What I Drive, and Why

I named my car Vivian. The night I bought her, ignition key in my happy hand, poised to open the driver’s door for the first time, I looked down and found a cloth name-tag on the asphalt: in a retro font, it said Vivian. The patch should have been embroidered onto the bowling shirt of a snappy young woman with a perky bob or an older gal with a blue hair-rinse. But there it was on the ground, now mine, and my car Viv’s.

Viv fits her, because she is so very vivacious, so full of vim and vigor and vitality. I will resist the urge to say the garage she lives in is her vivarium. Voluptuous, she is my Vitamin V. The V also fits her brand, VW.

Also, the word viv is a palindrome: spelled forward or backward – like Mom or Bob – you can’t tell the front from the back of a bulbous VW Beetle. The French call the VW Bug a coccinelle, ladybug.

I love Viv because she is so cute, so compact, so diminutive – yet spacious, a personal bubble with a surprising 59 inches of head room, and a measureless amount of heart room. She is huggable. I want to snuggle with her.

Aside from her aesthetics, Viv has practicality. Only 161.1 inches short, she can really go: 150 horsepower, from a 5-cylinder 2.5-liter engine, with 184 to 207 lb-ft of torque. Full of pep, she is a tiny dynamo.

Her safety features are impressive. An advanced airbag system cushions and cradles you in the worst-case scenario. She boasts ABS (anti-lock brake system), ASR (anti-slip regulation), EDL (electronic differential lock), EPC (electronic power control), ESP (electronic stabilization program). She almost has Extra Sensory Perception, to top off her alphabet soup.

Unlike the old tin can vintage VW Beetles, with an inch between your nose and the windshield, rusty floorboards with the asphalt visible beneath your feet, cold metal dashboard, and noisy, temperamental engine in the back, Viv is comfortable. She is smooth and silent. She has plenty of cargo space. She even has power windows. And, not just an AM radio, but FM, CD player, and MP3 player. She even has Bluetooth, so you can talk on your SmartPhone or DumbPhone hands-free. She is modern.

But, what floors me most about Viv (and car lingo like “flooring it” will insinuate itself into this story) is her absolute absence of straight lines or right angles. Everything about Viv is curved, from her pop-eyed headlights to her wide-eyed tail lights. Even her little gas-cap door is round. Her entire interior is curvaceous: speedometer/odometer, tachometer, radio knobs, and cup holders. Of course, her steering wheel is a perfect circle. Oh, and her four adorable Michelin tires, too – square tires wouldn’t do.

Viv is so embraceable: fluffy, sinuous, billowing, edgeless.

For control and responsiveness, for the need to feel a rapport with the engine, I had to have a rare manual transmission, even in this age of the automatic. The feel of Viv’s stick-shift knob is worth its own paragraph. A perfect ergonomic palm-sized ball, it beckons the driver’s hand, whispering “Shift me, shift me.”

Let’s take her for a spin, a joyride. Turn her on, start her up, and throw some gears. Glide from centered neutral into first, and she responds with her smooth strong steady purr. Pull back into second and she sharpens: she means business. Drive her up to about 3000 revolutions per minute where she insists on third gear. There is no stopping her now, as she spills into fourth, where she rocks steady for as long as you need her to.

Activate her cute little directional signal as you climb the on-ramp to the freeway. Here, she pulls out all the stops, climbing to fourth insisting on fifth. Free on the freeway, high on the highway, she goes and goes, one of your hands on her shifter knob and the other on her leatherette steering wheel. She will go for you until her tank is empty. And, she gets a thrifty 22 miles per gallon in the city, and 31 on the highway. She is sexy and cheap.

Her official paint color is “Harvest Moon Beige.” She is not quite white and not quite tan. She is alabaster, eggshell, pearl. She is poetry. Her rounded beige interior has a friendly hand-feel, might as well be kidskin leather.

Vivian descended from a line of round cars. Her antecedents, every car I have purchased, new or gently used, were all deliciously Rubenesque. In fact, Vivian is an odalisque, a reclining nude whose very name is desire. It is impossible to refer to Viv without libido.

And, even on a grumpy day, Vivian, with her built-in flower vase, elicits smiles. She is fun.


My fascination with cars goes way back. Even automotive terminology has always appealed to me: accelerator, bore, choke, crankshaft, cylinder head, distributor, dwell, dynamometer, flywheel, galvanometer, ignition, manifold, piston, rocker arms, spark plug, universal joint. How those lubricated words glide and shine, articulating, dovetailing!

Way back in 1968, I bought my very first car. She was a thirdhand 1963 Volvo 544 Sport. Volvo means “I roll” in Latin. And, she rolled, alright. She was exotic: few Americans had ever heard of Volvos – with their barely hidden reference to vulvas. Nobody knew how to pronounce Volvo – was that first vowel an oh or an uh?

My father, a Chevrolet and Oldsmobile man, hated the fact that my car was used (“somebody else’s lemon”), had a stick shift and, worst, was foreign, which made me love her even more.

She appealed to the rebel in me, the transgressor, the automotive pioneer. In her faded lobster-red glory, and her undulating curves, she turned heads.

Even when her engine wouldn’t turn over without a jumpstart – every Jersey winter morning, despite her Scandinavian beginnings – I loved her, had a thing for her. Her starter refused to start, but she started my heart pumping.

Even with my head under the hood next to the mechanic’s head, both of us scratching our heads looking at the carburetor’s butterfly valve, stuck again, I adored her. I couldn’t wait until she would start again, so I could grab the knob of her two-and-a-half foot shift lever, and sputter down the boulevard. I still can smell her cracked leather seats. I still can hear her AM radio playing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby.”

That Volvo was organic, smooth as an egg, an oversized VW Bug. And, she was my first. Even when her window slipped down into her door, even when a storm blew her windshield wiper off, even when her door handle came off in my surprised hand, even when she failed inspection over and over, she was mine.

When she finally refused to roll another inch, I sold her for a dollar and bought another rather used Volvo, a powder blue, baby blue P1200, known as the 122S. Unlike her coupe predecessor, she was a four-door sedan. The Volvo company described her “pontoon body.” (www.volvocars.com) She had some subtle curves in her rectangularity. But, she wasn’t curvy enough. She and I didn’t last very long.

My next rotund vehicle was my very first brand new car. Circa 1972, I was established enough into my new teaching career to actually have a savings account and credit for a car loan. After much research, I chose the most biomorphic, and the most exotic foreign car I could find: a Saab 96. Manufactured by airplane designers, this car was aerodynamic, solid, safe. She was a precision machine.

She was painted green, but not just ordinary green. Avocado? Chartreuse? Pistachio? She was a unique olive green; she was indeed shaped like an olive. And, in the driver’s seat, I guess I was the pimento.

Skipping ahead a few decades, I arrive back where this story began, at Vivian, my 2006 VW New Beetle, round and cute.

So, this is what I drive, and why.


Sadly, my beloved VW New Beetle, Vivian, was rear-ended on 101 North and totaled. Viv was a hero, however: the Bug’s sturdy little body probably saved the bodies of me and my two dachshunds, Henry and Ernie. Vivian was the Little Engine That Could. (I now drive a boring automatic Honda Civic, the 2016 Car of the Year. It is my first Adult car, practical, powerful enough and safe, but not at all sexy.)