Unlike RVs, cars are not a big deal for this household, except to those of driving age who for whatever reason do not yet have one. Then cars are a very big deal!
But this is America, where friends congratulate you warmly (and mean it) when you announce your new car, where one of the ways that you are judged socially is in terms of your car, and where selling cars is an art form. If anything embodies the American dream of liberty and freedom for everyman, and woman, it is a car. So we do pay attention.
To put it another way, we’re a bit of a workhorse family when it comes to cars. Overall, and excluding our teenagers, who feel that particular American dream so much more than the parents, cars are there to do a job, and that job is people moving, the more the merrier.
Our first family car was our first workhorse, a Ford Aerostar that I had imported from California before Marie-Hélène and I got together, and which remained ours through 1997. We sold it before emigrating to the US. It appears on this page, in St Malo, driving on to the Brittany Ferries boat to Portsmouth. It seated seven, meaning the whole family including Charlie after he joined us.
Soon after we got together, Marie-Hélène found an elegant old Rover at a local car dealer near La Grée. Pierre had held onto her prior car because his had been totaled in an accident. The Rover was the one car that we never sold. She loved it! When we emigrated, she parked it at La Grée, and first it waited there, and then it slowly rotted there, until finally grand-père had it towed away.
Our first car in California was the Mazda 626 that Sue and Derek, our in-laws, sold us for $1,000 soon after we arrived in 1997. Thanks guys! It had been salvaged, and already had 100,000 miles on the clock, but ran and ran and ran, which was a good thing because I commuted in it for years.
A purple Dodge Caravan, bought later that summer for a very good price through a small local dealer, became the soccer mom’s car. It too ran and ran and ran. I can find almost no photos of either, reflecting their modesty, I suspect. Those cars were what used to be advertised as “good transportation.”
I finally felt able to replace the commute Mazda, by now with close to 200,000 miles on the clock, in 2001. My reserve about doing so up until then had been the monthly payments on Edgar, my first RV and a relatively serious breach in marital harmony. I didn’t want to compound the problem with Edgar by adding another monthly payment.
Bowing to the inevitable (if you don’t know what that means, you’ve never been married!), in 2001 I sold Edgar, at a substantial loss of course, and promptly found myself a new Solara convertible to replace the monthly payments. Clearly a workhorse! It was my first new car, ever, and I wanted something elegant but not overpriced. You can see the significance of cars for me right there: almost 20 years out of law school before I bought a new one.
But the thrill of the convertible top wore off before the monthly payments reduced, and we sold it early, in 2003.
The family car had changed before my commute car changed, because the family in Santa Cruz had increased in size. First, Alex had arrived in 1998. He continued to fit in the Caravan with the other children unless Nick and Tom were vacationing with us. During our first two years in Santa Cruz, we were only six unless they were visiting.
But when they moved in with us during the summer of 1999, we needed a full eight seats. Suburban! The GMC version was later rechristened the Yukon XL, and XL it was: eight full comfortable seats, and plenty of room for baggage: what SUV means. A bit of a boat to drive, but there was plenty of power in that V8 engine. To reflect the fact that we were now at full strength, with teenagers and younger children, we obtained the registration “Zinzins” from the DMV. It was finally official!
The Suburban was a bit too long for our garage, unfortunately. You had to pull it forward to within about three inches of the storage cabinets at the front of the garage in order to be able to close the door behind it. Needless to say, it went an inch too far forward one day, and those cabinets were never the same. The SUV moved into the car port shortly after!
Marie-Hélène decided that she wanted a smaller car during the period when Nick was obtaining his driver’s license. As he would have his own car, and was by now a Teenager with a capital T, there would be less if any need for all of us to drive in the same vehicle. Unfortunately, Nick did not yet have his car when he was finally able to drive by himself, and so on that first day we let him take the Suburban, with strict instructions not to drive any of the other children.
