There’s a lot of articles and talk and hand-wringing and general grousing about how people are just not as happy as they used to be, that everyone is lonely, and adults have no friends. Sometimes social media gets blamed, or it’s something either Millennials or Baby Boomers did, because they’re all jerks. But nobody seems to realize the real problem here: Our cars have become too reliable.
That’s right! I said it! Our cars are too damn reliable. That’s why you’re sad and lonely—because your car never leaves you stranded, never demands anything of you beyond money, and is too boring for anyone to give a shit about. That’s why I’m convinced that, to have a truly happy, fulfilling life, you need to drive a funreliable car.
That stupid word there, funreliable, that’s the key to all this. As you have likely surmised with your big, wet, pulsating brain, the word is a portmanteau of fun and unreliable, two concepts that normally seem to be very much at odds.
Let me explain the criteria for a funreliable car first, so we’re all on the same page here; I’m not talking about some miserable shitbox that will never get you where you want to go, or some genuine deathtrap that will spray fire and tetanus all around it like a cruel lawn sprinkler. A funreliable car is not one that’s going to make you miserable, just occasionally inconvenienced.
A funreliable car should be:
1. Interesting, in some way
2. Imperfect, and without pretensions of trying to be perfect
3. Generally relatively easy to diagnose and fix when it breaks
4. Fairly cheap to maintain and repair
5. Understandable by you
6. Able to be repaired via improvised solutions, if needed
7. Able to give you opportunities to be creative and clever
8. When running, enjoyable to drive
9. Running more often than broken
10. Problems should be primarily contained to less-critical and/or expensive components
Essentially, a funreliable car is a generally interesting or appealing car that, while it always seems to have some problems, still brings you pleasure to own.
I’ve almost always owned funreliable cars. My Beetle, for example, is most often funreliable. I generally trust it, and it almost always gets me where I need to go, but it’s old enough that there’s probably always something ready to go. A prime funreliable issue is when my clutch cable breaks. It breaks, so I shift without the clutch to get back home, matching revs and really enjoying that satisfying snik-thunk when I put the car into gear. First isn’t easy, but it’s possible.
Sure, it’s not great, but I’m not stranded, and when I get back, I have a fun story to tell people, and I enjoy the feeling of resourcefulness knowing that I could drive without the clutch if need be. The end result is I had a more interesting day, and had something fun to think about and discuss, and have a cheap, fairly easy fix ahead of me.
Which brings me to my other point about funreliability: It fosters social interactions. When you have a car that needs fixing, and it’s not the sort of car you take to a dealership, you’re more likely to reach out for help from actual people, and, in doing so, you’ll make or maintain friendships.
Take my clutch cable issue with my Beetle, for example. To get it installed, you really need two people: It helps to have someone under the car with you to pull the clutch lever on the transmission so you can thread the cable through and get that wing nut on there.
When I did it, I wasn’t able to contact any of my usual gearhead friends, so I reached out to an old friend who wasn’t particularly into cars. I used chalk to point out exactly what he was to grab and where to pull, and we both got under there and did the job.
In the process, I had a reason to reach out to a friend I hadn’t really seen in a while, and we had an engaging but not too taxing project to focus on, and it proved to be a great context to reconnect with an old pal. Funreliable cars generously provide you with many such opportunities.
Probably the most ideal funreliable car I’ve ever owned was a 1968 Volvo P1800S: an absolutely beautiful car, and while mostly solid and reliable, the fundamental Swedish mechanicals of the car were overlaid with a healthy dose of British tech (Lucas electrics, SU carbs) that helped push the car into prime funreliability.
All of the big, heavy crucial stuff like the engine bottom end and the transmission/final drive were bulletproof, but I was always having little, but solvable, issues with the carbs or electrics or things like that.
The P1800 was a powerful funreliable car because it was so attractive. People always loved the look of it, and if you’re tinkering on it in a parking lot or something, it will attract people, gearheads and otherwise.
It wasn’t too fancy, so it wasn’t intimidating or showy. It was just exotic enough to catch attention, but still common enough that it wasn’t too crazy or expensive to maintain, which is the Achilles’ heel of another one of my cars, my Reliant Scimitar.
I met lots of people thanks to my P1800, both when I was driving happily around in it, and when I was standing next to it, hood open, trying to puzzle out why it didn’t feel like starting. People would want to come see it, tell me stories about friend’s dads who had one, or remind me that Roger Moore drove one in the Saint television show way back whenever.
Funreliable cars tend to be cars with good-sized followings, because that helps with parts availability and an extensive knowledge base. It also means a community of people who share some interest with you, and such a community has the potential for meeting lifelong friends.
Think about car clubs or meetups you’ve seen with Jeep aficionados or vintage BMW owners or VW air-cooled geeks or Subaru freaks or AMC dorks or any number of other large car-communities. If your car asks nothing of you and only gives back basic transport, you’re not going to be driven to find other like-minded people, because there’s no minds to like, period. Let your car need more from you, and let yourself need more from other people, and you’ll be delighted to find out just how kind and compelling other people can be when there’s car stuff to be discussed.
A funreliable car teaches you to understand your car better, and teaches you how to be sympathetic to the machines in your life. You learn to tell how your car is feeling by how it sounds and smells. Your senses improve, and you teach yourself how to be more observant. You’re no longer just mashing pedals in some air-conditioned transport pod; you’re partners with a machine to get you to where you want to go.
Funreliable cars also enhance your own empathy; Funreliable car drivers are far more likely to stop to help motorists in need, because they’ve been there before, and actually may be in a position to help. The result is funreliable car drivers perform more kind acts for their fellow people, which makes the world a better place. Just look at our own David Tracy, funreliable king!
Funreliable cars are the enemy of routine and mundanity; a funreliable car can take a boring, cookie-cutter day and turn it into an unexpected adventure. My wife used to drive a ‘78 Buick Skylark before we were married, and I remember one early date with us that turned from a predictable road trip into an adventure that included creek lobsters and at least one empty-office-park snake.
Did we get where we wanted to go, thanks to her funreliable car? No. Did we have a much better time and some fantastic memories because of how the car crapped out? Absolutely.
Not everyone is cut out to own and drive a funreliable car, and that’s okay, because Craigslist and other little online groups are only full of so many. You need the right sort of attitude and life situation to be able to really appreciate this sort of car. This isn’t only always a matter of privilege. There’s also people who have funreliable cars not by choice, but by necessity, but even then these are cars that produce sweet memories intermixed with any frustration. And there is always a place for funreliable cars, and the intrepid people who are willing to give up a bit of consistency and mindlessness for a life more full of chance, social contact, and adventure.
You don’t have to be sad, or lonely, or disengaged, or empty. You don’t. If you are, or if you’re afraid that’s how life may become, please, take my advice: Get out of your new car lease, sell your new car, stop making those $500 monthly payments, and find yourself something interesting and just a little scary to drive. Something that you want, even if—especially if—you’re not exactly sure it’s a good idea.
Then drive it. You can take baby steps at first. That’s fine. Then get stuck, and ask for help, and learn things, and meet people, help people, learn more, drive more, get stuck again, go to a car show, and on and on and on, until you find yourself strangely content, with interests, friends, and nails that almost never seem to be clean.