A Not Quite Requiem for Big Red

Some of us think of the automobile as a means of transportation and nothing more.   Others, like me, see the car as something else entirely—an extension of ourselves, and an expression of identity.  Growing up I was influenced by my dear old Dad—our childhood was marked by a succession of American made muscle cars from the 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible which met its sad end on the 610 freeway in the rain, to the Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 I drove out to Big Bend National Park, reaching its top speed of 160mph on a lonely stretch of interstate 10 before my new husband cried “Uncle!”  The first car I ever bought myself was a 1975 Chevy Camaro, V8 engine, bright red with white vinyl upholstery.  I was 21, and I was GOING PLACES.  I enjoyed that car for seven years until one too many spin-outs on Route 9 in the snow after I moved to Boston convinced me that it was time for something more practical.  The day I drove my brand new front wheel drive bronze Nissan Stanza out of the lot was the day I knew I had made a big mistake.  I was born for red cars with big engines.  I like people to see me coming.

Sometimes, however, we have to be practical.  By 1991 I had three children and a growing menagerie of pets.  I got my first Chevy Suburban, known then and probably now as the “National Car of Texas” on a company lease, and from then on I was hooked.  That car was indeed “like a rock.”  I drove it until the lease was up and then got another, this time the heavy duty three quarter ton with enough power to tow my house.  The menagerie had grown to include horses by then, and I wanted a car that I could both  live in and drive with three kids, 2 horses and an assortment of dogs.  There was nothing comparable to the trusty Suburban in the automotive world. A bemused trucker watched me struggle into a parking space at a truck stop and actually taught me how to park my behemoth.  By 2001 I realized that the horses were safer with professional drivers and big rigs, and I “traded down” to my current Suburban, affectionately known as “Big Red.”  That was in the spring of 2001, and I was in love—with a big red car.

I’ve had Big Red for nearly 14 years and 230,000 miles.  Shortly after the model year 2001, Chevrolet in its infinite wisdom decided to turn the historic first true sport utility vehicle into a soccer mom-grocery shopping car.  Gone was the bench middle seat, replaced by “captain’s chairs” for easier access to the third row.  Gone were the “barn doors” which opened from the middle out, one at a time, replaced by the hydraulically lifted single back window-door, which may have provided better grocery access, but was entirely impractical for those of us carrying three to four hundred pounds of dog, all wanting to exit the vehicle at the same time. Gone was the middle seat that folded entirely flat, allowing the entry of two 700 size dog crates, the only passenger vehicle to this day which had that much cargo space.  In my distress over the changes to my beloved Suburban, I spent an hour on the phone with a Chevy customer service representative from India, who duly noted my concerns, but had no idea what I was talking about.

Last week I covered a practice in El Centro, about 140 miles east of my home in Rancho Santa Fe.  I felt Big Red shudder and heave going over the Laguna Mountains.  For the first time ever, cars were passing me to the left as I struggled to maintain 55 mph. My good friends at Quality Chevrolet have been patching the air conditioning compressor together for years, but this was something entirely new.  Fearing the worst, I took the car back to the dealer today, with clear “Do Not Resuscitate” orders.  All day I waited, and finally around 4 pm I got a call from service.  Bill said, “Ma’am, I think your engine and transmission are okay.  We found a faulty oxygen sensor. We’ll replace it tomorrow.  You’ll be good to go.”

Good to go to New Mexico?  I sure hope so.  I don’t want a new car.  I love Big Red.  I am loyal and I persevere. The Chevy Suburban no longer comes in red.  My family thinks I’m nuts.


  1. You are meant for a big red vehicle. A little insanity in measured doses is good for all of us. Go Big Red!

    1. This reminded me of the day you and Joy Windle picked me up for the Deerhound Specialty last summer. Screeching “Big Red”, I knew we were in for a good time. S/he is part of the family. A big part of the adventure. So happy you all made it to your new home.

  2. Amazing that you still have that car!!
    I’ve picked you up & dropped you off at Quality Chevrolet a few times in years past.

