and back; up to Summit County every other wkd; out to Mesa Verde & Durango)… that poor car seized up on the side of I-70 last wkd and now I have to decide whether to fix it or ???

    • brendan

      What? Nooooo! If you weren’t all the way up in Boulder I’d tell you to take it to the guys at Roos. They are gentlemen and scholars.

  • Cooperhill

    Just had to get rid of my Honda Accord (lost the brake and gas lines) which 270,000 miles on it (I think – the odometer stopped working at some point). Got me through the White Mountain notches many many times. Hauled firewood nearer to home (found on the side of the road). Who needs a truck? I have two cord of wood drying that I hauled from woods on my shoulder and hauled home in that great car.

    • brendan

      That is rad, Chris! Sorry for your loss. Reminds me of an old girlfriend of mine, whose older brother once hit a deer in his Chevy Lumina, hoisted it up onto the trunk and drove a couple hours home to clean and gut it.

  • Jim Moody

    I’m on my fifth Subaru. But this one was purchased new. I lose some points for that but then again, I haven’t washed it yet. I agree about the Sprinter…will become even more classic over time.

  • Mick

    Got me thinking of Floyd, my ’64 Chevy pickup I bought for 500 bucks, and 100,00 later I left next to the side of the freeway in Indiana. I kissed his hood goodbye before I walked away. Man I loved that truck. Good stuff dere, Mr. Leonard.

  • Sara

    My first (and probably only) new car was a 2005 VW Jetta wagon bought a few months before I graduated from law school, when I thought my future held years of working my way up the ladder in a high-paying, highfalutin corporate law firm. That car has traveled with me through a divorce, six jobs, four residences, a record of six consecutive weeks where it was my primary residence (although there were lots of shorter stints than that over the years) and 145,000 miles of adventure. We’ve been hassled by cops, thoroughly searched at the Nelway border crossing twice on two separate trips. We’ve done multistate climbing trips with five total people in the car a few times (thank god for calling “Driver”) and traveled solo more days and nights than I can count. More than a few nights where I had noplace else in the world to be, that car kept me safe and warm.

    When girlfriends are shopping for cars, I always give them the same advice: Make sure you can sleep comfortably in it. The part I leave off is: because you never know how your life might change, and sleeping in your car may not be something you do just for recreation. I can’t believe my Jetta’s been with me for nine years — and if you’d asked me nine years ago what path my life would take, I would have been 100% wrong with my answer.

    I hope that you and your van go on to have many, many happy years and miles together, Brendan. I can’t wait to meet him/her/it!

  • Tiffany

    Man, I’ve been thinking these very similar thoughts the past three months, as my baby, Stella, a 1996 Honda Civic Coupe (two doors baby!) may meet her demise some day in the next three years (although at 200K+ miles, she has a long way to go). Even withOUT a roof rack, she’s hauled skis, bikes, climbing gear, Scuba gear… and still not a lick of mold in the trunk. 🙂 And yeah, my power windows just went out, two cracks are in the windshield, the tint is peeling and the muffler just broke. But she’s a champ on forest roads. Turn up the music!

    • brendan

      That’s awesome, Tiffany! Louder music is necessary when the muffler is gone. Also maybe a gas mask.

  • james

    in a similar way i can’t even begin to contemplate a day out riding or a surf session without a can of monster or the equivalent suspicious coloured canned poison.

  • Skunk

    I love my 06 Outback XT. I bought her used in ’08 from a 71 year old gent off Craigslist who said he was too old to ski all the time.

    Right now there’s a poster of hanging on the walls in some Subaru dealerships. I hope she makes 300k miles, but right now I’m shooting for 200k.

  • Michael

    Funny the relationships we have with our cars…Mine? a 1996 Volvo 960 station wagon. I’ve driven that thing from NYC to Alaska…Nova Scotia to Oregon. The odometer quit around 350,000 kilometers. One summer I drove it 15,000 kilometers in three weeks. Some days I hated it, but mostly, I love it. These days it sits in my driveway as a back up…a back up for my 1997 Volvo wagon with an odometer that quit at 330,000 km…go figure.

    I recently moved to a town of 250 people. Now I’m the fancy pants guy who owns two European cars. I paid just over $2,000 each. I just smile and wave at the good ol’ boys who judge me from their $50,000 pickups.

    I wouldn’t trade my wagons in for anything. Good thing…I probably wouldn’t get anything if I asked.

  • Patrick

    Right on, awesome post.

    As a dealer mechanic for 10 years, it always amazed me to see people trade in perfectly good cars, for literally next to nothing, on shiny, sophisticated, sometimes troublesome new year models.

    There are some cars out there that are built like a brick shit house, and its a shame more people can’t see through the patina or the ‘outdated’ styling.

  • Ryan

    My ’03 Ranger with the busted tail light and zip-tied on front bumper only starts about 19 times out of 20. The 20th time, requires an hour to two of rest time.

    The most recent memories of the starting issue resulted in a walk all over Denver looking for some place to eat. A few drinks and a great dinner and about 4 miles of walking later, it fired right up.

    Another time involved some illegal truck bed camping in a secret spot near Berthoud Pass. Thankfully, I had dinner, the grill, and good company to kill the 1-2 hours before getting it started again.

    Yet another recent memory of not starting was during an evening ski of Eldora. When we got back at around 11pm (no arrests!), the truck fired right up.

