You may have noticed this post about our new car. What some of you may not know is that we got it because the Sentra is gone.

[Click on any photo for larger]

So, back in February I was coming home from work and a nice older woman — who, afterwards, said she "heard [my] horn, but didn't see [me]," — ran into me with her Mercedes SUV. Her fault, her insurance company agreed, and the damage to the driver-side front quarter panel around the wheel where she hit me cost more to fix than my car was worth. The Hartford Insurance Company of the Midwest decided to total my 1991, 2-door, 5-speed manual transmission, Sentra XE for just under two thousand bucks.

As my co-worker Susan noted, I am weird: I have had one car my entire adult life so far. Where most people get a new car every few years, I have driven the same car for 20 years.


When I graduated from college in 1991, my parents bought me this car. Dad and I went on lots of test drives, of quite a few different makes and models. I remember driving Suzukis, Toyotas, but ever since Dad got a Datsun our family had driven Nissans. The doors on the Sentra sounded solid, not tinny, when closed. I liked the stick shift and the blue color. It came with cruise control and — unlike the Datsun (which I had driven in college) — air conditioning and a tape deck! Also, unlike the Datsun, it had no sunroof, no tachometer, and no folding back seats. Well, don't look a gift car in the mouth.


The first road trip I took with the Sentra was with Bram to Massachusetts, to visit Andy. We went to see Lollapalooza (its first year!) at Great Woods. Minor panic in the parking lot when we couldn't get the trunk to close: slam hard, bounced back without latching; close gently, wouldn't latch. My car trunk lid was Goldilocks.

I put a fair amount of miles on it, living in Phoenix, MD; working in Baltimore and then later Owings Mills, MD; weekends with Bram in Arlington, VA. The weekend trip was about 75 miles each way. Friday nights on the way to Arlington, depending on traffic it could take anywhere from an hour and a half to more than three hours. One trip down, in a snowstorm, was the most harrowing I ever had: at one point I was sure I was going to be rear-ended into the stopped traffic in front of me. On Sunday nights, coming home, I had it down to 1 hour, 10 minutes. I remember listening to a lot of Nine Inch Nails.

Once I'd moved down to Virginia, however, I took the Metro to work. For almost 10 years, it was primarily used for weekend errands. There was the one Saturday morning when Bram and I headed out to get breakfast, and the car wouldn't move — the front, passenger-side wheel had been stolen. I had to tell the cops that it could have been taken anytime during the previous week.

There were other mishaps. Like the time I rear-ended a guy (driving his boss' car) on Wisconsin Avenue, as I was heading back to Georgetown from a job interview in Bethesda. In stop-and-go traffic, I was distracted, looking some old neon signage and didn't stop in time. Or the dent in the front bumper I got from hitting the corner of a brick building (tried to make that turn, didn't quite make it). The scraped-up back bumper from the office-supply-store parking lot, where I learned: it was still my fault, because I was backing out of a parking space. Even though the other guy was going way too fast.

After about 10 years, the paint started peeling. Teh intarwebs told me that 1991 was a bad year for Nissan clear-coat: it broke down in UV light. You know, sunlight. My never-garaged car was starting to rust. So I bought some masking tape, a small roller, and a couple cans of light blue Rustoleum paint. Yes, I painted my car. The roller gave it a kind of funky, hammered-metal look. After a few years in the New Mexico sun, it had started to peel again.


When we moved to New Mexico, I wasn't sure my car could make the 2000-plus miles from Arlington to Santa Fe. So we drove Bram's VW Golf and had the Sentra shipped out. We picked it up in Albuquerque and I drove it back to Santa Fe. Except for one surreptitious trip to Albuquerque to pick up a surprise Christmas gift, and one trip to Ojo Caliente, that car never left Santa Fe. I just didn't feel safe in it at highway speeds anymore.

