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Kulp on Cars: A look back on the Oldsmobile Alero

by Sam Kulp

“Ooh, you’re into cars? What do you drive?”

A question inevitably asked to auto enthusiasts in one form or another. Some have a pretty good answer.

At my high school the answer was almost always “a Subaru” or “a Jeep.” I knew only a couple people who were lucky enough to say they owned a sports car, and most of them crashed by the time my senior year came around.

So what about the guy who wrote about cars all the time? Surely something like a 5.0 Mustang? Nope. Maybe a used GTI? My dad isn’t THAT nice to me. Running out of ideas?

I’ve driven many mundane automobiles, but if we were to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start), then you’d normally find me clunking around in this beauty.

My first car was Oldsmobile Alero GLS. It had a 3.4 liter v6 that sent 170 horsepower and 200 lb/ft of torque to the front wheels. Those were the stats when it was new. Way back in 2002.

Since then it’s racked up well over 290,000 miles. Since then, a couple horses have probably escaped the stable; I’d probably be lucky if she was giving me 150 or 140 horsepower by the time I inherited her.

“GLS” means it is one trim level below the top of the line GLX, the major difference being that the GLX had wood in the dash.

Super posh, I know.

Auto enthusiasts who talk about their cars having “character” or “personality” use those terms as euphemisms for “It has loads of problems.” It makes sense, some major differences between man and machine are the quirks we possess. We’re imperfect, so what?

My Olds definitely had “character.” Our love-hate relationship had some lively times. I learned some very important lessons through this car.

I had my first breakdown in this car. On my way home, I had a belt snap on me and lost power steering. If anyone has ever driven a car without power steering, they know that driving one is a very enticing alternative to using barbells at the gym. I manhandled the car back to my driveway before it promptly sputtered and died.

Ever since then, the Alero was always a bit delusional. On the most brisk winter evenings, my jam session to The Police would be interrupted by the oil-temp warning light blinking on and off.

After checking the temperature under the hood, and nearly freezing my hand to the block, I decided to name the car Roxanne. Because Sting was right: did she really have to put on the red light? All this engine computer nonsense led to a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario where I was never sure whether there was an actual problem. I guess 14 years and 300,000 miles will do that to a car.

Despite being insane in the membrane, Roxanne’s fundamental pieces all worked great. Well, great is being generous; the suspension felt like a box spring mattress and the brakes were warped like Pringles.

But the Oldsmobile taught me for the first time that driving is much more than a chore. I found joy in just driving for the sake of driving. All the extra stress and drama in life faded in the rearview mirror, and in front of me I was headed for nowhere in particular, with all the time in the world to get there.

Roxanne still sits at my dad’s house in Kutztown. Long distance relationships are tough, and I felt bad, but I couldn’t risk something happening to her if she broke down five hours away from home. It was for the best, and it’s not like she’s going anywhere.

In the hands of a capable, cheap Dutchman like my dad, there’s no way that car will be put out of commission. She’s just too cool for the crusher.

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