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Roadster

  • By Dan Chiasson
  • Issue 10
  • Essential

For thirty years or so, since I was a kid, I have wanted an MGB. In Vermont, in the Seventies and Eighties, these cars were common. I almost bought one with the $3,000 I had saved for several years leading up to my sixteenth birthday; instead I bought a 1975 Volvo 145 wagon in a shade of burgundy, with purple leather inside. It lasted a few months; I had not saved any money to pay for repairs. When it was towed away, I went back to thinking about MGBs, though now I was driving, when I drove at all, my mother’s Plymouth Horizon. Idling in this pale blue embarrassment, I pined for the MGs and Triumphs and Alfa Romeos driven by Adonis-like UVM students from Connecticut and New York. Once, I saw a yellow MGB with snow tires and a ski rack gliding serenely down the road on a brisk December day.

Over the years I have toyed with buying an MGB, but I settled for other forms of impracticality. I had several old Saab 900s. I remember a mechanic telling me that these cars simply couldn’t be fixed. I then owned a hand-me-down BMW 535i with a dying driveshaft. When I took it to the German mechanic on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across from the cemetery where Francis Parkman and James Russell Lowell are buried, the man, looking like a surgeon who’d just lost a patient, informed me, “The car is dead.” Some years later, my wife and I bought a 1971 Fiat 124 Spider from our friend, an Episcopal priest in New Haven, Connecticut, for $2,000. His wife needed the garage space for her painting studio. The car had a wonderful, slightly lurid sprezzatura, until it died and I traded it to our kitchen contractor for improvements on our mudroom.

Last fall I bought, on Craigslist, a red-orange 1968 MGB, from a man in Framingham, Massachusetts, whose bathroom renovations had gone over budget. It has chrome bumpers, wire wheels, and beautiful leather seats with red piping. I had seatbelts put in the back for our children, though there are no seats, just a carpeted shelf designed for groceries. My mechanic assured me that the belts would keep the kids “from falling out of the car.” Parked next to the GMC Yukons and Suburbans favored in our town, it looks like a dinghy or lifeboat beside an ocean liner.

When you get something you’ve pined that long for, the pining doesn’t go away. When I am driving it, I think about driving it; I might as well not be driving it. Half the time it’s raining or winter; much of the rest of the time it’s wasting away in the mechanic’s garage, awaiting a bushing or ball joint. This is the zone of permanent longing that poets are known for, and no car can transport me out of it.

Dan Chiasson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, and is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Bicentennial (Alfred A. Knopf).

Photo © Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos