CAR CRAZY

Oh, car of mine...


Howard B. Rothman and his 122 S Volvo sedan in 1996.

Photo courtesy of Howard Rothman
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 3:03 p.m.

In 1965 Howard B. Rothman walked into a Volvo dealership in California and plunked down $2,800 for a new, dark blue Volvo, a 122 S sedan. It was infatuation, if not love at first sight, that led him to the car, which sported a round, classic look even at the cusp of long and sleek.

In 1969, Rothman moved to Gainesville, making the cross-country trek with Betsy, which is what he called his Volvo. The years passed but the car didn't. Betsy was true and steady.

“I drove it everywhere, all over the place and people started to know the car,” says Rothman, 75, a professor emeritus in the University of Florida's School of Communications Sciences and Disorders.

“My brother came to visit me from California one time and would use my car to get around. He came back one day and said 'this is such a friendly town, everyone waves at me.'”

His daughter also visited, borrowed the car and spent a late evening at the Silver-Q Billiards and Sports Bar.

“I heard about that, too,” Rothman says. “People said, 'hey, what were you doing at the Silver-Q at 2 a.m.?”

Yes, he loved Betsy. “It was good to me and I was good to it,” he says.

Rothman finally gave up the car in 2005, when operating the clutch and cranking the manual windows became too much for his aging legs and arms.

“I sold it in 2005 for $300 less than I originally paid for it,” Rothman says, not sadly but amused. He had come to terms with the end of his four decades with Betsy. He moved on to a Honda Accord, then a Toyota Avalon.

He now vows fidelity to the latter for the rest of his life.

“It gets me there,” Rothman says. “It's the last car I will ever own.”

That sounds a lot like 'til death do us part.'

In Valentine season the idea of love shouldn't be limited to fondness of the same species. That vehicle in the driveway or garage, for example. Who hasn't at one point developed a fondness for their ride, as did Rothman? We wash, we wax, we heat and cool them and make sure they are always feeling right.

There are the pop tunes that fete cars. The obvious are the Beach Boys' “Little Deuce Coup” or Gary Numan's “Cars.” There are better, though. Queen did “I'm in Love with My Car,” a guitar-laden tribute, and The Dead Milkmen came through with their career epoch, the sporty “Bitchin' Camaro.”

While those tunes are admittedly a bit dusty, there's even more to love today, among them the recent developments in terms of gas consumption, mileage requirements that mandate smaller engines and younger people opting out of the auto rat race and putting off getting driver's licenses.

We are even on the brink of self-driving cars, the ultimate insult to the rugged individuality of driving as a means of controlling our destination and our destiny. Who knows where that autonomous auto will stop?

So, in this month of avowed devotion to … something or other, let's hope the affection for the car is not over.

It's been a long affair — more than a century — moving from a time when mostly wealthy people had access to a vehicle to the eventual mainstreaming, when Henry Ford realized that he could even put the guys assembling the vehicles behind the wheel in a way that made business sense for both consumer and producer.

At first it was a rather one-sided love affair. We loved cars, raced to buy them and drive them, while they killed us in rather large numbers. In 1921, the death rate was 24 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. By 2012, the rate was a little over 1 per 100 million miles.

Over the years, we got safer and more independent. Superhighways made loving our cars easy. Smooth sailing, with the only bumps in the road a repair or two.

In October 1961, Groucho Marx hosted an episode of the DuPont Series of the Week called “Merrily We Roll Along,” devoted to the history of the automobile.

In the show, Marx announced that the once-maligned automobile was now something we can't live without, and he declared “America's love affair with the automobile.”

A phrase, if not a sentiment, was born. Today, maybe we're in that seven-year itch phase, which experts claim can strike at any time. By the end of 2014, likely by next Valentine's Day, we'll be again on the road to love with our own version of Betsy.

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