    My daughter’s first car was a used red Firebird convertable. I’m still hooked on my ’98 Mustang GT convertable that I’ve had since Dec 2000. I’ll be driving it to Sedona tomorrow; top down & Sirius XM radio playing some classic rock & blues music. You helped me choose my personal California license plate back then. 🙂 Ah, the memories!

    May Big Red last as long as you want her to and may you want her for as long as she lasts. Arrive safely.

  3. I too, am a red car girl. These days, as a real estate agent, I drive a red Prius, and get 50 MPG. But I miss my small red SUV.

  4. I clearly remember the last time your dealer said Big Red was “good to go”………..and it then died in a traffic lane on the freeway in downtown Los Angeles with me and Betty and a deerhound in 98 degree heat and the windows wouldn’t open.

    Better luck on your drive to New Mexico!

    If you have too many red cars I’ll take your red Corvette.


  5. I am facing tough decisions about my 1999 Audi A6 Avant, affectionately known now as my “20th Century car”. Although it has only 170,000 miles on it, it has several expensive needs coming up (timing belt, catalytic converter, front brakes, front struts) and, worse yet, it is developing rust in areas that an aluminum body car never should (how can I drive an Audi with rust???).

    It’s sorta like the decision a pet owner of an elderly animal has to deal with (this is apropos since I also have a 15 year old cat – the same age as the Audi – who isn’t doing so hot). It (the car or the cat) is not bad enough to outright kill it but it is bad enough that I have considered euthanasia as a option.


    Did I mention that this was my father’s last car? He bought it when he was 91 and drove it out from New Jersey to Michigan. That factors into the decision as well. Sigh.

    1. Margaret, some things are worth being sentimental about. Fix the car and keep it. But you know I would say that. M

      1. Yeah….except for the rust areas – and the estimate for that is between $2000 and $3000.

        But you’re right. I HATE the idea of giving up the comfort of the Audi. It drives like a dream and there is nothing comparable out there right now, even for massive amounts of money.

        Ideally I would like a comfy, sexy, sporty-ish car that also gets good mileage……… Is that asking too much> Could be.

        Better the devil I know?

  6. I was not born for red cars – too much attention.
    My girlfriend once won a silk blouse from her spouse who said my husband couldn’t have bought a 4-speed because I wouldn’t be able to drive it. Wrong.

    When the “married” Malibu wagon was being parted out, I got a Toyota Celica that I knew could climb the Grapevine.

    In CA, we had a Glas with only two gears that worked. I drove it.

    Then finally, the middle-age-crisis RX7. About 45 attempted car thefts. Moved to a better neighborhood – successful car theft. I waded thru post-quake flooded dealer lots and got the tough sedan that no one ever even tried to steal.

    1. Margaret, my midlife crisis car was a 2003 red Corvette. Corvette and I were born the same year, so it’s the 50th anniversary edition. I am much less sentimental about the Corvette–already tried to sell it once during the recession to finance my trip to Africa–didn’t sell. About to try again! Not much use for a Corvette on the dirt roads of NM. M

  7. So surprised to hear that you STILL have “Big Red”. That is incredible! I remember how big it seemed when you had to squeeze past the cement entry/exit posts at the hospital. With your ponytail swinging side-to-side looking at the mere inches between the cement and red paint, you eased out of that parking structure every day and took to the road. I still don’t know how you maneuvered that big machine out of there. Happy to hear that Big Red is well and going to NM with you!

  8. I found your site when I was going through treatment for breast cancer, always looked forward to your posts. I’ve really enjoyed your writing, but since your last post was the beginning of October, I’m hoping all is well with you. Maybe (and most likely) moving has consumed every moment of your time. I look forward to your return. And thank you for sharing your life (especially the stories about your pets) and thoughts so openly.

    1. Barbara, you are right, this move–after 17 years in one home–has been a much bigger task than I ever imagined. Thank you for your kind words, and yes, I will be back soon! M

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