By all rights, I should be dead by now. I spent my first minutes outside of the hospital where I was born in a Ford Pinto. In those crucial moments of life, I undoubtedly inhaled formaldehyde fumes as other cars whizzed past the Pinto's explosive rear bumper.
But somehow, I escaped fiery death and, so far, cancer caused by crappy vinyl seats, and am here to tell the tale. You might be wondering how, how could anyone's parents allow their first-born to have his initiation to motoring in so infamous a piece of sh ... automotive history.
That's simple. We were poor. But that old Pinto planted carcinogenic mental seeds that have grown as I've matured into adulthood. Those seeds have become the mighty tree that is my appreciation for crappy and weird cars. My father, a Texan who might otherwise have driven a pickup or a cattle horn-decked Cadillac, had a dictated-by-low-pay penchant for beaters, from the '78 Pinto Pony that no other self respecting Texan would be caught dead in to his early '70s Volvo 142 coupé, which was decorated in various shades of yellow and primer.
As I matured into adulthood, I pretty much picked up where my parents left off, reveling in a string of miserable shitheaps, more or less one after the other. But you know what? I've actually enjoyed crapcans this whole time, having gained an appreciation for the mechanically spotty Pontiac Phoenixes, rusted out Toyota Celicas, and ugly pickup trucks in my life. It has even guided my choice of employment at times, leading me down the path of beater car repair, as a mechanic first in a grease spattered Pep Boys service bay, and then at a poorly maintained mom and pop shop that was the last gasp for many a wretched pile.
Have I ever owned a new car? Never. Have I drooled over the latest sports car and offroading technology? Hardly. (Well, ok, maybe once or twice.) The newest car I've ever owned was a six-year-old SUV with leather seats and air conditioning. Boooring. It doesn't even matter what it was — it didn't offer the challenge of having to make those little on-the-road fixes that have been the experience of so many motorists during an era when a car's reliability was less dependent upon engineering and more upon the attention of its owner. Y'know, like a Westward-bound covered wagon with a grease pot dangling from a hook near the axle.
Being a beater aficionado has cemented my appreciation for the fact that when you go faster than 50 mph in a shitty rattletrap, you feel like you're driving really fast. There's no amount of performance modifications in the world that can make up for the satisfaction that comes from a rusty exhaust system's throaty rumble. Besides, who wants to worry about scratching paint and staining carpet? If it's already scuffed, you can do whatever you want without stress.
That's not to say that there aren't many exciting new cars out there now. But how cool will they be when they're worthy of some sort of rat rod status, when they have to be repaired with duct tape and bailing wire and Parking Lot Mechanic-ed into back into service after a dozen mice have made a nest in the trunk?
It could be that I'm the weirdest person on Earth, but I think that there are other people out there who feel the same way. According to his wife's speech at the DNC this summer, even the President drove nasty beaters at one point. So yeah, it's Barack Obama cool (which not everyone thinks is cool, just like beater cars). What's your ideal beater car?
Photo credit: Maureen Costantino; Benjamin Preston