Love me, love my car

From obsessive automobile maintenance to hunting trips to mom’s new car to “Muskrat Love,” these essays prove our cars are a family affair

OCD and the art of vehicle maintenance

From the 1929 Model A my grandfather bought from an old lady in 1959 to the 1971 Mustang I bought off him in 1995, my family owns some beautiful cars. I was 16 when I bought the Mustang, and I still drive it today. Some of the cars in my family were purchased before I was born. We were brought up to care for them in an almost obsessive way.

None of our vehicles is valuable, just steel relics built in the days when American automobiles had some character and endurance. Here’s a quick rundown on the fleet: My grandfather also drives a 1969 F-250 he purchased new. My father drives a 1965 Mustang he bought in 1992 and a 2006 Ranger, which replaced the 1977 F-150 he purchased new. I also drive a 2000 Ranger purchased new. Now for any of you thinking it’s environmentally irresponsible to drive these old clunkers, I ask this: Is it better to carefully drive and meticulously maintain one vehicle for 20 years, even if its gas mileage is less than stellar, or buy four vehicles you beat the crap out of and toss away?

My father can sense the slightest hint of vehicle abuse. He taught my brother, Eric, and me how to avoid damaging any part of our vehicle and to look over our work frequently. Eric and I picked it up easy enough, but friends, cousins and girlfriends were not so particular. I can tell you where every flaw inside and outside my truck is and when, how and where it likely happened. I’m sure my dad could say the same of his own vehicles. I recently tried to sell my truck for $2,000 over Blue Book, thinking someone would pay a premium for my near fanatical care. They wouldn’t.

Here’s a Top 10 list of tips my dad made sure we knew to make our vehicles look and drive like new:

1. Before driving at speed, give both the engine and suspension parts time to warm up.

2. Keep all dangling jewelry, keys, purses and zippers away from painted surfaces.

3. Always seek the high ground in any parking lot, as far removed from other vehicles and shopping carts as possible.

4. Only shut doors with windows fully opened or closed—otherwise you can shatter a window or knock it off its tracks.

5. Don’t turn the steering wheel as far as it will go. Your power steering pump and front end parts will thank you.

6. When pressing buttons, closing doors or whenever possible, avoid using your finger pads, instead use your knuckles. They’re less oily.

The Nejedlo family fleet of Fords: from left, 1971 Mustang, 1977 F-150, 2000 Taurus, 2000 Ranger, 1965 Mustang.

7. Don’t use Armor All—long term, it destroys plastics.

8. Always use the parking brake— it takes some of your vehicle’s weight off the transmission.

9. Wash your vehicle in strips, from the top down, discarding rags frequently and if they ever touch the ground. Wash your tires and wheels last.

10. Don’t drive with a low fuel tank; it puts extra strain on your fuel pump.

Damaging the family’s vehicles was a capital offense. One afternoon, as mom pulled into the garage, my brother and I saw a Nintendo Power magazine poking out from the mailbox. Once mom stopped the car, we raced for it, but Eric immediately disqualified himself. He’d lost control of the Explorer’s door handle while hurtling himself from the vehicle and dented dad’s Mustang. It was a horrible sight, and one that mom could’ve avoided by anticipating some recklessness and parking further to the left. Regardless, I was a little worried for my brother as he sat on the garage steps and waited for Dad to come home. However, he acted sad and bawled his eyes out, and Dad spared his life. He took it almost peacefully, with a “you and I know this is the one freebie you will ever have” attitude. To Eric’s credit, he didn’t start damaging vehicles again until he rolled my truck in 2001.

Nejedlo men have made friends and loved ones nervous to be around us and the cars at the same time. I nearly made my girlfriend cry the first time she drove my truck to my parent’s house. My mom told her she hoped I wouldn’t turn out like this. My brother made his girlfriend cry over a similar situation. My girlfriend was “jerking off” the gas pedal; his girlfriend hit a curb making an illegal U-turn. Considering that it’s the nature of vehicles to suffer damage, I almost wish I could drive rental cars all the time.

