During the short time we lived in Minnesota we learned a new term for old automobiles. The locals referred to them as “Beaters.” I was more familiar with the term that has been making national headlines for the past couple of months, “Clunkers.” The first automobile I purchased at the age of 16 was a clunker. My boss at the time said he thought my car had more time on the garage rack than it did on the road. He may have been right. When I graduated from high school and asked for time off to go the prom, he offered to trade cars with me for the evening so I wasn’t embarrassed in front of my date.
I prefer the former term over the latter because it seemed to be more descriptive of the automobile I drove from Stephenville to Albert Lea, Minn., in late December of 1992.
We had to juggle the family vehicles on rather short notice when the company asked me if I would accept the transfer and move north to publish a newspaper. Our daughter was attending college in Austin and Carol was remaining in Stephenville to sell the house and to make arrangements with movers. So I took the oldest automobile, a 7-year-old Mazda 626 with me. At one time or another all three of us had driven the vehicle on a regular basis and it had served each of us well. It was a cool car to drive, had a sun roof and a great sound system. Cosmetically it was beginning to show its age, the headliner was starting to sag where the sunroof had leaked at one time, but it still performed fine mechanically.
I really did not know what kind of performance to expect from a car that had spent the first seven years parked at night inside a garage in Texas. Each morning when I left the motel in Minnesota and trudged through the snow in sub zero temperatures to the car parked outside in the parking lot I was doubtful. I would turn the key and hold my breath and hope it would turn over while I shivered on the front seat. It never failed. I had heard stories about residents in the region who, forced to leave their cars parked out, used block heaters they plugged in at night to assist with winter starting. I was amazed. The slush that formed from the snow on my feet that melted on the floor would freeze over each night, forming a block of ice around the gas pedal and brake. Often I would have to use the tire iron to knock out the frozen slush from the wheel wells so the tires did not wear out rubbing against them. But the beater started, heated up and got me to work.
I drove the car everyday for the four years we lived and worked in Minnesota. The front wheel drive provided excellent traction for driving on the snow-covered streets and highways. It was 11 years old when I sold it to a young man in Brownwood. It was his first vehicle and I was confident that he was getting reliable transportation, if not the coolest looking ride in town.
Old cars, call them what you will, have gotten as much attention recently as at any time since World War II when new cars were scarce because the factories were tied up with the war effort. As with any government subsidized program there are as many critics as there are proponents of the “cash for clunkers” initiative. However there is no denying the immediate results. According to an Associated Press report, the program generated nearly 700,000 new car sales during a time the U.S. auto industry needed a jolt of activity. They were going through the deepest decline in auto sales in two decades. The biggest beneficiaries in the industry, according to the AP were the Japanese automakers with 41 percent of the new car sales. The top four new vehicles purchased were the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and the Ford Focus. All four are built in the United States.
Think what you will of cost verses benefits of the “Cash for Clunkers” program. It is too early to tell if the shot in the arm will have a positive or a negative effect on future automobile sales. For me, I think they had the wrong name — how does “Beaters for Bucks” sound?
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@