Jacques: That new car feeling is hard to beat

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

It’s hard not to feel excitement when walking through a showroom full of sparkling new cars.

That’s especially true of strolling through the North American International Auto Show, which is now in full swing at Cobo Center. The bright lights, the models, and all those breathtaking possibilities on wheels.

It never gets old. But I think I feel it even more than most.

I grew up in Oregon with two cars that were seasoned well before I was born. One was a classic: a 1962 Monza Spyder convertible Corvair. A mechanical engineer, Dad spent much of his career rebuilding Corvair engine parts. So it made sense for us to have one.

The other car was just old, although it had plenty of character. It was a 1971 Volvo station wagon, mustard yellow. My parents got the Volvo from a family friend in the ’80s when the odometer already read 235,000 miles.

These were our family cars for most of my childhood. We drove them around town and took them on road trips. Our vacations consisted of packing up either the Corvair or the Volvo and hitting the roads out West.

There was never a guarantee the car would make the trek successfully.

“Those were the good ol’ days,” Dad recalls. “It was a little more exciting.”

Since Dad was so good with cars, he found a way to keep the engines going. I think it almost became a game to him — or at least a point of pride. But it was more difficult when we were miles from home, away from his stock of tools.

One trip in the Volvo stands out. We had already put hundreds of miles on the car when it decided to give up in a campground at Yellowstone National Park. It wouldn’t start. So my poor Dad had to spend hours under the hood trying to figure out what was wrong. When it finally did start, Dad didn’t want to turn it off. So that meant having to drive by Old Faithful without seeing the geyser in action. And it meant keeping the car running while getting gas.

The car died completely near the Idaho-Oregon border. It was one of the only times I can remember when Dad couldn’t fix it. So we had to rent a U-Haul and we pulled the Volvo the rest of the way home. It was memorable, to say the least.

But when most people would have seen that as the final straw, Dad took it as a challenge. He decided to rebuild the Volvo’s engine at 285,000 miles. And we drove it to nearly 400,000.

Lucky for me, that happened about the time I was learning how to drive so the Volvo became my training ground, along with the Corvair. Both cars had manual transmissions with gear sticks that often fought back and clutches that took finesse.

After one particularly frustrating drive in the Volvo, I’ll never forget what Dad told me: “If you can drive this, you can drive anything.”

At the time, I probably rolled my eyes and wondered why I had to drive this ancient machine. But it turns out Dad was right, and today I’m glad I had those formative experiences.

Once I had my license at 16, I drove the Volvo to school. And it didn’t always make it. When it didn’t, I’d have to walk to the nearest payphone and ask Dad to come help. It often overheated, steam billowing through the hood, among myriad other problems.

My brother, two years behind me, got the Corvair in high school. He used it to his advantage, taking dates on drives with the top down. Looking back, I think he got the better end of the deal. But he had plenty of close calls, too.

My mom, who was a good sport for all the years we drove these cars, finally had enough. In 1995, our family visited the local Honda dealer and picked out a brand new Odyssey. It was the first time I can remember that new car smell and the awe of seeing cars in such a perfect state.

Even Dad was won over.

“I saw the light,” Dad says. “It was so fun to have a car you could effortlessly take anywhere.”

The van made our last two road trips together as a family more relaxed. It started when it was supposed to and zipped across the country with ease.

Now, years later, I can still remember how wonderful — and exciting — that feeling was.