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Requiem for a Car

March 13, 2011

Strange, perhaps, to post a fond farewell to an automobile on a blog dedicated to cycling, but this is no ordinary car. The 1989 Volvo 740GL: only about 9 million of these were ever made and—after the iconic 240 series—they embodied the “boxy but good” ethos that distinguished Volvos from other cars on North American roads. Those Swedes know how to make cars (and affordable, functional furniture, and meatballs, and hockey-playing twins, and social welfare systems—what else is there? If there was a Swedish bike company, I’d be saving pennies to buy a new frame). As I have told my students for several years, the 1989 Volvo is the pinnacle of functional automotive engineering (and I’m an historian of technology, so it must be true).

We bought this car in early 1998, not long after our son was born. It replaced a rusting Honda Accord. The experience of being young and first-time parents transformed both my wife and me (obviously), and the Volvo became a prominent part of that change. Volvos were sensible cars our parents’ friends would drive, not young twenty-somethings. But children in the back seat made the Volvo—and its universally and highly regarded safety record—a good choice. We brought two of them home from the hospital in it. Three kids later, five years in the United States, six Ontario winters, and nary a concern, the car has been an absolute workhorse. The speakers were shot, but even our littlest has insisted on listening to songs and stories on tape (it only had a tape deck) on short and long trips. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to listen to Madeline or Percy the Park-keeper or Baby Beluga in that car. Solid and reliable. Sadly, at roughly 247,000kms, the transmission showed signs of going, and rather than dropping a substantial sum of money into another repair, we reluctantly decided that it was time to replace it.

This comes at a relatively convenient/inconvenient time for Egan’s Wager. Rest assured, this isn’t a con to get a head start on Egan’s Wager in my favor. I must admit I had hoped to run the wager against our longstanding family car. Convenient insofar as our new family transporter will be in the driveway (and properly insured) by March 15 and the beginning of the bet. This will make it easier to keep track of the distances traveled than having to do the math between two cars, etc. Inconvenient because, well, the Volvo has been a big part of our family’s history. The kids have been a bit ambivalent about the prospect of a new car, and I must admit I have been, too. I don’t remember the last time I drove a rental (often twenty years newer than the family car) and thought it was a superior car. Familiarity notwithstanding, the Volvo’s design and performance just made sense.

I don’t think this is an expression of technophilia (an absurd over-affection and association with human-made inanimate objects), but rather quite the opposite. Henry David Thoreau warned us against becoming tools of our tools—this is, effectively, the kind of technological systems issue that I hope Egan’s Wager confronts. Rather, the Volvo was a remarkably useful and reliable tool for many years. In terms of years, distance, comfort, etc., the car owed us nothing (if you will forgive me the strange personification of an object). A couple of years ago, I took it in for a service at the local dealership. While I was collecting my key and paying for the work done, one of the staff asked if I would be interested in upgrading to a newer Volvo. Why? I said, and told him my car was the best advertisement in town for their dealership and maybe I should get a discount on services. He didn’t get it. And I realized on the way home that I was the one out to lunch. Between leasing and various financing incentives, we don’t buy cars for the long haul. We’re encouraged to replace them every four or five years. To the sales rep, my car was a dinosaur and an abomination. Maybe a sign that I couldn’t afford a new car. I don’t identify myself by my car, so I clearly missed all this. The Volvo was a great family car. And it will take some time to get used to seeing a different car in the driveway.

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