When the new Chevrolet Caprice was introduced in 1991, Motor Trend called it a beached whale and named it Car of the Year. When my step-grandmother bequeathed to us this stranded cetacean, we named it the Spudmobile.
My step-grandfather, Spud Hanson, was an alcoholic who sold potatoes. The Spudmobile was his until he was called up to the farmer's market in the sky in '97. My step-grandmother moved into a nursing home in '07. We got her car. It had traveled 36,000 grandma miles. It needed brakes, a radiator, and a massive garage.
When we got it, the license plate read "SPUD H" and Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead waved cheerfully at tailgaters from the rear shelf. These soon disappeared, but we were left with the whale. My stepdad and I replaced the radiator one June day. He and my Mom had married the previous September. The radiator replacement was one of the first "guy things" we did together. For a 15-year-old car nut from a broken home, it was a halcyon day.
I learned to drive in that car in a hot Wisconsin parking lot across from the DMV. It floated around corners with all the tautness and precision of a jam donut. Mom's eyes went wide every time I turned the wheel, generally at a rate of speed that would have been prosaic in a normal car, but which in the Spudmobile became dangerous. Finally, after a sweaty hour of practice (oh, the AC was broken too) we called it good. "I think you're getting it," said Mom. This was code for "My heart can't take it any more."
Most people have their first accident after they get their licenses, but I got a head start. With my learner's permit and mother in tow. The wheels got caught on the snowy verge and overcorrecting led to an exciting 60-mph donut on a national highway and a graceful pirouette onto a culvert. There were no semis in the other lane and so we continued to exist. The car was fine. A month or so later I failed my driving test in it. Then I passed.
The next summer, I totaled it.
A lizard-like coworker decided to make a left turn without looking and hit the Spud on its shapely wheel-skirt. The lizard's Pontiac had a shredded bumper. The Spudmobile had $2500+ of body damage. The insurance company wanted to total the old boat, but my parents drive their cars until they gasp and die, so we bumped out the dent and soldiered on.
Anyone who has never taken a Great Road Trip should find the motivation in their pinched and colorless soul to do so. You come to love and hate your companions, your country, and your vehicle in ways that the uninitiated can only dream of.
Wisconsin to Washington State is a great trip. Mom and I drove out in late October to visit a college. The Caprice is built to cruise at 85 through the gathering Montana dusk, and we indulged it. We had Mansfield Park on, and somehow it was a perfect fit. The car, the terrain, the excitement of driving west for the first time, Austen's novel, and the romance of the road percolated together in my mind. It was a deeply spiritual experience. The check-engine light came on in the mountains about ten miles outside of Butte. We rested the car and continued.
The next major road trip wasn't quite so successful. We were headed to France. The Spudmobile's marine roots would certainly have helped it make the Atlantic passage, but we had elected to fly. However, the weekend before we left we planned to volunteer at the World's Largest Brat Fest in Madison, Wisconsin, so we drove down and flew out of Chicago.
Air travel sucks. I mean, it really does. After unspeakable horrors, we got back into Chicago, into big, greasy, free America, and I wanted nothing more than to prove, with a successful trip from Chicago back home, that the car was superior to the airplane.
"No way, Jose" said the Fates. Fast forward six hours. It's 2 AM Saturday morning, June 11th, 2010, at a truck-stop in South Beloit, Illinois. The interminable rumbling of tractor trailers drills into my consciousness as the monosyllabic 24-hour repair man jacked the old Spud up and replaces the brake lines. I try to snatch some sleep in the grass. The Caprice had let us down. I cursed it fervently.
The Caprice could no longer be trusted for our odysseys. August would see me head to college in Idaho. With that trip looming on the horizon, Mom bought an '02 Accord.
But we didn't abandon the Spudmobile. My stepdad drives it now, even though he has a much newer Taurus. We can't let it go.
Why are we so attached? First of all, I think it's gorgeous. That may be an unpopular sentiment, but I can't believe anything else when I think of its strong, gently-curving body lines and its freakishly long overhang (to enable a trunk that sleeps three). The swoopy greenhouse, with more glass than most cars have metal. The wheel skirts. Second, ours is a rather captivating reddish-maroon that I've never seen on any other vehicle. Mom calls it prune-whip. Third, it's been with us almost as long as we've been a family. We've laughed and argued and cursed and prayed together about that car.
There are many who dismiss the classic American land yacht (or whale). Some say its time has come and gone. Maybe, but American roads make for fine sailing in a 20-foot Caprice. After Cash For Clunkers, these are becoming an endangered species in America. I don't know if I'm ready for that future.
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