That doesn't mean it wasn't reliable. It always started and did plenty of schlepping around town. Got me to work every day, ran errands, carried deliveries of large-scale graphics from vendors to museums for my job. Having a 2-door sedan without rear folding seats made it fun to get other things in there as well. Like the time I bought eight bales of straw to make sides for our compost pile. The guys at the Feed Bin took one look at the Sentra and busted out laughing. At my direction, they crammed three bales in the trunk (left open), two in the back seat, and one in the front passenger seat. I had to go back for the other two (trunk). The inside of the car was at least three inches deep in straw by the time I got everything unloaded.

After the accident, I had to go to an auto body shop to get an estimate for the insurance company. The guy there took photos using different colored, arrow-shaped, post-its to differentiate the accident damage from "existing damage." It was a little embarrassing. He also kept asking me things in disbelief like: "There's no keyless entry?" and "No airbags, huh?" and "It only has two doors?" Dude, it's a 20-year-old car! On entering my info into the computer, his co-worker said "It keeps coming up as 'classic'."


So, the insurance company totaled it. I was instructed to leave the keys in the glove box or under the floor mat. I pulled the plates, moved all the maps, the jumper cables, and my Official Nissan Equipment floor mats to the Vibe. Left the folder with all the repair records in the glove box with the keys. The salvage company came and got it while I was at work. When I came home, it was gone. Here's the last time I saw my car:

My plan was to drive it into the ground. My pipe dream (since moving to New Mexico, the land of 300-plus-days-a-year-of-sun) was to convert my Sentra into an electric car with solar panels on top and/or take it up to EspaƱola and have all the needed bodywork done and get a nice pearly, low-rider paint job.

Thank you Mom and Dad, I think I got your money's worth out of it.


andy said...

Two comments:

the hybrid Fisker Karma come with solar panels on the roof. If you leave it out in good sun for a week, it will go 4-5 miles. point being is solar car isnt quite there yet.

no reason next car cant go 300k. 150k is minimum expected, but with care should go higher. of corse, its sorta of like my plan to live to 120; its fine as long as a bus doesnt run me over. same applies to a car.

So keep it under 5k a year and you should get 60 years out of it. Getting parts might be a bear though.

andy said...

what was the original cost anyways?

Bram said...

>Getting parts might be a bear though.

Same for the plan for living to 120.

monica said...

re solar car only going 4-5 miles:
My office is 2.8 miles from the house... what's the problem there?

re parts:
Even though it's a Pontiac, it has a Toyota engine... oh wait... stupid earthquake.

re original cost:
I think around $9000? Maybe my Dad will weigh in. Much of the payout had to do with A) the Sentra's low mileage (about 120K), and B) the salvage value (presumably for the steel and whatnot). If I'd decided to keep it and get it fixed, I would have gotten about $800.

Raphael said...

You win; the jeep was with me for 14 years, 8 months, adn 10 days.

Raphael said...

...And becasue it is always about ME, I can see where I could have been included in one or two spots of that otherwise exceptionally moving narrative.

andy said...


thats per week. you might make it round trip once. This might be problematic. but if you only have to go to work once a week, I would like to forward my resume. as it is a "government" job, while you only have to "Work" once a week, I assume attendance is the customary five and mandatory and require five trips a week. plug in better option. for now. let moore's law do it thing and 5-10 years you will be good.

which brings me to bram:

by then, they will grow extra parts in pigs. see Moore's law.

monica said...

Didn't we just Metro everywhere? Like to and from, oh, I dunno, the Insect Club? ...Why are you walking like Shaggy?

I said the solar car was a pipe dream! Also: pigs growing extra parts? You mean like wings?

Gary said...

truly a classic indeed! it was a good car, faithful and true...

i think your $9K estimate is good...i went back in the archives, but the letters on the wax tablet are little blurred...there is some notation...something about "hockey dude" and "deep breathing."

a long, strange trip...


monica said...

Ah, I do remember Hockey Dude! I wrote about him and his "deep breathing" in early drafts. But he didn't make it into the final post.

Remember when the other sales chick was pushing the extra clear-coat and all the other add-ons? Maybe some of that Patented DiamondKote 2000X™ (now with Hypno-Heliostatic Stasis!) would'a helped with the paint peeling!