Traverse City Record-Eagle


Farewell Ol’ Car

Cathy Stripe LesterI used to call my old car the “Wonderful One-Hoss Shay” after the horse-drawn buggy in the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., in which the shay “ran a hundred years to a day, and then, of a sudden, it ah, but stay! I’ll tell you the story without delay!”

When I came back to the USA to take care of my Mom, I told her she could afford a new car instead of the 1987 Toyota Camry hatchback she had. She replied serenely, “This one will last me out.”

My Mom, Faith Stripe, in the autumn of 2000

It sure did last, and by the time I inherited it, I’d discovered that it got about 40 mpg on the freeway. At that point I decided to test something I’d read, which was that the best way to get your money’s worth out of a car was to get an old clunker and drive it into the ground. It was good advice. With routine maintenance, “The Shay” hardly ever gave me any trouble, and it still gets around 40 mpg. The only thing that couldn’t be fixed was the rust eating up the undercarriage. Each time I hopefully asked someone about it, they’d tell me something extremely witty like, “Easy! Move to Florida, get a car that’s never been in Michigan, and stay off salted roads!”

My British friends asked me, how did it pass its MOT tests? Well, if the USA had them, it would have been off the road years ago. The MOT (Ministry of Transport) tests are a yearly vehicle test which basically covers everything that can impinge on a car’s  safety  including, of course, body integrity. Cars that don’t pass have a short time to get fixed. No fix, no road license, no more car.

In the poem, the Shay is built in such a logical way that each part is as strong as the rest of it, so it can’t break down. However, when it finally wears out, it goes to pieces “all at once and nothing first just as bubbles do when they burst.”  And the driver finds himself “sitting upon a rock, at half-past nine by the meet’n'-house clock.” Before I found myself sitting on the freeway, I went looking for another car with goodish mpg.

Illustration from 1902 by H.M. Brock

Though “The Shay” couldn’t have got past the MOT, I could have found one with good mpg a heck of a lot more easily in England. The average gas consumption for the UK is already 39 mpg* in the “extra-urban” category, which includes both freeways and winding country roads. More efficient models are already tootling around their tight little island at up to 60+ mpg. True, they do have smaller cars, partly because their picturesque old towns have lots of smaller streets. However, the Brits have a way of snickering at how us Yanks are wedded to our gas guzzlers, and I admit I have to laugh too, whenever US auto-makers scream and whine about coming up to a standard of 54.5 mpg in 2025.

Boase Street in Newlyn, Cornwall. I once got ten minutes of entertainment watching two cars coming up, one car coming down, and a small tractor pulling a wagon try to negotiate around each other at a T-junction a little farther uphill from here.

It’s not that better car technology doesn’t exist, even without going to extremes. I’m sure there are other examples, but the one I found first was this: there’s a Nissan crossover SUV in the UK, called the Qashqai (named for a nomadic tribe, if you’re wondering), which gets 67.35 extra-urban mpg. It is a standard car, not a hybrid. In 2007, some Nissan Engineers tested one by driving it from one end of the UK to the other — 867 miles — which it did on ONE tankful of gas (it had some left over when they arrived)!

You can’t get a Qashqai in the USA. The Nissan Rogue is almost exactly the same – same size, same features, same everything (except that the driver’s wheel is on the other side) – but the Rogue only gets between 23 and 28 mpg, about a third as efficient. So why don’t US manufacturers give us the better engine?

Who profits from less-efficient models? Obviously, the oil companies – you know, the ones who are in such dire straits with their $80-billion profits that they honestly (?) need $2.8-billion tax breaks which the Republicans refuse to cut?

I have no idea how, or even if, they persuade the car manufacturers to short-change the US public by making us buy less efficient cars. There are a number of conspiracy theories out there, though they seem short on actual facts and long on circumstantial evidence. However,  as Thoreau, (a contemporary of Holmes) said, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

If anybody knows for sure, I’d be glad to read about it. Do the oil companies invest in auto companies so they can squelch more efficient models? Or are the Koch Bros. pulling strings behind the scenes? Who knows?

In the meantime, we’re effectively forced to help the oil companies make their $80-billion-a-year profit, a lot like the slaves whose labor paid for their masters’ lap-of-luxury plantations, not to mention the whips, the overseers and the trusty bloodhounds. And we’re still left with the question: if US car makers CAN make more efficient cars, and DON’T, why? Or rather, WHY?!?!?!?