This obsessive behavior comes with a cost. Luckily, that cost’s pretty low. It’s almost magical how our vehicles never break. Even parts that are supposed to break last a little longer. I’m not saying that Ford’s superior engineering is responsible for our vehicles’ longevity. I truly believe my dad could take one of those throw-away Scion things and drive it a quarter million miles. He’s like a Zen vehicle master, who creates a perfect space where all his vehicles thrive. Growing up, I only remember a vehicle breaking down once, and that was because of a bad coil in my car. Dad’s never caused an accident or gotten a moving violation. I’ve never even experienced a blow-out.

While we Nejedlos have always driven painfully slow, there’s something to be said for never having spent time tossing rocks at soda bottles on the side of an American interstate waiting for a tow truck.

—Grant Nejedlo

The writer as a young man with his father and the well-stocked Land Cruiser.

A recollection of the Cruiser

We had stopped to pee on the edge of the big dirt road running north through the Reese River Valley along the eastern side of the Toiyabes when my father looked over at me in mid-stream and said, “Why don’t you drive for a while.”

“OK,” I said. “Sure.” I was 12 or 13 then, and he might as well have asked me if I wanted to shoot some smack for all I saw it coming. Driving was not what I wanted to do right then, but you don’t turn down an offer like that from your father.

When I was in the driver seat of the old Landcruiser, he told me how the clutch and transmission worked, and a few minutes later, we were grinding along in first gear. Eventually, he talked me into shifting up to second, which, as he had promised, was quite a bit more comfortable.

It took a good couple of hours to get up to Highway 50, but my father never asked me to try third. He didn’t give any advice or instruction at all. In fact, he just talked easily about the coming chukar season and his work and people he’d known and things he’d seen when he was a kid.

Watching the mirrors was more than I could handle, but every once in a while, he’d tell me to scoot over to the right, and a pickup would blow past in a little storm of dust and gravel. “Going too damn fast to see the country,” he said as the dust blew away, and we rolled the windows back down.

At one point, I asked if I could try turning a little. “Just keep it out of the ditches,” my father said. So I swung the big wheel back and forth a few times, weaving from one side of the ruler-straight strip of dirt to the other. But it seemed like a childish thing to be doing, and pretty soon, I settled back in the seat a bit and narrowed my eyes and pushed ‘er up to 14 or 15 mph and rolled on.

By then, I’d already spent seemingly thousands of hours in the Land Cruiser—or “the Cruiser,” as my parents and I and later my high school friends called it. The most memorable of them were in the backseat on hunting trips with my father and grandfather.

My father had built a plywood insert for the far-back that held the shotguns and hunting vests and tire chains and shovel and camping gear and so on. It did not, unfortunately, have room for dog kennels or a cooler. So the dogs rode loose on the carpeted top of the insert, which was level with the top of the backseat, and the cooler rode on the seat with me.

Not too surprisingly, the dogs didn’t much like being back there where they couldn’t stand up, especially on rough roads. They’d work their way slowly forward until one was on my lap, and the other was perched precariously on top of the cooler. They didn’t like each other, and every once in a while, whichever one was on the cooler would fall off onto whichever one was in my lap, and they’d start fighting.

My father and grandfather fed them wet food the day before hunting trips, and they farted mercilessly on the long Saturday morning drive up I-80. When we stopped to let them out was a function of how bad they smelled. “Why that’s comin’ right over fresh shit,” my grandfather would say after a particularly noxious fart. “Better pull over when you can.”

When my father bought a new Ford pickup in 1986, shortly after he’d let me drive the Cruiser up the Reese River Valley, my mother inherited it, a little over 90,000 miles the worse for wear—many of them unspeakably brutal Northern Nevada hunting and exploring miles—and running on five cylinders of the old, slow, torquey, 258 c.i.d. inline six.

She quietly accepted it, despite the fact that she’d never, ever had a new car of her own. She had always driven my father’s cast-offs and for three years stoically tolerated the always-sticking manual choke, the failing air conditioner, the bad cylinder that nobody could seem to fix, the front end that my father had mangled beyond any hope of proper alignment.

Then, when I turned 16, she saw an opportunity—she had probably seen it all along—for both of us. That was the year she was damn well going to have a new car. It made perfect sense, didn’t it, because I needed a car to drive back and forth to school, and the beat-up old Cruiser that she’d uncomplainingly driven lo these three years was damn near worthless as a trade-in, so why not let me drive that and get her a new car?

