Buying a car will always be a big deal to me.
The two material things I wanted when I escaped rural Oklahoma were a place to live with lights and plumbing built in and a car that always started. Not to say I had a car that failed to start. I had no car, but I was car-crazy, like most teens of the day.
Did you ever notice the brand distribution of rez cars? You know, the ones that stay on the road with bubble gum and baling wire until the day they quit and become parts cars for the community?
By the way, I’ve always wondered about the etiquette of that. How long do you wait before it’s not stealing to use a dead car for parts? I’m betting that traditions differ, depending on the size of the rez.
Foreign cars made few appearances where I lived, in recently stolen Indian country, where there were tribal headquarters buildings where each rez was before the Great Theft of 1907 that made Oklahoma.
When foreign cars did show up, they drew a crowd. There were two VWs in town, one bus and one bug. Once in a blue moon, an English roadster would pass through on Route 66. The Mother Road was our main street in Bristow, OK, literally.
Renaults and Simcas were sold in Tulsa, but we seldom saw them.
So my world was divided among Fords and Chevys and MoPar, principally the first two. Most families habitually bought the same brands. I came from a family that would rather push a Ford than drive a Chevy.
The one exception was of course the Corvette. Every year, the local Chevy dealer got the loan of a Corvette during an open house to introduce the new models. Free popcorn and peanuts and a Corvette up close and personal. The whole town would show up but, after the open house, the Corvette would go back on a truck and head off down the Mother Road. Nobody in Bristow ever bought one.
My first car was naturally a Ford. My second, a Plymouth. Then I discovered foreign cars and pretty much swore off Detroit Iron for years. Nobody who took Consumer Reports seriously--and I do to this day--could do otherwise. To buy American was sort of like piling your money in the front yard and setting it on fire. I drove one VW after another. I never had a mechanical problem with a VW and the gas mileage was great for the times.
There was a gas station across the street from USAF Security Service, where I worked, where the guy would refuse to put gas in anything made in Germany, Italy, or Japan. I would occasionally be driving English roadsters while the owners were on assignment, and it was clear his animus did not extend to foreign cars generally. He would sell you gas, but you had to pump it back in the day when nobody pumped their own if the Axis built your car. That was my first notice of car buying as a political act. I understood his feelings and did not criticize them.
My closest friendships are from the military and from the Civil Rights Movement, for similar reasons. Facing danger together leads to bonding. The Movement project that took up the most space in my life was the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, although they were UFWOC when I first saddled up for the fight. The times I was lucky enough to be with César Chávez personally, I had no doubt the honorific attached to Gandhi fit Chávez. In English, "great soul." I quickly learned that most of Chávez’s funding came from the United Auto Workers, the fiercely independent union that had seceded from the stodgy AFL-CIO.
I began to seek out Detroit Iron again, and suffered the predictable consequences. Detroit's Big Three made junk, except for a brief time in the mid-sixties when Chrysler extended their warranty way past the industry standard to 5 years/50,000 miles. In spite of making better cars during that time, they still lost their ass on the project and it soon ended.
It was only when the average car price hit five figures that American cars got competitive on quality, Ford being first out of the chute. GM was spotty. Buick was the first GM marque to spike in Consumer Reports ratings. Pontiac never did produce quality to match their sexy designs. But Pontiacs were hot rods and Buicks were for your grandfather.
I'm the grandfather now, and I'm finally buying my first Buick, having come close twice in the past but gotten offers I could not refuse on a Cadillac from the GM Family Plan. No, I could not afford the normal price of a Caddy and yes, I married into a GM family. My late father-in-law worked on the line at GM. When my wife and I got together, she was driving a Corvette. I was driving a Ford Explorer.
Even with the deep discounts, all things are not possible. The discounts are not evenly distributed among all GM cars. We never could get a deal on a Saturn, and the only way to get a Corvette was wait for the model change and buy the old one. I was barely able to consider a Cadillac ELR by adding together the $15,000 discount and the federal tax credit for an electric vehicle. I could have it if I considered a car more important than my grandkids, but that day will never come.
Still, the fantasy was entertaining for a couple of hours. Car fantasies do not dominate my thoughts like they did when I was a teenager, but there is an alternate universe where I am driving a Tesla.
Rez cars have changed since “the computer” became known as a necessary car part. Cars that die in the electronic sense are harder to resurrect, but I have to admit that these modern cars make good-looking corpses. Primer paint is what it is, and I still see enough of it on my grandkids’ rides to remember those days of bubble gum and baling wire.
There was the time my transmission linkage broke and I managed to install a floor shifter backwards, making my car hard to steal because first gear was in fact reverse. There was the radio added on by a previous owner that would periodically catch fire but I could not figure out the bird’s nest of wires he left for me. There was the Oldsmobile for which I could not manage to get four old tires of the same size and I could not afford new tires.
There was the semester in law school when my battery died and I had to show up early every day to park on the hill that allowed me to start it. I would not buy a car battery in a semester when I could not afford textbooks. That Ford would have been at home on any rez. When I graduated and got a car loan based on my law degree, that car got donated to the United Farm Workers. While I meant well in the donation, I was as shocked as anybody when they decided to drive it to California...and it arrived.
I won’t lie and claim I don’t enjoy being able to buy cars new since I graduated. Given my life experiences, though, buying a car will always be a big deal.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.