Farewell to the "Wonderful One-Hoss Shay"

I did look into getting a Prius or another hybrid, but I didn’t know of anywhere in Grayling to service it. In the end I looked on Craig’s list and lucked out – found a used Chevvy Prizm with only 65,000 miles on the clock. It gets 30+ mpg – went around Detroit and then 200 miles up to Grayling, on just over a half tank of gas. Not as good as a Qashqai – but hey, we’ll never have that until we develop the moxie to really hold the auto-makers’ feet to the fire. I just don’t see why we have to wait until 2025. Do you? Or, in the last line of Holmes’s poem, “Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”

My new wheels

* The UK gallon is larger than the US gallon. I’ve used the conversion table at the bottom of the page on

  • Bobdisqus

    CSL, before you run to conspiracy theories, and the Koch Bros. you might want to examine this obscure little branch of science known as physics.

    When I was in China they were pushing 1.5liter and smaller vehicles through preferential tax policy. You won’t find many here buying such, perhaps the Koch bros. are whispering in car buyer’s ear at night with secret subliminal broadcast. I like the new auto start/stop systems that shut the engine off at stops that is some neat tech.

    You might want to check this out it has a wealth of data.

    2001 Chevy prism curb weight 2403lbs/2013 Chevy Suburban curb weight 5824lbs
    Pity the EMT that has to show up at this accident.

    • Henry

      Bob maybe you should chat with Ed about that dangerously
      tiny Spark he just bought. That Spark weighs over a hundred pounds less than
      Cathy’s Prism which had you worried. Ed doesn’t seem at all concerned about
      his safety. I think we all got a physics lesson when the 1970s oil embargo hit
      and Detroit got their clocks cleaned by all those little Japanese high mileage
      imports. Detroit’s main defense seemed to be that they were too small to be
      safe; it didn’t work. Now years later the Camry outsells the big Suburban by
      over a quarter of a million units. Part of the problem is that the Suburban
      gets 13 mpg; filling the 30+ gallon tank will run you about $100 at current gas
      prices; it is 18’ long and surely a joy to park; oh yes, it takes half a
      football field to stop this beast from 60mph. (Another little physics lesson
      about inertia there.) If safety is the primary concern most folks would pick a
      recent model Volvo and in addition try not to hit anything.

      Cathy’s point is that we should have a CHOICE! You know that
      good old free enterprise stalwart, choice. Germans have had clean economical
      diesels for years. The VW Blue Sport turbo diesel gets over 50 mpg with plenty
      of power. I haven’t seen many here, eventually maybe we will, Koch Bros.

      • Ed Hahnenberg

        The trend today is toward small vehicles. It’s a Spark…no need for snarkiness. I feel I’m surrounded by airbags…10. It also has ABS. The only car I’ve owned before my Datsun was the ’65 VW Beetle which I got rid of because I got blown off the road twice. Other than that, small cars have always been my favorites…half a million miles under all weather conditions…snow, black ice, rain, sleet, etc…I used to pass monster pickups on I-96 in 6 in. of snow with my Civic hatchback.

        • Henry Klugh

          Ed, I think you may be confused. It was Bob who made the comment about the poor EMTs who had to show up at a crash between a Suburban and a car like yours. It does seem that what you find “snarky” depends far more on who does the posting than on what is posted.

          • Ed Hahnenberg

            Henry…Not confused by your comment “Ed doesn’t seem at all concerned abouthis safety.” Your fictional dinner prep article was imaginative, nevertheless. Good writing.

      • Bobdisqus

        In the EPA data I linked you will find the average is just under 4000lbs. Ed count yourself admonished.

        Henry, I thought i made the point that they are available here we just don’t buy very many of them. Perhaps that is the Koch bros. fault as they have personally vetoed the type of tax policy that makes these sell in the EU.

        I load my children in 2003 Caravan curb weight 4039. I personally am partial to an F250 crew cab 6,830lbs curb weight. Too bad i can never justify the cost of one.

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    Cathy…I just bought a 2013 Chevy Spark which gets over 40
    mpg. It’s not for everyone with only 83hp, but is a 4-door with 5 speed manual,
    air conditioning, and a radio that pulls in FM stations that defied
    expectations. I also can plug in my ipad for my music. It’s made in S Korea by the KIA company. Traded in a 2007 Aveo
    which I bought new for eight K and got over four K on trade. However I have
    owned a Datsun (Nissan) and four Civics…all of which averaged over 30 mpg. Why
    am I VERY skeptical that cars made in other countries get the mileage you tout or that oil companies target US auto makers (of which there are really none)?

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    Cathy…Thanks for your comment about no need to be surrounded by tons of mail armour. On another topic, I have always bought brand new. First, the small cars I buy don’t break my bank. Second, with timing belts on various smaller cars needed replacement at around 50 K, I don’t like the idea of ruining an engine with a used car, plus the 3-5 year warranty is not available with a used one. Finally, I like to know that I’ve been the only care-taker of the vehicle…and the depreciation which automatically kicks when you drive off the lot has never bothered me much, since my investment is usually not much more than 10K which is offset by my pre-owned trade-in.

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