My car finally reached the condition where it’s not possible to fully trust it. For over a decade it was simply a matter of turning the key, putting in gear and going wherever I wanted without wondering if I’d get there and back. It’s a credit to the skills of designers, engineers, assemblers and mechanics that this car has carried me over 200,000 miles with very infrequent repairs. And for each repair, there was a sense of it being a part that had just reached the end of it’s expected life, not something catastrophically breaking. Unfortunately, in the past year, these end-of-life experiences have gotten too frequent and too unpredictable and I’ve started to wonder whether I will get to and from my destination. So, I”m ending this car experience to take on a new one.
The guiding advice in buying a car used to be avoid the first year of a new model; let the bugs get worked out first. I was fully expecting to follow this advice but circumstances worked in a way that it was better to ignore it. In 2002 Saturn introduced their long-awaited SUV, the VUE. We were moving across the country and I wanted a car that would not only haul more stuff than my small sedan, but would also be able to get off the road in to the woods. The first VUE I sat in just fit for all my expectations and was the one I drove off the lot. I’m sure neither of us foresaw the next 12 years and how we would together to become a symbol for this time of change. The traditional advice was wrong for me with this car, but I suspect the “traditional” advice was wrong about most Saturn vehicles. The experiment that was Saturn opened new doors in American manufacturing to create new ways of thinking about quality and endurance. Although the experiment was killed by business people who didn’t understand how to broadly apply that new thinking, those of us who have owned Saturns are glad we were part of the experiment.
In this car I’ve moved across the country and back, twice, for work and photography school. We loved the west so much we returned there several times in the VUE, hauling photography gear to national parks and small towns from Nebraska to Washington. We explored the route of the transcontintental railroads, across the plains and mountains. We wandered around the states we lived in without any concerns, driving up hilly, dirt roads to see where they went and zipping along interstates to get to the next adventure. I like to think me and this car together became what people thought of when they thought of me – willing to try anything and go anywhere, taking some fun along to see what would happen.
As a photographer it’s important to have a car that carries all your gear and gets you where you need to be in order to make the shot. An then there are the other benefits. The window makes a great substitute tripod, especially when getting out of the car is a little hazardous.
The original idea of a car that would do more than go down a road, one that would get me to places a bit off the beaten path, that idea has been fully realized in my time with this car. Rocks, snow, mud, water, ice, rain – been through all that safety, usually have pictures to show it.
Looking through my photos I realize how few I have made of my car. Maybe it’s because I tend to keep man-made objects out of the image. Or maybe it’s because I rarely see it as more than the means to get somewhere, not really a part of the destination. Much as my cameras and gear, it’s a tool to aid in turning my vision into actual images. Why would I get sentimental about a car?
We are inundated with anthropomorphic stories of objects around us, from fairy tales to Disney movies to Pixar animations. As a culture we seem to endow personality and character onto objects as a way to create a relationship with them. Even an un-emotional attachment has to realize the connection with a car as each of us adapts to how it handles, the features we love, the way it can be packed with stuff or even the way it sounds. Over 12 years it is easy to think of my VUE as a partner in all the adventures owning it has made possible.
As with any consumer product, each year of manufacturing sees changes in design and construction. The VUE morphed to more of a small family vehicle as the years went by, leaving behind the tougher, go-play-in-the-outdoors image the original marketing campaign was built on. Even were Saturn to still exist today, I wouldn’t see replacing my VUE with a current one; just not my style anymore. No, 2002 was a point in time when all the aspects of outdoor life I was interested in coincided with the intentions of a few renegade car makers, and was all wrapped up in a simple SUV that just worked for me. And continued to do so for 12 years.
I’m sure in my next SUV I’ll adjust to where the controls are and how the steering handles and how to get into and out of trouble trying to find just the right perspective for that perfect image. And although I’ll miss my VUE I will remember that this lifestyle was brought about in many ways by owning it when I did and not worrying about it letting me down.