My father knew he was beaten and didn’t even put up a fight. My mother got a new Lincoln, and I got an old shit-brown 1982 Land Cruiser—with 130,000 miles on it and a bad cylinder and a dead A/C and an effed-up front end and a broken choke—that I’d done a good bit of my growing up in and was prouder to drive than a new Corvette.

And drive it I did, for another five years and 100,000 more miles, through more typical teenage scrapes with stupid death than I can even remember; more clumsy, half-buzzed, backseat interludes than I care to think about; and more than I can imagine now of those magical young times when it felt like my chest might burst from pure joy over the freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted, to see what in the various, beautiful world was over that always-moving horizon.

—Zack Thomas

Can a car go to a better place when it dies?

Impala from the Holler

It’s that annoying time of year again. Thousands of beautifully painted automobiles come through town, rumbling down the streets in rebuilt splendor for the cluster of Hot August Nights. Every one of these cars is an investment that’s worth more than my house.

I learned to drive in a ‘53 Willys Jeep on dirt backroads. There have been many vehicles of dusty character throughout my life, but only a couple do I recall with special fondness.

Which car do I remember the most? Was it my mother’s 1963 white Mercury Comet that she drove with fiendish delight around Pyramid Lake? She flew beneath a huge plume of dust. No, it’s the next car she bought that I remember most. Mother bought a new 1968 Chevrolet Impala station wagon with a 498 engine. I only know about engine displacement from my brothers, who would look at the engine with exclamations of awe. The car was my ticket to high school acceptance. And boys.

I still have no clue what “498 engine” means—except that my brother could do wheelies in the station wagon. I remember after piano lessons, there the Impala would be, chortling powerfully at the corner. It was an ugly beige automatic with plaid cloth upholstery, also in hideous beige. The gear shift was on the steering column, and the car would tremble waiting for the slightest touch of gas. That low, throaty growl was just beyond the dashboard.

I inherited the car first. Like most teenagers with a license to kill, I treated that car with disregard and adoration. One summer, I let a boyfriend drive the Impala to Hunter Lake from Floriston. I remember looking down the mountain as we bumped along thinking that, perhaps, just maybe, I had made a poor choice.

It was July. I was 16, on summer break from high school. We climbed merrily through pines with the Impala purring along the dusty logging road. The road burst out to a pretty meadow full of aspens waving in the bright sunlight. In the middle of the meadow was a pond, the headwaters of Hunter Creek. I was amazed. So this mud puddle was Hunter Lake? Craig put the car into a lower gear, and the Impala gleefully leapt into the field. And sank.

I was wrong in my opinion of Hunter Lake. It wasn’t a mud puddle after all. It was a huge marsh spread out deceptively beneath the reeds and grass growing through it. I know I had a panicked expression as Craig put the car in reverse. The station wagon rumbled as the rear end slid sideways. The car was powerful enough to bury us deeper as water began to seep in at the bottom of the doors. When we got out, we were standing in two feet of muddy water and weeds. Decades of sleeping mud began to seep between my toes, and I looked at my mighty steed sinking further into the muck.

Craig reached into the back of the car, retrieved a beer and opened it. (We were, after all, just teenagers.) It was then that I knew I was going to die. My death was going to be at the hands of my mother; provided I ever got home. Or I was going to die from exposure before the scouts could find me. Or I would go to prison for killing Craig. I leaned against the car and started to cry.

Craig threw up his hands and started wading to the road. I sloshed along behind. We spent the afternoon trying to move the car. We were spattered with mud, and the day was getting late.

We caught a ride with a logger who laughed all the way down the mountain.

Later, at Bill & Effie’s Boomtown, I called home. The next day, Father took me back to the car. He was a stoic man, quiet and deliberate. He threw the empty beer cans in the back of his truck. After he pulled the Impala out of the mud, I meekly followed him back down the road. He never told my mother about the car or my adventure, which made him smile.

My brother inherited the Impala after me. And I heard Craig drowned one summer rafting in the Truckee. When the car finally died, it rose one night in a brilliant shaft of light.

—Meleva Hill