EARLY MIDLIFE CRISIS CAR
In September of 1986 I steered my powerless car onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. My heart’s pounding sounded noisier than my automobile. Now what? I sat for a moment and pondered my predicament. Nearly midnight, the only light shone from a streetlight one hundred feet away. Well, there was also a faint sliver of moonlight that peaked through skittering clouds. It barely penetrated the gritty, stale-tasting air. In the midst of a scene dominated by oil refineries and smokestacks, the irony in the motto “Garden State” shrieked with each passing truck.
My previous car, a red Toyota Corolla, had performed flawlessly for three years. I had hoped to keep it for at least two more, when ice, combined with a steep hill and a telephone pole, made that impossible. I survived the crash unhurt but shaken with the reality that life is short. A single lawyer on the cusp of turning thirty, I decided to upgrade my wheels in terms of style, sportiness and fun.
With insurance money in hand I researched my choices in the Sunday newspaper. A BMW cost too much. “Muscle cars” like the Camaro or Grand Prix were below the dignity I deemed required by my career. Then I saw an advertisement for Pontiac’s new two-seat model, the Fiero. It boasted of a modern marvel, sheathed in plastic instead of aluminum, an automobile that growled like a racecar, looked like a Ferrari, and cost like a Pinto.
I resolved to check one out during a weekend visit to Philadelphia. There, I would see my parents as well as my brother, Barry, twelve years my senior, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Perhaps, I thought, Barry will assist me. After all, world renowned in his career as a corporate attorney, he had just fashioned the multi-million-dollar financial wizardry behind the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Surely, he could negotiate a deal on a car for me.
I was ten when Barry arrived home with his first car. A law student at the time, he needed basic transportation from his rental house on the outskirts of New Haven to Yale. He chose a used, light-green Dodge Comet that he dubbed “the vomit.”
By 1986, Barry had long-since forsaken such humble transportation for a Mercedes two-seat convertible. When I showed Barry the photograph of a Fiero, his enthusiasm for the sleek-looking automobile nearly overcame his aversion to anything produced in Detroit.
“It looks sharp,” he said. “Pontiacs aren’t terrible, on the outside, at least.”
“The suggested retail price is $12,000,” I told him.
“Ha, we’ll see about that,” he said.
Barry and I piled into my parents’ car to drive to an auto mall in Bryn Mawr. At the Pontiac lot I stood transfixed by my first sight of a Fiero in person. As promised, it looked like a miniature Ferrari, low, sleek and powerful. Pontiac offered no subtle shades with this baby. The only models available were black or fire engine red.
“What do you think?” asked Barry.
“Wow,” I said, wide-eyed. “How can it be so inexpensive?”
“Don’t talk like that in front of the salesman,” he said. “Dad would be upset.”
I laughed. Indeed, our father had enjoyed dueling with car salesmen like a cat enjoyed playing with mice. How many times could he get them to “go back to the manager?” How many free oil changes could he get them to “throw in?”
Expecting to encounter the usual middle-aged man, we were surprised when an attractive college-aged woman dressed a mini-skirt welcomed us.
“My name’s Gina,” she said. “Can I help you?
Barry and I glanced at each other with expressions that conveyed “unusual, but why not?”
“Okay, sure,” we said.
We explained I might be interested in a Fiero but needed to take a test drive first.
“That’s great,” said Gina. While she went to retrieve a key, we whispered to each other.
“She doesn’t look like a person who sells cars,” said Barry.
“She barely looks old enough to drive,” I said.
“Should be an easy negotiation,” said Barry.
“The car’s only got two seats,” said Barry. “You go with her, but don’t reveal anything, got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said, happy to have a supreme strategist on my side.
Moments later, I settled my lanky body deep into the low-slung driver’s seat. I felt as if I were taking charge of a rocket ship. Gina sat on the other side of a massive center console that contained temperature and radio controls worthy of a jet, as well as a gear shifter covered in walnut veneer. I pictured myself wearing a leather jacket and driving gloves; a person outside the car would never think the transmission was automatic. They’d never guess I didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift.
