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Trading in cars a formerly foreign concept to a junk car collector

A few years back, I did something for the first time in my life: I traded in a car.

No, this wasn't the first time I had purchased a car. Heck, I probably would have a hard time listing all the cars I bought. I had just never left one with enough residual value to offer to a car lot as a trade. Generally, they like to have those things at least mostly operational in order to take them in.

My first car was a 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix. It was my mother's car, and I'd like to say I don't really know how it "became" my car, but that's not true. I know the exact moment it was more mine than hers, though no money exchanged hands at the time.

I had been borrowing Mom's car to run errands, go on dates, etc. for some time, and had a little bit of cash because of a disc jockey business I was in. As any respectable DJ will tell you, you can't be driving around town with a factory-direct AM/FM car stereo. It reflects badly on you as a businessman. So I decided to rip that old heap out of the dash and put in a very expensive Alpine CD player. At the time, CDs were brand new, of course.

Mom actually kind of liked the CD player. She was always pretty hip to good music, and the sound quality was much better. But I noticed a problem: all of the speakers sounded muddy, and I knew I'd need to replace all of them eventually. I started small, with the back speakers. Then came the extra amplifiers and the subwoofer. Then the extra accessories to beef up the alternator so the headlights wouldn't dim every time the music hit a low note. But I kept assuring Mom I could take out all of this equipment and put the old stuff back in if she wanted to trade in the car.

That all changed the day I decided to cut huge holes in the doors to install custom tweeters, mid-range speakers and crossover systems. The car was now a mere wrapper for the expensive stereo. On this day, Mom and I both pretty much knew this was becoming my car.

That experience ended when all of that expensive stereo equipment was stolen overnight as I was in St. Paul for college. Who knew it was so easy to break a small pane of window glass to get in and extract $5,000 in stereo equipment? A follow-up car thief disabled the steering wheel and shorted out the electrical system in an attempt to steal the car, and the Grand Prix was done.

I was putting myself through college, so I needed a vehicle to go to my jobs, but I knew I couldn't afford anything nice. So from then on, I purchased a series of cars from a junkyard. Some were of fine German engineering, though I was sure those engineers were long dead from how old the cars were. Others were of more dubious design, from Frenchmen and Italians who probably had better things to worry about -- like vacations or wine -- than building my car in a way that would last.

I'd stroll up to the junkyard to the owner I knew and smile.

"What else ya got?" I'd joke.

He knew then I had blown up the last one, and I'd be looking for the next hunk of junk to drive off the lot for a total price resembling what most people pay for a single month's car payment.

There was The Grey Ghost, The Silver Bullet and Black Death. Those old cars lasted me a few months to a few years each, but they all ended up throwing a rod, locking up their transmissions or would meet some other car homicide, all with me behind the wheel. The car would die, I'd walk away, show up the next day at the junkyard, and do it all over again.

"What else ya got?"

I bought cars from friends, bartered cars, bought one pickup during a poker game, and generally would take anything that ran and had a working cigarette lighter (I waived that requirement on a few.)

So it was a weird feeling the first time I actually traded in a car. I kept thinking, "Wow, you really want this?" as the salesperson looked it over. Now that I'm earning more money than I'm burning, I've tried to keep at least a respectable car. But there was something very liberating about the idea of walking away from a car when trouble arrived.

And it wasn't a tearful, "Rest in peace, old friend."

It was more like, "Serves you right, you hunk of junk."

Ah, to be young and broke again.