The Zombie Car Phenomenon

Several years ago, while I waited on the curb at the San Diego airport watching traffic flow by, I noticed something about the cars. They were different from the local vehicles in Northwest Montana, and although I’d lived in San Diego for twenty years, I had never made the connection. It wasn’t just the obvious preference for SUV’s and Subarus in the rugged north—no, it was something else, too: the city vehicles were shiny and updated. Many of them looked high-end. I thought of the beaters I often spotted in my Montana town—the 80’s sedans, the classic trucks, and the boxy early style of Subaru—and it made me realize the degree to which residents of my town make do with what they have. I was proud to be one of them.

In recent months, this trend toward junky vehicles seems to have gotten worse—or better, however you choose to look at it. Before I explain, however, I have to admit that my own little red car has its own issues. I will remove the log from my own eye first. This is a beloved vehicle that won’t quit, even though we’re at 198,000 miles. Each blemish tells a story. The longish dent on the driver’s side—that was a tangle with a tall stand of bamboo at the side of our driveway when we were in San Diego. My husband could not understand how I did that, as I had backed down our long, steep driveway a couple thousand times by then. I could understand, because I had backed down that impossible driveway two thousand times without incident, and it was only a matter of time before it got me, especially now that there was a giant, unforgiving stand of bamboo to complicate things.

Similarly, the dust-up with the deer happened because it had to, because a decade had gone by with no incidents in a landscape dense with these thick creatures (or thick with these dense creatures, if you prefer). My daughter and I were deep in an interesting discussion when she said, “Mom, deer!” By the time my brain processed the emergency, it was too late to stop. I had, however slowed down enough to give a witless, fleeing animal a good bump with the front of the car and a quick but frenzied backwards sprint when she got caught on my side mirror for a few moments. To my relief, she and her compatriots then dashed off into the woods and there was no need to bring anyone back to the site with a gun. The encounter had left a visible dent, however. Later, a friend helpfully brought attention to it by inscribing “Bambi” in the layer of dust coating my car.

Even with its dents, dimples, and rusted out spots, my vehicle does not yet resemble what I would call a “zombie car.” Zombie cars are vehicles still in service that are so badly damaged they look uncannily like animated car corpses. An obviously totaled vehicle will swing by in the turn lane, with damage so telling that one could do an accurate play-by-play of the accident, and the visceral reaction is “Whoa!”

I understand not taking one’s car to the body shop after being creamed in an intersection. One, it’s expensive. It makes more sense financially to just drive your older car into the ground. Not only are your insurance rates stable, but your permanent registration is still working for you. Two, body shops are pricey. No matter what the problem is, no matter how subtle the damage, the employees always announce that they have to order the whole piece from the manufacturer, and that item always costs a healthy percentage of the car’s current value. (I’ve experienced when they opted to not order the piece, when a teenager hit our parked car and was liable. I learned that it’s best to believe what they say and let them order away. In this case, someone at the body shop had whaled away on our panel with a hammer and then painted over that, leaving a mass of stipples. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.) Three, it costs a lot to have your car fixed, and it’s not a sensible expense given how brutal this area is on vehicles—potholes, dirt roads, salt, filthy slush, and impatient drivers at intersections all take their toll. It’s better to pay the rent than maintain a sleek, gleaming car.

Other mutilations I’ve noted lately: gaping, sightless holes where headlights should be, missing back windows crisscrossed with duct tape, a hood (and possibly the whole left front of the vehicle) secured with a rope. Cars go nonchalantly by with driver-side doors caved in, whole sections hideously ripped off, mangled bumpers. Rope, tape, tarp, and other materials at hand are pressed into service to make the thing driveable as soon as possible. My favorite fix is on a small, grey car that just happens to be in our church parking lot every day. Apparently, the front and back bumpers were having a problem severe enough to necessitate the use of black zip-ties as stitches. There are small series of them, front and back, in a careful ‘X’-shaped pattern. One can’t help but appreciate the resourcefulness of whoever saw fit to do this. And he did a nice job.*

I know our area has come a long way since the eighties, when more families subsisted on venison, and residents had to drive all the way to Missoula for Easter dresses. That’s what I’ve heard from native Montanans, anyway. Now our town offers Costco, Target, REI, many grocery stores, chic shops, a grand movie theater, chain restaurants, quiet planned neighborhoods, multi-million-dollar estates, Internet everywhere—almost anything you could get in urban California. But the sordid state of our region’s vehicles show that perhaps Montanans haven’t changed all that much. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*Not to be sexist, but of course it was a “he.”

