I was half expecting Audrey Yates's call since she had leased a Volkswagen Golf the same month my wife, Lisa, leased her VW VR6-GTI. Lisa was buying out her lease and I knew Audrey, a savvy marketing consultant, would want my opinion on what to do.
This story is from a few years ago, but calls like this come a few times a year. Sometimes it's an old friend such as Audrey, though it could be a close relative or even an obscure acquaintance. They chat me up about family and what's going on at work, often offering tasty tidbits of gossip before getting to their automotive needs.
Audrey's Golf had low mileage. She is a single career woman so the interior had not been trashed by a brood of rambunctious kids or a rowdy rottweiler. The exterior had a few minor blemishes, the kind to be expected with someone who isn't a "car nerd" such as myself. She could have bought out her lease since, with only 32,000 miles, the Golf would provide many more years of reliable motoring.
I figured she had two other options. Getting a new car would be a clean start along with the excitement that comes with a fresh set of wheels. Sending the Golf packing and finding a clunker to drive for six months had merit, too. She could then savor the big decision which would have resulted in two car-fever hits. But I knew Audrey would want to do the right thing for her situation.
I thought back to the early 1960s when my grandfather wanted to trade his pink 1959 Vauxhall Velox for a new car. A stroke had left him with a partially paralyzed right hand that rendered the Vauxhall's column-mounted three-speed manual shifter problematic. Grampy was finally going to buy a car with an automatic transmission.
At the time, my father was driving a 1963 Mercury Custom Monterey. The peacock turquoise 300-horsepower unit with a "breezeway" rear window was road candy to my older brother Bruce, who had just gotten his driver's licence. Dad located an identically colored 1963 Comet at the Mercury dealer and suggested Gramps buy that. He liked it, so Dad spent a week hammering out the deal.
The Comet's "Big 6" powerplant had adequate performance but it never idled as smoothly as the Vauxhall. If Grampy placed a glass of water on the hood, there was too much surface turbulence for his liking. And so began a parade of visits to the Mercury dealership to rectify the rough idle. My father, of course, having made the suggestion to buy the car in the first place, shouldered the brunt of the loud verbal abuse.
Oh yes, as his hearing faded over the years, Grampy's volume was about twice what was required in most situations. When he was excited it got even louder, borderline yelling. Sometimes I'd be up in my bedroom drifting off to sleep and I'd hear it through the floorboards.
"Poor car. Poorest car I ever had!" I knew my grandparents were visiting and I knew my dad was rolling his eyes.
So the peacock turquoise Mercury Comet led to one of the most direct pieces of advice my father ever gave me. Don't ever advise someone on what car to buy, which was precisely where I was headed with Audrey.
Within a few days, Audrey and I were at the local VW dealer. Rows of shiny Golfs, Jettas and Passats glistened in the bright afternoon sunshine. I suggested she move into a new Golf. Upgrade to power windows and cruise control. A sun roof perhaps, to make her feel sporty on those summer beach days.
"Why would I get another Golf? They look pretty much the same as my old one."
I detected an edge of panic in her voice, but my father's advice kept me in check.
Then her face changed. The stress disappeared. She beamed. Her voice became girlish as she gazed across the lot, honing in on a new blue Jetta station wagon. I had never seen one before and immediately liked it.
"I could put so much in it. My gardening supplies. It's so cute!" She was hooked.
Audrey asked if I would negotiate the deal for her. Just let her go home and wait for me to convince the dealer to go for her price. The last thing I remembered before agreeing was my grandfather's booming mantra about the Comet's rough idle.
The negotiations lasted six weeks. To make Audrey's desired numbers work, she had to find a buyer for her Golf. Dad's advice haunted me every time she called with an update.
"How does this sound for the newspaper ad? Tell me again how the tax works? What about the rust spot on the grille? Am I doing the right thing?"
In the end it all worked out. Audrey sold her Golf at the price she wanted and the VW dealer patiently held on to her Jetta wagon with a minimal deposit. She's thrilled with her new car and claims she will keep it forever.
Tonight Audrey is coming over for dinner. We'll talk business for a while, scheme about Caribbean holidays that will never happen and talk about old times. She and Lisa might even gang up on me for being insensitive about something, and that will be just fine ... as long as I don't hear anything about a rough idle.
Garry Sowerby, author of "Sowerby's Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind," is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.