Confined to a small space with Gina, I became conscious of her perfume, her layers of make-up and the fact that she was chewing gum. Much of what I saw over the console was her bare knees and a substantial amount of thigh. It was hard to concentrate on the performance of the car.
“How long have you been selling cars?” I asked.
“This is my first day. Am I doing okay?” Her tone was so hesitant and vulnerable I felt sorry for her.
“Of course,” I said.
Actually, I had a rush of thoughts in that moment. First, I couldn’t believe my car salesperson was younger, less experienced and more insecure than I. Next, I pictured Barry talking her into selling the car practically for free. Finally, I knew I should listen to the engine, feel the steering, and consider the car’s responsiveness. But my first and second considerations dominated the third.
After we returned from the test drive, I felt I had to buy the car just for Gina’s sake, so her career would start off successfully. I gestured a thumbs-up to Barry. Without the benefit of the ride, of course, Barry had no such inclination.
“The price of $12,000, you realize, is out of the question,” he said, as we settled into a cubicle containing Gina’s small desk. She sat on one side, and we sat opposite her on metal chairs.
“Really?” she said, sounding hurt. “I’ll try my best.”
“Aren’t there other colors?” asked Barry though he knew black was fine with me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There are only two.”
“And plastic panels don’t seem very safe,” he said. “The car shouldn’t be priced higher than ten thousand dollars.”
Gina looked dismayed, as though she were about to cry.
“You know,” continued Barry, as he started to stand up. “I think we’ll keep looking.”
“Wait, wait,” said Gina. “Let me talk to the manager.”
As Gina departed, Barry settled back into his seat like a lawyer who’d just summarized a winning case to the jury.
“You want the car, right?” he asked me. “She’s gonna give it to you for under eleven.”
“Sure,” I said, impressed. I knew that without Barry, I probably would have offered to pay $11,800.
Gina returned and showed a slip of paper with the number $11,750.
“Gina,” said Barry. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that. Go ask the manager for the real price.”
Gina departed again. When she returned, she looked shaken.
“My manager’s really angry,” she said. “I’m not supposed to ask him again without a counter-offer.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Barry. “What’s the price now?”
“He said I can do $11,500, but not a penny less,” she said.
“Okay, here’s a counter-offer,” said Barry. “$10,500.”
Gina looked stricken. She walked towards the manager’s office like a prisoner to the gallows.
“I’d pay $11,500,” I whispered to Barry.
“I know,” he said. “But let’s see how low she’ll go.”
Unable to form a single cogent thought about how to proceed during ten minutes on the shoulder of the Turnpike, the arrival of a State Policeman was a great relief to me. Someone must have notified him of the disabled car. The officer parked behind my car, his lights flashing, and approached as though I were a criminal. Once he saw I was merely a likely lemon-law victim, he relaxed.
“Sure is a pretty little car,” he said.
“Can’t judge a book by its cover,” I said.
“I’ll call a tow-truck,” he said.
“I have Triple A,” I said. “I think they provide free towing.”
“Not on the Turnpike they don’t,” said the officer. “You have to use our contract tower.”
He handed me a business card for “Elite Towing Services.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Sounds expensive.”
“Yep,” said the officer. “Call them in the morning and tell them where to deliver the car. I’ll drive you to a payphone now so someone can pick you up.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Gina appeared to be trembling when she returned. She held out a piece of paper on which was scrawled in angry, male handwriting: “$11,250. Take it or leave.”
“Is that how to address a customer?” asked Barry.
“My boss is really angry,” said Gina, not looking up.
“We’ll leave,” said Barry.
I would have been delighted to pay $11,250, but I remembered my father’s scorched earth strategy when he had negotiated for my Corolla. Although unpleasant, we had ended up with the car and several hundred additional dollars in savings.
“Don’t worry,” said Barry, when we reached the parking lot. “Walk slowly. You’ll see. She’ll chase after us in a minute.”
We dawdled. We stalled. No Gina.
“I’m impressed,” said Barry. “I guess we’ll have to actually drive home and make the deal over the phone. They’ll need a couple hours to prepare the car, anyway.”