    All of these happened within the last 4-6 weeks. The amazing part is that I don’t drive my truck to work or for chores. It basically only gets driven on weekends and on ski/climbing trips. So far, it picks the best times to not start. Maybe my truck is smarter than I am…

  • Christa

    Maybe it’s my proximity to NYC, but I see a lot of fancy SUVs in the Gunks and at the ski resorts here in the Catskills. More ‘Brus then anything else. We have an old Forester with a front quarter panel that looks like someone hit it with a telephone pole (because someone did!) that we just spend $2500 to drop a new engine in. That thing should live to 300,000 miles. We also have a TINY, but gas-thrifty Hyundai that my skis barely fit in even with part of the backseat down. Makes me laugh when I park it next to some big fancy SUV in the trail head of ski hill parking lot. So tiny it looks like a pregnant roller skate, I can almost hear it mocking the poised SUV next to it, ” eh Main, if I can make it up here, they don’t really need you!”

  • Paul

    DUDE. I don’t believe this. Some friends and I were having a conversation about the VW vans- hippy vans, as we all know them. Everyone was saying, “Oh man, I’d kill for one of those,” and “how cool would it be to own one?” It annoyed me. Here’s why: when the VW vans were first used, THEY WEREN’T COOL. Function was the only redeeming factor. Everything that was done IN and WITH them made them legendary.

    So I offered this: “I think the new VW van is the Chevy Astro van. It’s all-wheel-drive, tons of space, and probably gets better gas mileage than the VW.”

    Everyone groaned. “EW!” was the main comeback.

    Brendan, I’d rock out in the Astro with you. I admire your high taste in vehicles. Damn this post made me excited. Haha.

  • Tom Mrotek

    My old silver Honda Civic was the best car I ever had. One time a drunk driver rear ended me and crushed my rear bumper. I was psyched to get $1200 from his insurance company and used it to buy a canoe and some other shit.

    Then I repaired the bumper myself with some square steel tubing and fibreglass body filler.

    I believe that car made three round trips across the US & Canada and countless trips up and down the East coast before it died.

    Then I sold it for $1000 even though it didn’t work anymore.

  • Beth

    DUDE! My 2000 Outback has 105,000 miles on it and folks have the nerve to ask whether or not it’s “reliable” now that I have to start driving it more for work. It’s been the skiing, sailing, hiking, dog mobile since its purchase before grad school. “Shifty” has had a new transmission, clutch, and muffler. After we drove it into a snowbank going 50 on an icy highway in NH trying to get to Mad River, it also got a new front axel.

    Question: has anyone else started naming their rust bubbles? “Bob” is about 6 inches in diameter and looking pretty sweet on the driver’s side behind the rear door.

  • Dennis

    I had my 86 VW Jetta Turbo Diesel for 230,000miles when I passed it on, and it’s been through two more owners and still going. I would have kept it but I wanted more usable interior space.

    Now my 2002 Suby WRX wagon is going on 306,000miles and it still gets me where I’m going with a smile on my face 🙂 (and of course I’d still like more usable interior space, but lucky me I scored the ultimate in fixer uppers and I picked an 89 VW Syncro Vanagon with a blown motor for free, Score!)

  • Andy D.

    I can’t recall a blog post and comments I’ve more enjoyed reading recently. I, too, have had a long line of cheap but resilient cars, all of which were less valuable than the equipment they carried. From a ’73 Plymouth with a trunk cavernous enough to hold four mountain bikes, to a’70 Karmann Ghia with Fred Flintstone holes in the floor.

    My best car ever was a ’90 Subaru Loyale wagon, which some product engineer had considerately spec’ed with road grime colored factory paint, thus never needing to be washed. It hauled couches, refrigerators, sod and a 1/4 ton of landscaping rocks. It could carry 6 bikes on the roof and four in the hatch. It conquered rough roads without complaint, and even some Jeep trails. During the March 2003 blizzard in Denver, my old Subaru slowly but confidently passed numerous fancy SUVs stuck in the snow. I doubled its value with a set of inexpensive new tires a few months before it died from a blown head gasket at 220,000 miles in 2005. Its windshield, cracked as long as I owned it, outlived the engine. Before donating the Subaru to charity, I vacuumed about 10 pounds of dog hair from under the rear seat, which was probably serving a structural purpose at that point.

    It’s downright difficult anymore to find a no-frills car with a manual transmission, crank windows and no air conditioning. I’ve started to eye auctions for used mine and oilfield vehicles, many of which are much more utilitarian than models available to the general public.

  • KatieSue

    I drive a used subaru wagon and love it. I drove it to Red Rocks before I even got a licence plate on it and it’d been to from Squamish to Joshua Tree within a year of owning it. But when driving it on questionable dirt roads I’ll say to my climbing partner Jake, aren’t you glad we have my car? And he replies, no I’m afraid to scratch it, I wish we’d brought my Geo. He’s a confirmed mountain man but drives a little old Geo with Edward Abbey’s face spray painted on the side, a rack wider than the car by a foot on each side and broken struts so when you hit a bump you lose control. And no back seat. I loved seeing him drive back from Oklahoma in it with two kayaks, and two bikes on top, stuffed to the brim with all his possessions an inch off the ground. When it was recently hit requireing a new front door he had to request the paint guy to do a crappy job so it didn’t look stupid all shiny and new next to the rest of the car. I love it, but I love my subaru too. Some day I hope it’s in good as shape as the Geo.

  • Ben

    Its amazing how some people think that they need a new car all the time. A good friend of mine who does not have a car over five years old kept trying to pressure me into buying a new ride when my Subie turned 100k a few years ago. I kept telling him I would keep it around until it stranded me at some remote backcountry trailhead.
    I wonder if people who use their vehicle simply to get to work have a weaker affinity for their vehicle compared to those that use theirs to get to the good stuff.

  • Jordan

    My dad had a 1998 Toyota Tacoma that was passed down from his boss, typical story the truck got the hell beat out of it, drove from eastern Oregon to southern Oregon every other weekend. Anyways he rolled the truck over 500,000 miles and sold it for $1000. Amazing truck with to many stories that people don’t believe when you tell them.

Comments are closed.