by Claudia Kalb
Last week, Demaris Miller and her husband, James, drove their red 1995 truck to a dealership 70 miles from their cattle farm in Washington, Va. It was Cash for Clunkers time. The truck, nicknamed “Mondo,” had quite the adventurous life. Early on, it shuttled James and Demaris around as they ran for political office (James for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and 1996; Demaris for the U.S. Congress in 1998 and 2000). It transported the family to ice-cream pit stops. “It probably stopped at every Dairy Queen that exists in Virginia,” says Demaris. It even did double duty hauling animals: one year, the Millers attached a trailer to Mondo so they could transport a couple of horses from Indiana to Virginia. “It was just a great vehicle, and you couldn’t help but have a certain fondness for it,” Demaris says.
Up until last week, Mondo still looked pretty good on the outside. But the truck had 158,000 miles on it, and it had become old, tired, and unreliable. The government’s clunker program was too good to ignore. So the Millers dropped off their truck, got their $4,500, and drove home in a new sedan. There’s only one problem: they’re kind of upset about dumping Mondo. “It was just a little sad to have to leave it there knowing it was going to be destroyed,” says Demaris.
Call it clunker grief. While most people are thrilled to see their old cars go—bye-bye repairs, hello fuel efficiency!—some find themselves mourning the loss of an old friend. Anybody who’s ever named a car (guilty: ours was “Pearl”) knows that a beloved vehicle doesn’t simply take you from point A to point B. It carries your babies home from the hospital, it keeps you dry in the rain, it provides a sanctuary for a first kiss. It has an identity, a personality, a history.
The truth is, an old automobile can be more dependable and reliable than your closest family members, and letting go can hurt. “People have clunker cars that have lasted longer than their marriages,” says Dr. Susan Vaughan, a Columbia University psychiatrist. When you lose a car, she says, it’s like “the loss of a piece of yourself.”
Nothing says that more succinctly than a Twitter post written by Mike Dang, a business editor in New York City. “Mom: You know the car you left at home? We cashed that clunker in. Bye-bye, Mustang. Me: Dying just a little inside.” Dang used to put the top down on the 1991 red convertible, pick up his friends, and drive it to the beach in California, where he grew up. In high school, the homecoming court rode around the football track in that car. “They’d say, ‘Wow, you know, they don’t make cars like that anymore,’ ” says Dang. After he posted his tweet, Dang’s old friends got in touch. “They’d ask, 'Is it that car?’ And I said, 'Yes, it’s that car.’ ”
That car is now one of tens of thousands that mechanics nationwide have put to rest over the last two weeks as part of a government program to reduce the number of fuel-inefficient cars on the road. To do so, they must drain out the oil and replace it with sodium silicate. Within a few minutes, the engine stops dead. If you’re a car sentimentalist, it can feel like a brutal betrayal. “One of my guys said, ‘It’s like putting your dog to sleep,' ” says Rick DeSilva, owner of Liberty Hyundai in Mahwah, N.J., which has tallied about $240,000 worth of rebates.
“When I see these cars coming in and I say, ‘This car’s nicer than what I’m driving,’ and I have to take out the motor and disable it, it really hurts my feelings,” says Liberty service manager Wayne Schneider. Mechanics are trained to fix cars, not trash them. “It’s like being the doctor who takes the Hippocratic Oath to keep people healthy and alive,” says DeSilva, only to be asked to perform a lethal injection. After the Web site CrunchGear posted a YouTube video they dubbed “The Murder of a Volvo S80 by Cash for Clunkers,” one viewer commented that it was “like the car was screaming.” (And with Congress voting late last night to extend funding for the program, the murder of innocent, if inefficient, vehicles will continue unabated for now.)
The finality of it all can hit some customers hard. “I actually had a lady cry and hug her car before she left,” says Jay Picardo, a Volkswagon salesman in Greenbrier, Va.
“I think one does experience a form of grieving,” says Mark Smaller, a psychoanalyst in Chicago. Mourning for objects like cars or family houses may not last as long or be as intense as grieving for humans, but it’s still a legitimate experience. The current economic climate can exacerbate the way people feel, too. “We want to hold onto things that are predictable and reliable because so much happening out there is out of our control,” says Smaller.
Smaller knows what it’s like. A few weeks ago, he had to say goodbye to a treasured car that was severely damaged in a flood. Now, he’s holding onto his clunker, a nine-year-old Isuzu Trooper. He can’t bear to give it up. Smaller bought the car when he got remarried—it started his new life with him—and it carried his three young children home after they were born. “On the one hand, it’s just a car,” says Smaller. “On the other, there’s a lot of meaning in that car.”
—Additional reporting by Rebecca Shabad