Barry’s confidence buoyed me. He had a feel for the process. I pictured myself in the Fiero by that evening, driving around the neighborhood like the Grand Prix, people looking and pointing in admiration.
When we arrived home after a twenty-minute ride, Barry handed me the phone.
“You seal the deal, counselor,” he said. “She’ll take eleven.”
I dialed the number and asked for Gina.
“Who’s calling?” asked the receptionist.
“Stuart Sanders,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist. “She can’t come to the phone. She’s busy.”
“Will you have her call me back?” I asked.
“Um, no,” said the receptionist. “She’s not allowed to talk to you or your brother.”
I hung up and related the conversation to Barry.
“This is outrageous,” he said. Not one to miss a battle, he said: “Let’s go!”
Barry and I headed back to the dealership.
“We won’t be treated this way,” Barry said, as he drove.
I don’t recall the rest of our conversation, but it consisted of an odd mix of disbelief, anger and respect for the toughness of the negotiations. When we arrived at the entrance a large, middle-aged man blocked our way.
“You’re not welcome here,” he said.
Shocked, Barry asked: “You are telling me you won’t sell us a car?”
“That’s correct,” said the man. “And if you don’t leave right now, I’ll call the police and tell them you’re trespassing.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this at a car dealer,” said Barry.
“There’s a first for everything,” said the man.
Shaken, we retreated to our car.
“You might have to check out a dealership in North Jersey,” said Barry to me. “They’ll probably have better prices anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “That was weird.”
“The weirdest,” said Barry.
We speculated for the rest of the weekend about what had happened. Was that particular dealership the only one in the world where customers paid list price? Was Gina the owner’s daughter or in some other way intimately connected? I didn’t think Barry had said anything offensive or abusive. I knew I hadn’t. What transpired at that dealership still remains a mystery.
As soon as I returned home I went to the bustling, local Pontiac dealership. I struck a deal with a disinterested, toupee-topped salesman for $11,200 without theatrics. When I told him what had happened in suburban Philadelphia, he just shrugged. “They probably don’t do much volume,” he said. “We got lots of cars.”
Even as I drove my new car off the lot, I realized I’d made a mistake. Throughout the year of my ownership, I experienced soreness because my neck never adjusted to the forty-five degree angle necessary for me to climb into the Fiero. The slightest miscalculation often resulted in bashing my head against the roof frame. After two months, the door locks malfunctioned. After four, one headlight failed to open. I began to notice that the one-headlight-up, one-headlight-down status typified other Fiero’s I saw on the street.
To the uninformed public, the Fiero looked as sharp as advertised.
“Hey buddy, wanna race?” said a teenager at a stoplight, while he revved the engine of his Camaro. I just smiled and stared ahead.
By that time, several months after my purchase, I understood the Fiero wouldn’t stand a chance in a drag race. Its power rivaled a low-level Buick’s more than a sports car. On occasion, a sound signaled the loosening of some essential component under the hood. Prior to owning a Fiero, I knew nothing about the various wires, pipes and belts that represented the guts of an engine. To my dismay and amazement, I could now distinguish the squeal of a loose fan belt from the grinding of a transmission. As I suspected, the complete detachment of the fan belt is what landed me on the shoulder that evening.
While I waited to be picked up by a friend from a motel just off the exit in Ridgefield, NJ, I resolved to dump the Fiero as soon as possible. I realized the outward appearance of the car didn’t make up for its debilitating lack of dependability. Like a woman wearing flats because stiletto heels killed her feet, I craved a car that would just take me where I needed to go. Having decided to embrace dullness over what I now knew to be false pizzazz, I traded with little negotiation for a four-door, navy blue Ford. No one would crane a neck when I drove by. No longer the envy of teenagers and other uninformed car enthusiasts, I resumed total anonymity on the roads.
Postscript: Two months after I said good riddance to my Fiero, a drunk driver plowed into the rear of my Ford at forty miles per hour while I waited at a red light. My car was totaled but I survived with just a minor bruise and a cut from flying glass. Had I been in my tiny two-seater, it’s fair to say this story would not have been written.