Auto woes can drive you up a wall

Sara Van Donge, center, hangs out in her fractious Fiat Spider in 1992, with friend John Rhode and babysitting charge Jenna McCauley.

Sara Van Donge, center, hangs out in her fractious Fiat Spider in 1992, with friend John Rhode and babysitting charge Jenna McCauley.


When I was in college I had the privilege of driving a 1976 Fiat Spider. Red, convertible, soft-top, leather interior.

You must be thinking, “what a spoiled brat.” Yes, it may have appeared that way — though the reality was that no one else in the family wanted to drive this temperamental beauty, so I was stuck with it. Believe me, I would have preferred the family Subaru or even the Volkswagen van, but I was the youngest driver and got the leftovers.

The Fiat probably started out as an amazing vehicle, but by the time I got to drive it in 1992 it was just plain difficult.

For one thing, nothing ever seemed to stay where it was supposed to. Every time I accelerated, the rear-view mirror would pop out, the stereo would fall out and the glove compartment slid to the floor of the passenger seat. I got pretty adept at catching all of these, though if I happened to be turning left at the time, my driver-side door would fly open.

Added to this fun, the engine would die if I ever came to a complete stop. I usually tried to avoid this by steering clear of stoplights and crawling through stop signs, but I often had to rely on passengers to jump out and push while I popped the clutch to start the car. Luckily, at the age of 16 I never had a shortage of passengers.

My older brother, Christian, didn’t fare any better when my parents loaned out cars. He was allowed to use my dad’s green Volkswagen van. Though the van was pretty solid structurally, it did have other minor issues, like a lack of heat, brakes that suddenly disappeared and a stick shift that was nearly impossible to get into reverse.

More importantly, though, some previous owner had written “Nuke the Whales” in large print on the bumper. Eventually, my dad grew tired of strangers’ anger (or their lack of humor), and he painted over the “Nuke” part of the declaration. So for a while the bumper just read, “ the Whales.”

Later, when Chris got to use the van, he was going through a very outspoken born-again-Christian phase. He put a “Jesus Saves” sticker over the crossed-out “Nuke,” so now the bumper read “Jesus Saves the Whales.” I’m not sure if this was an improvement.

I suppose it is necessary for teenagers to drive difficult cars so they don’t get too satisfied with themselves, and also to help them appreciate their better cars as adults. And maybe because most teens can’t afford to buy their own really nice car.

My boyfriend in high school rode a skateboard, which was very cool and also pretty practical — not to mention a whole lot cheaper than a car. Most of my friends rode bicycles, as did I when the Fiat was not working or someone else wanted to drive it.

Now, I drive a big, comfortable Toyota — perfect for car seats, backpacks, groceries and other items that seem to accumulate in cars. My Fiat days have made me appreciate a car that has heated seats, always starts and consistently stays in one piece.

Now maybe I should get a bumper sticker.

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native and middle school dual language teacher. She can be reached at


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