The Deerslayer finally makes tracks

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

No, it did not run on coal, the sound system was not a wind-up Victrola and the air bag was not made out of tanned whale bladders.

Not that my (t)rusty 1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was entirely up to date. A near-decade of South Florida sun had faded the vinyl woodgrain and a dozen subsequent Michigan winters had nibbled into the white sheet metal. But nothing had dulled the roar of its 5.7-liter V-8, and so my beloved Roady trundled off to a good new home last week.

Life is a series of cars, just like it’s a series of apartments and houses and dogs and people. Some rust out, some become undependable, some you outgrow, some end up crushed in accidents, some get stolen and others fade away.

You don’t realize that there’s only a few ways, or even just one way, really, that the story of each one ends until it does. Then things start to make sense, but only because you’re looking through the rear-view mirror.

Unless, of course, it’s the rear-view mirror of the Chrysler Imperial I bought from my father, which fell off the windshield and wouldn’t stay up for more than two blocks. The Chrysler was ridiculously comfortable, like driving a leather sofa down the highway but, quite unlike my dad, the car wasn’t altogether dependable. They both died a few weeks after my son was born, each succumbing to a bad transmission of one kind or another.

But when one leather-upholstered door with a sticky power window slams shut, another one opens. Along came the Roady, marked down by $4,000 after the Sept. 11 terror attacks left used cars lingering on lots, among them a certain seven-year-old station wagon that featured lots of room for an infant seat, diaper bags and up to a dozen Pack ’n Plays.

And 50 gallons of juice boxes

Financially, the Deerslayer never drove a hard bargain. At $10,995, the original price works out to less than 6.5 cents for each of the 170,000 miles I put on it. I don’t recall ever spending more than $1,000 on any non-maintenance repairs, even in the vehicle’s dotage. I do, however, continue to resent an $800 bill to replace a camshaft-mounted distributor cap, a job that cost $12 in parts on my old VW and could be accomplished with nothing more than my own thumbs.

I got off much easier in the Roadmaster’s two tangles with deer, when the car earned the nickname “The Deerslayer” by literally putting the “Bam!” in Bambi. My insurance company waived my $1,000 deductible in both cases, calling them acts of God. Since they both happened during mating season, I’ll concede that there certainly was some kind of act on the minds of those animals.

So lethal was the Deerslayer that a few Octobers ago I offered it to one of my co-workers, a serious hunter who shells out each year for expensive camouflage and pregnant doe urine.

“Seriously, Bob,” I said, “leave the rifle at home. Take my car and drive it on the back roads up north. Deer throw themselves at this thing like it was George Clooney walking into my wife’s book club.”

My only financial mistake with the Roadmaster was failing to set aside the $300 a month in car payments after it was paid off, which would have totaled $36,600 by the time I sold it, enough to pay cash for a brand-new, hulking, anonymous SUV.

And there’s the problem: style. My wife and I bought the Roady because we couldn’t go full new-baby suburban parents with a minivan. Over the years, the novelty of the vinyl wood-paneled 18-foot wagon made it a handy landmark for guests searching for our home, and friends and co-workers often spotted me on the highway. Driving that kind of car keeps you on the straight and narrow because who wants to face your Weight Watchers group when half the members already spied you idling in the Taco Bell drive-thru?

Or worse, at Jenny Craig

Lately, well-meaning friends started telling me that the Roadmaster fit my style, which is a troubling thought. The traits that people find charming about a nearly classic car — old-fashioned, out-of-style and hurtling toward obsolescence — are far less quaint in a 50-something newspaperman, even if he does have several hundred followers on Twitter.

I’m not sure what kind of style statement is made by the Roady’s replacement, a silver 2011 Ford Flex. While any newer car is going to feel luxurious after driving something assembled during the first Clinton administration, the Flex isn’t displaying much personality. Its habit of misinterpreting everything I say to its voice-activated navigation system suggests the car mostly is like your uncle who refuses to wear a hearing aid.

Me: “Set destination: Kensington Metro Park.”

Navigation display: Computing route to Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Me: “Cancel. Set destination: Kensington Metro Park.”

Navigation display: Computing route to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Me: “Cancel. Set destination: Kensington Metro Park.”

Navigation display: Computing route to Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.


Now the Roady is off with its new owner, a guy handy with all things automotive who has a ready-made parts supply, thanks to his own ’96 Roadmaster Wagon being rear-ended two weeks before. When John came to pick it up, we compared notes on our cars like the station-wagon nerds we are, our conversation nearly drowned out by the clank of our wives’ simultaneously rolling eyes.

It was a beautiful evening, with the sun sinking in a blue spring sky as John slipped into what had long been my seat and turned the key, producing the annoying fan belt whine that crept in six years ago.

I heard the same clunk of the gear shift I heard 14 years ago and noticed that you can still see the imprint of my son’s long-gone infant carrier in the backseat. Suddenly, my chest clenched and I wasn’t sure I could bear watching my faithful Deerslayer roll into the sunset.

Fortunately, the new owner turned east.

(313) 222-2145

Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”

To fix or sell?

I finally decided to part ways with the Deerslayer for two reasons: Driving 60 miles daily in a car with 210,000 miles was getting iffy, and the failing heater core left me freezing whenever the temperature dropped below 20 degrees.

Here’s a rule of thumb when considering whether your own trusty ride should go to the mechanic or go up on Craigslist:

■If the cost of fixing the car is more than its value or one year’s worth of new car payments, it’s time to consider giving up on the old heap. Or, if a single repair will cost 20 percent of the car’s value, that’s also time to consider your options. estimates the Roadmaster’s tip-top value at $1,200, meaning the Buick had to go if it needed much beyond a new set of wiper blades.

— Brian J. O’Connor