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7 thoughts on “The Zombie Car Phenomenon”

  1. When I lived in Massachusetts, my ambition was to have a railroad tie for a front bumper. Rear bumper too. I figured it would scare off other drivers so they’d give me a wide berth. Alas, this ambition was never realized.

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  2. Not many beaters pass the two year inspection here. We kill our zombie cars.

    What make and model is the little red night of the living dead car, sawatdeeka?

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  3. drlorentz:
    When I lived in Massachusetts, my ambition was to have a railroad tie for a front bumper. Rear bumper too. I figured it would scare off other drivers so they’d give me a wide berth. Alas, this ambition was never realized.

    I never had a railroad tie bumper, my younger brother did though. It helped immensely with traction when snow was on the roads. But that was many years ago, maybe 40 or so.

    I wonder about the “zombie” vehicles as well. But in a slightly different light. I have a venerable Dodge Ram from 1996 that is a virtual rust bucket. I have sheet metal patches screwed on over previous sheet metal patches. The back bumper once rusted in half and fell off, but I replaced it along with about ten inches of steel plate I had to add to the frame of the truck to hold the new bumper. It’s a beast that I should someday drive to the scrap yard, But I haven’t the heart to do it. I put nearly 170 thousand miles on that truck, it had 30 thousand on it when I purchased it. It’s a part of me. I drove it since 1997 and only two years ago I purchased another Dodge Ram, a 2009 version, to lighten the load on the old beast.

    But that’s not what I wonder about. I have successfully camouflaged my old trucks rust wounds and applied a nearly matching coat of paint over it’s bandages. I wonder about the other vehicles out there. How did they pass the yearly inspection in my state? I see them with huge dents and discrepancies that would never pass inspection. Lights that are not illuminated as well as totally missing. Windows replaced by plastic coated cardboard and   rolls of duck tape. I shudder to think of the mechanical deficiencies that these vehicles have such as inoperative brakes, defective exhaust systems or various fluid leaks. How are they permitted on the roads? (Cops at doughnut shops?)

    I know the reason, money. It’s pretty damn expensive to maintain a vehicle, even worse as the vehicle ages. We just shelled out over $900, (got a deal they wanted $1300), to have a water pump replaced on my wife’s Honda. (Who the hell designs a car that the water pump is powered by the timing belt? Not to offend someone we know from Japan, but that idea is totally STUPID.) I will be replacing the water pump again on my old Dodge Ram as soon as it warms up so I can work on it in the driveway, but I, (note the word ” I “), can replace it. It’s not hidden deep within the engine that one needs a mechanical degree to get at it.

    That, I believe is the reason why there are “zombie” vehicles on the roads, lack of money. Money to overcome the carmaker designs that make it difficult for backyard mechanics to effect repairs.

    Blame the Japanese.   (They started; “No User Serviceable Parts Inside”.)

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  4. I like a nice car but nothing like what I see around here: Bentleys, Rolls, Lexus, Range Rovers (particularly humorous in a beach community).

    I drive a 4-seater convertible but as the city grows, it seems to attract mindless-even reckless- drivers as well plus a plethora of nonagenarians who refuse to give up their licenses and use Uber.

    S, I think I’d prefer your rugged terrains, deer, and inclement weather!

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  5. 10 Cents:
    Not many beaters pass the two year inspection here. We kill our zombie cars.

    The manufacturers are getting ready to roll out enforcement plans to kill all zombie cars.   They are going to make the next generation of computer diagnostics such that they can discontinue support after a decade or so, making all that mystery plumbing extra-extra-difficult to keep up after their imposed expiration date.   When they do that, cars from the previous century will gain in value since ordinary people can still work on most of those cars.

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  6. 10 Cents:
    Not many beaters pass the two year inspection here. We kill our zombie cars.

    What make and model is the little red night of the living dead car, sawatdeeka?

    It’s a Subaru Outback Impreza, 2004. I love that little thing.

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  7. sawatdeeka:

    10 Cents:
    Not many beaters pass the two year inspection here. We kill our zombie cars.

    What make and model is the little red night of the living dead car, sawatdeeka?

    It’s a Subaru Outback Impreza, 2004. I love that little thing.

    I figure anything that long lasting would be Japanese. For some reason Japanese think of the parent company Fuji Heavy Industries rather than Subaru.

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