The tail-end of the last century. I was living in Brasilia. In spite of the stifling bureaucratic nature of the city, officious, uninspired architecture and desolate, nose-bleeding, dry weather, I was very happy. Because of a car.
Having recently moved to Brazil’s capital, my wife at the time realized she had to overcome her fears and start driving again. A kind of Brazilian LA, Brasilia is known as the city with no corners and a car is of the essence there. After looking around we found the answer much closer to home: My brother’s 8 year-old Ford Escort. This was not just an old Ford, it was an XR3! I was 16 when my Dad bought it. It was simply the coolest car in Brazil. Now, it was mine.
It was a deep, rich red that Brazilians call Bordeaux, I still saw it with teenage eyes. I was in love again. Unlike almost all of his other cars, my brother had managed not to destroy it completely. The shell was perfect and mechanically it was fine. Except for that weird noise in the gearbox. Turns out my brother had been beach-bugging the poor Escort.
Inside and out the car was gorgeous. Large, comfortable seats, not too hard or soft with some aggressive side bolstering. A gorgeous small steering wheel with perforated leather at the points where you grabbed it. All kinds of gauges, idiot lights in profusion. Some called it the Christmas tree car for the propensity of those lights to light up without rhyme or reason.
After testing it out for a while and appraising it healthy, when vacation came, I decided to travel in the Escort in spite of my wife’s protestations. We had 30 days ahead of us and many miles.
We started off as the sun came down. The first half of that stretch is mostly straights and flat. I took advantage of the moonroof to watch the sky, the stars and that beautiful full moon. I also took advantage of my wife dozing off. I pushed the car. Kept it at 150km/h (94mph), sometimes more, other times less. Lost in my bliss, I didn’t see the Federal Highway Police Station until it was too late. I was still going at 140km/h (87mph) when I blew by. Sure enough, their lights were spinning, there was an officer on the side of the road. I could see the radar gun tripod. I go in reverse back to the station and the cop is grinning and asks me if I knew how fast I was going.
I said, “No officer.” He comes back, “you were going almost 140km/h”. I have no answer for that. I apologize. My wife, wakened by my hard braking is looking at me and asking me what’s going on with her blue gaze. I see the blue almost disappear as she hears the cop inviting me into the station for a “cafezinho”. No sir, I’m fine, let me sign the ticket and we’ll be on our away. He insists that I accept the coffee. I know this game. He’s not being polite, but rather asking for a kickback. The game goes on for a little more and I win. He lets me sign the ticket and my wife tries to stay awake and keep an eye on me. The monotony of the road gets the best of her. I’m free to explore the car’s limits yet again.
The nearer we get to our erstwhile home, the trickier the road. There are mountains and curves. The meaty tires and almost 90 horses permit lots of fun. I’m relishing it.
After a couple of days in Belo Horizonte, we head out to the Escarpas do Lago Resort on man-made Furnas Lake. Slightly under 300 km (186 mi.) away, we get there on state road MG-050. 2 lanes, sometimes an extra passing lane. Much narrower, much more traffic, trucks and little escape room. No incident at all.
After a week, we get back on the same road. To Divinopolis now, to see her folks. 170 km that should give us no trouble. But this time there was. Maybe the high speeds and long distances were getting to the car. All I know is that it starts to overheat. I notice the needle of the temp gauge reaching ever so slowly for the red zone. Despite the cold day (we are in the middle of winter), I turn on the AC. It helps, but not much. I soon pull into a gas station and buy several 1L water bottles. I give it to the my panting XR3. The temp falls. Then it rises again. Stop on the side of the road and wait a while. Pop the hood, pour some more water. Drive off again. After a while, the process starts again. Once, twice, we stop at least 4 or 5 times. Somehow, the car manages to make it.
The next day, we drop off the car at the mechanic. After a couple of days, he calls back and says he’s fixed the problem. Seems to have been a small leak under the car. Another couple of days and it’s time for the short trek to Belo Horizonte, my hometown. A city of 2 million, cars move slowly, up and down hills you wouldn’t believe.
After about a week, the last leg of our trip. Tiradentes. We get there using wider federal and narrower state roads. A historical hamlet, this city has managed to keep its charming colonial time architecture largely intact. It is home to fine hotels, inns and B&Bs, and wonderful restaurants that, mostly, specialize in the local hearty cuisine known as comida mineira. Lots of pork, beans, sausages. This leg adds another 222 km (138 mi.) to the Escort. No incident. Except for the speed bump.
As we approach the tiny town, my wife screams, calling attention to the mighty speed bump ahead. I brake hard. Out of the corner of my eye I see my wife hurtling forward. She smacks her head against the windshield, though the seat belt minimizes the damage. Her seat had come off its tracks. Tears wet her lovely baby blues.
On the trip back to Belo Horizonte, for a day or 2, before the long road back to Brasilia, she says she doesn’t want the car anymore. It’s old, she says, it’s not safe. I temporize, honey, we’ll just fix the seat and get back to Brasilia, the car can handle it. Her scowl, punctuated now by some ice in her blue gaze and seeing how she was struggling to keep her seat in place make me give up. Now, it’s my time to lose. In Belo Horizonte, I take the car on its last trip with me. The oh so short drive to a friend’s shop where it would be sold on consignment.
We took the bus back to Brasilia. During the long, 12 hour trip, I had ample time to review our decision. I knew it was the right thing to do at the time, but even then I had a little voice in my head telling me to hold onto the car. Sometimes, I can still hear that voice.