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A four-wheel drive to bankruptcy

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

David Sherman

I have an incomprehensible affection for my aged Subaru, what my new best friend, mechanic Patrick, calls a garage-owner’s best friend. He might spend more time with it than I do and I’m pretty sure the few vacations he takes, his children’s dental work and his wife’s wardrobe are financed by the shortcomings of my four-wheeled addiction.

I live in Subaru country, where winter embraces skiers for at least six months a year and aggravates drivers long past the best before date of ski hills and cross-country trails. Snow is too slimy for skiers in October and April, but we drivers still have to navigate roads cratered with slush or ice, depending on time of day, and fresh snow that might well disappear when the sun rises. Or not.

Every third car on the road here in the Great White North is a Subaru. It used to be an affordable car and came with gas-guzzling all-wheel drive to stop the car from going where the road does not, gas-guzzling automatic transmission for when shoulders said, “Enough with the stick shift,” and knees said, “Enough with the clutch, leave me in peace.” And it has A/C so I don’t have to bake when I sit in traffic jams on the autoroute 60 kms to and from Montreal.

Studies have shown it to be the safest highway in Canada and that’s probably because, more often than not, you’re moving at a fuel-saving, fender-bending-avoiding 10 km/hour.

It is a six- or seven-lane thoroughfare ending a few kilometres short of Mont Tremblant, where they put in an airport nearby so the well-heeled can skip the highway entirely. People land a helicopter a few blocks from us every Friday evening and whirl away Mondays, avoiding the usual weekend snarls and, undoubtedly, Patrick’s bills.

The highway is always being repaired or rebuilt or expanded to accommodate the thousands abandoning the city for cheaper suburban digs with front and back lawns and big box stores surrounded by parking lots befitting an airport. Their ticky-tacky homes blight what was once farm land, just as the autoroute or “the 15” as it is known to weary habitués, slices through arable fields.

With the centre of culture now a computer or tablet, the city’s offerings are less of a draw, and we won’t even discuss traffic, detours, one-way streets, construction, parking permits, parking lots, traffic, traffic and more traffic and the city’s main purpose – to pry open your wallet and mine within. So, we can’t blame them for abandoning the city as we have. We curse them instead.

Hence, well-worn cars, cozy as a favourite leather jacket can be a comfort, especially with a decent stereo, one of the few things that always works on our Subaru and its early-onset mechanical dementia.

“What is that clink? It’s not the same as yesterday’s clunk.” "No, I think it was a clank."

It’s irrelevant because Patrick will ceremoniously stick out his hands for the keys, drive it away and return two minutes later to tell me, “It’s your frangaloid blatsplit and maybe the Mogen David wine.” As I wince and ask how much, he shrugs and says, “the frangaloid is about three fifty each and Mogen David another three hundred. Labour is about two hours so, about $1,100, give or take a week’s groceries.”

It's almost always in that sweet spot between four bags from Provigo or Loblaw, as it is known in ROC, and a year’s heating bills.

The spunky Subaru, now 13 years old and counting, climbs icy roads, starts remotely without fail, has an underpowered engine and, unlike my partner’s 15-year-old econobox, a never-say-die Toyota, is comfortable to go touring in without my shoulders being jammed against the window and my chin on my knees.

But, as my other favourite mechanic – can never have too many -- Kevin, who owns an identical Subaru to mine with the same mileage, around 250,000 kms, repeats wearily, “It’s a piece of shit.” Lest my Subaru be offended, he adds, “All cars are pieces of shit.” He’s spent his working life under the hood or under a car, his head in its innards, and has earned the right to have his diagnoses taken seriously.

He, unlike Patrick, does not frequently punch me out verbally for spending money on the Subaru. His advice: change the oil every five thousand and maintain it and it’ll last longer than you or your pension. Patrick’s philosophy, adamant and simple: stop fixing it and junk it when it dies.

But, generous soul that he is, he gifted me a company sweatshirt with a hood I use in the gym. I estimate the free sweatshirt cost only about $4,000 and change for a variety of mundane repairs like brakes, shocks, bearings, axles and other pieces I have no idea what they do. But, I bought the machine from a “car broker,” another name for used car dealer and let’s leave it at that.

Not so long ago, we would’ve considered buying new wheels or good used wheels but prices for cars have hit an average of $50,000 and you need more money than common sense to pay out $50,000 after-tax dollars for the luxuries of a car with more cameras than a Hollywood production and more microchips than a space shuttle.

Maybe the Subaru and its sister, the Toyota, are images of us.

We crunched the numbers and figure if we keep repair bills to around $2,500 a year and the car starts, stops and steers as requested, we’re free of the gluttonous clutches of the automobile industry. We’ve blown past this year’s repair budget and the year’s not over, but we keep the faith.

We’re not young and glossy either, though my partner has infinitely more gloss than I, but we start in the morning, have occasional visits to the doctor for tune ups and are not ready for the scrap yard, either. Maybe as long as those old cars start in the morning and get us where we’re going, we’ll be doing the same.

We all have good years and bad years and if I can have sore knees, it can have worn shocks. Together, we get where we want to go.

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1 Comment

Sounds like you're on the road to ruin, my friend. But so are we all. Waaaaay enjoyable read. Subie Doobie Dooooooo!

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