He drove with Daphné anyway (remember that capital T!) that first day, and somehow ended up hitting a telegraph pole near the Santa Cruz police station with the passenger door: oops! That reduced what we obtained from selling the SUV by about $2,000, which was duly subtracted from the $6,000 that I expected to pay for his own car.
Marie-Hélène had decided that she wanted a Volvo V70 wagon. While it had only five seats in the normal course, there were two small rear-facing seats complete with safety belts, perfect for Charlie and Alex, that folded up in the wagon part for when we needed to carry more children. We looked all over the Bay Area for one, until she found one she liked at the local Volvo dealership. It consumed only two thirds the gas of the Suburban, and was significantly more maneuverable, with almost no change in the level of safety.
That Volvo became our longest-serving workhorse. Marie-Hélène drove it as the family car until 2006, and I then drove it as my commute car for about a year, and Nick drove it for a while, I forget when. Then in 2007, after its engine was rebuilt, Alban was given it as his first car. He drove it until 2012.
My commute car too changed in 2003. In honor of the new job down in Newport Beach, I leased a two-door Mercedes C320, with a top-notch sound system and a full 200 hp. Yep, that’ll go! Thanks to Robert Hammer, the monthly payments were less than for the Solara. Marie-Hélène commented at one point that it was too small to be a real Mercedes, but since my Mini as a teenager I’ve been partial to small and nippy cars, and it fit that bill perfectly. This was the car that Tom and I took for our road trip to Colorado in 2004, and it was a great ride for the two of us.
2003 marked the beginning in our family of cars for teenagers, which as all parents know deep inside is simply insane. But we parents keep at it, perhaps because we remember how good a car felt for us when we were teenagers, and forget the times we almost killed ourselves or our friends.
As the oldest, Nick had the privilege of the first car, which lasted about six months before he totaled it! That was an awful wreck on Granite Creek Road. It happened on a Monday. In Newport Beach at work, I wasn’t even around to help Marie-Hélène cope with the aftermath. The insurance proceeds bought a Taurus, which he drove once he was back in the saddle, but that did take a while.
Our next driver was Daphné, about a year later, which was fitting because she was about a year younger. Her cute little Focus, bought at a small local dealer, lasted until after the end of these memoirs. Way to go, Daphné! The only mild blemish here was a 103 mph ticket that she was given early one morning east of Sacramento on US 50 on the way to South Lake Tahoe. She left very early for those Tahoe weekends, and took full advantage of the clear roads at that time in the morning. It was years before I was privy to the speed she was driving her little car! On the plus side, as far as I know, she’s never had a wreck.
Alban and Tom were next up for cars, and that was itself more problematic: two at once, because they were only three weeks apart in age. We were still operating on a $6,000 each guideline, and by 2006, when they were both the right age, I had hung out my own shingle. with all the financial uncertainties that brings. I stalled. They waited an extra two years compared to their older brother and sister, who were each given their first car around the age of 16. Being self-employed does have advantages, but also some unfortunate consequences.
After that, I can’t really understand what happened. We didn’t buy another car, but for his birthday in 2007 gave the Volvo to Alban. Nothing for Tom. I think that Alban had completed his driver’s ed., with his maman’s help, but that Tom hadn’t started his driver’s ed. That’s one reason, but a chicken and egg one, because Nick, Daphné and Alban had all been helped through their driver’s ed.
Okay, Tom was being difficult at the time, but they’d all been difficult at times. He abruptly left our home and returned to his mom in Paris before the end of the year. It may be easy to say, but I think if he had stayed he would have had his car soon enough. I knew that equal treatment was key. As it was, I blew that one.
Back to the parents: Marie-Hélène followed the Volvo with a Honda Pilot leased in 2006 as the family car. She was back to eight seats, but in a smaller and more elegant SUV with better handling. That was followed in 2009 with another Honda, this time the smaller CR-V, with only five seats. Nick, Daphné and Alban each had their own car. I leased an Altima hyrid in 2007 as my commute car, and regaled in 35 miles to the gallon!
That’s where we were when our little collective story came to its end.