Late in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, my wife Jill and I were driving through Vienna, Virginia, toward Tysons Corner when we found ourselves in front of, and then beside, and then right behind an old gray Volvo wagon. The car caught our eyes, and quickly we realized why, for it wasn’t just another car on the road but a car we’d once owned—from 1987, to be precise, when we bought it new, until December 2011. That’s not a misprint: The car was ours for more than 24 years.
It’s not as though we bought the wagon intending to keep it for a generation. No, we bought it having decided, as people do when they buy cars, that it was the right one for us.
With a 1-year-old, Katherine, to carry about the city, Jill wanted the safest wagon around, and Volvo had a reputation for making heavy, sturdy vehicles. While I was reluctant to own a car made by a company headquartered in a socialist country, I agreed to trade in our four-door sedan for the gray 1987 GLE 740, knowing that Jill was going to be doing more of the driving anyway.
In 1998, we decided we’d become a two-car family. Jill got the new car (a “light” truck, the safety argument by this time requiring a still-heavier vehicle), and I got the hand-me-down Volvo, which had more than 100,000 miles on it, and with which we had been utterly satisfied.
It was then that it began to occur to me that the car I was driving daily was more than 10 years old, and that I had never before owned a car, bought new or used, for that many years. Not that age alone meant anything about how the car performed; in fact, it was continuing to perform well.
But it was also continuing to get older, and nothing could stop that. By the early 2000s the wagon had actually acquired a name: We called it “Old Gray”—age being what distinguished it from most of the cars it shared the roads with.
I stuck with Old Gray for several reasons. The car had no debt on it, the original note having been paid off long ago, a welcome event. Also, it was perfect for the driving I did—in and around Washington, seldom long distance. Its natural speed—slow—meant it never violated the speed limits. And, precisely because Old Gray was old, I didn’t worry too much about scratches or dents endured in parking garages. Then, too, manufactured in the era it was, Old Gray was simple to understand and operate—something, by the way, that cannot be said about most new cars. Finally, the car, well used to my presence in the driver’s seat, had come to fit me just right.
But with advancing age came problems. Over the years I’d enjoyed learning how to order the odd Volvo part from a yard somewhere. But several years ago it took two months to find a replacement for the glove compartment, a reminder of the car’s mortality.
And, of course, there were engine problems. Starting about five years ago, Old Gray had more and more of them. And then, one day in the late summer of 2011, it gave out while I was driving home from work, right before I was to cross the Roosevelt Bridge into Virginia. The old wagon just rolled to a stop.
To get it going again would require a new fuel pump. But at some point, I knew, it would also need a new transmission. Oh, and there was the paint job, long overdue. The car sat in my driveway during the last months of 2011 as I considered what to do. In the end, I decided not to trade in Old Gray, but to give it to a nonprofit.
I wanted the car repaired, and the one nonprofit I knew would fix it was a local public high school that uses donated vehicles to train students in repairing cars and then selling them. “This is the best place for it,” the teacher in charge told me, explaining the program’s “300-point inspection” process, and I believed him. I had a AAA tow truck leave the wagon in the school parking lot and signed the papers in the teacher’s office nearby.
We didn’t expect to see Old Gray again. But there in Vienna on New Year’s Eve, in one of life’s strange but happy surprises, we did. The car had been repaired. And sold. And I could see that the old wagon, still sporting the Atlanta Braves bumper sticker I’d given it almost a generation ago, had found new life—as a pizza delivery mobile.