x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The Air Bag: Classic education in loving a car

An emotional purchase of a 25-year-old Mercedes 280SL was a very valuable lesson.

W hen buying a used car, most people seek the practical: one that comes examined by a mechanic, that starts up without fail and that gets them from Point A to Point B without breaking down.

This column is not written by one of those people. If you are one, insert eye-rolling here. Or read on and find out why you might be missing out.

A year ago, I bought the convertible of my dreams, a beautiful, 25-year-old Mercedes 280SL, the same era and colour as my stepfather's. I am not a mechanic. It was an emotional purchase.

I bargained the owner down to Dh30,000 without a mechanic's inspection - there wasn't the time, a car like this isn't for sale every day, and what did it matter? I was a woman in love. In love enough to make it work.

I know old cars aren't long for this world, particularly this part. A law banning cars more than 20 years old looms on the shelf, and you can only get third-party insurance. For the first six months, I had so many mechanical failures, it became a joke among my "I told you so" friends. After investing a further Dh20,000 to fix it, I considered walking away.

Then I remembered a wise Emirati woman's words: "If you have decided to take the leap, never look back. Enjoy it to the ultimate, along with its consequences, and never say, 'what if?'."

So there's a bigger lesson my car taught me, other than the ins and outs of fuel injection. I stuck with it, and for the last six months, it has rewarded me with easy cruising. Here are a few more things you could learn if you buy a car like mine:

1. There is a pitter-patter pride in being unique. Life's too short to drive a silver Yaris, or a white Land Cruiser, for that matter. You'll never have to look far in a mall car park; and when you return to it, your heart will flutter with recognition. I've seen only one car like mine on the road in Abu Dhabi and exchanged a head nod with the driver, as if we're part of the same crazy club.

2. People will come out of their shells if you give them a reason, especially in Car Country. Strangers of all backgrounds and ages stop to talk or just call out "nice car". Some used to own the same model and want to share their memories. Others are just curious: once a man changing my oil shyly asked if he could take a photo of it with his mobile phone.

3. This country is a helpful place. When my car lost power in the middle of the road one hot Friday during Ramadan, I got out in defeat and stood under a palm tree, waiting for the mechanic, my new best friend, to arrive. Almost every man who passed stopped to offer assistance, while one insisted on driving somewhere to get a battery.

4. It's amazing what you discover when you listen. If you own a new car, do you ever pay close attention to how it sounds? I listen to mine with Zen-like intent: sometimes it shudders, sometimes it chortles, sometimes it purrs. I even diagnosed a steering problem by hearing a tiny pop when I turned the wheel.

5. You can conquer your fears. There's nothing like the adrenaline jolt that comes from losing acceleration on Sheikh Zayed Road with your top down and a parade of construction trucks trailing you. Even if your foot is trembling on the pedal, you've got to keep calm and carry on.

6. Love is deeper when it's unconditional. Parents tell me this all the time, and now I understand it better. My old car drives me mad sometimes, but for all these reasons, I would never trade it in for a newer model. I pity the man who said he thinks it's just a fashion accessory to me. Clearly he doesn't know what we've been through together. Or how deep my love runs.