Falling Out Of Panther Love

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
falling out of panther love

On the twenty-fourth day after they pulled my Town Car from the ditch and dropped it off at a distant rural junkyard, the insurance adjuster finally made his way across the snow-covered gravel to take a look. My people had beaten the trillion-dollar corporation there by nineteen days, mostly to empty the bent Lincoln out and to take photos to support a potential difference of opinion regarding its suitability for repair, so I knew what the adjuster would see.

Beyond the missing B-pillar, casualty of the so-called “Jaws Of Life”, the bench seat was buckled and folded up, twisted with a violence and speed capable of fracturing nine of my favorite bones and adding my spleen to the list of the dearly departed. The folding center seat was bent beyond operation. The bones of the dashboard had exploded from behind it, shoving the aftermarket Pioneer nav system out like a rudely extended tongue. The whole front cabin had a funhouse character to it, not a single line left unbent or unbroken, wavy and warped as if viewed in a particularly devious mirror. The cream-color seats alternately speckled and splashed with browned blood.

“It’s a banana,” was the adjuster’s dilatory report to me, delivered over the phone. “Dead and gone, no question.”

After twenty-seven days at the bottom of a well, I’ve second-guessed all of it. Should I have let the Lincoln immediately step off the road into the ditch? A family tried that three nights after my accident, on the same stretch of road, and they were all killed. Maybe not. Could I have been more alert, better trained, more prepared, better-rested? Had I been able to straighten the car better, we could have taken the hit in the front bumper instead of the passenger door. But would the combined impact have broken my son’s neck? Would I have woken from the baby-powder nightmare sleep of the airbag to the face to find my passenger, and myself, uninjured and in perfect condition to make plans for John’s burial?

The past is immutable but that doesn’t mean you cannot torture yourself with it. It’s not that I was injured; I’ve been hurt far worse in the past and the next time I back a race car in to the wall I’ll probably be hurt worse again. But racing incidents happen without victims. Everyone involved is part of the same suspension of sanity.

My favorite game that I like to play is called “Swap The Car.” What if the crash had happened in my Audi S5? One of the Phaetons? The D2 A8? The D1 S8? The CL55 AMG? The STS AWD? Have I driven any car in the past ten years on a consistent basis that would have been less competent when it was time to bend metal? I can’t think of one. I have to go back to my Land Rovers to come up with less crash-friendly vehicles.

Five years ago, I wrote that

If training doesn’t save lives, what does? Drive less, drive slower, drive sober, take the bus, ride the train. But if you must drive, don’t kid yourself that being a racer, autocrosser, or self-proclaimed “good driver” will save you. Had I been unlucky that sunny day in Florida, I had the comfort of knowing that I, and my family, would have met that impact in a 5200-pound, multiple-airbag, comprehensively crash-engineered premium automobile—precisely the type of car derided by others as a “rolling padded cell.”

When your family’s life in on the line, it won’t be the reflexes of the moment that decide who lives and dies. Instead, it will be that dimly remembered moment of purchase, months or years previous.

My most recent dimly remembered moment of purchase put me behind the wheel of a Town Car. I’ve always considered them to be safe vehicles, and large enough to make the kinetic arguments in their favor during most situations. But in this particular collision, the car more or less dissolved. Melted, twisted, bent. How else can you describe a vehicle which manages to significantly injure the person on the far side of the car from the accident? It crumpled around us, as if it had no side impact strength at all, as if it were a ’57 Chevrolet.

I’m used to seeing race-prepared cars bounce and spin in situations like this. The Lincoln simply folded, like the banana to which it was likened by the adjuster, around the front bumper of the incoming Sonata. I can still remember the interior fun-housing right after my involuntarily blink-and-cringe at the moment of impact. At least I had the sense to get my hands off the steering wheel. It, too, moved and shifted, cracking the dashboard in its eagerness to escape its normal position. That’s why I’m typing this and not dictating it.

After twenty-seven days at the bottom of the well, and after listening to all sorts of ridiculous suggestions from friends about my next car, (yeah, I really don’t want to drive my son around in a SVO-converted 240D, or a used STi, or a high-mileage Grand Vitara) I’ve come to believe even more strongly in the idea that there is the driving you want to do and the driving you need to do. The former takes place under conditions of your choice with your awareness and fitness at its peak and everything just so. The latter happens when the circumstances of your life, from your job to your health needs, dictate.

In a way, my choice of the Town Car was a confusion of the two. I wanted another Panther to remind me of the ones my father and I had driven back in my youth. I wanted to make a few statements about the illusory nature of prestige and branding. I wanted something that could fit in with the black cars in New York or Chicago. But I should have been shopping for the car I needed, not the one I wanted. Particularly with a pair of Porsches in the garage already.

I’ve negotiated the value and the disposal of the Lincoln. It’s bound for Murilee’s Crusher. I won’t miss it. Not after what happened. I’ll get something else. What, I don’t know yet. But no more illusions, no more fantasies. No more Panthers.

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2 of 229 comments
  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on Feb 04, 2014

    "“… folks who choose to drive 20 yr old cars but can afford something newer + safer and just rationalize the old cars should definitely reconsider. Sh*t happens” Well, I got to die of something. If I get killed driving in one of my old cars, what really happens? My sister is sad for a while, TTAC loses its greatest commenter, and some jerkoff has to learn my job without any help. I can understand people with families having different feelings though." We seem to be wired not to take seriously such advice until after a mishap. I took some pride in maintaining a 22-year old car, until I fell asleep driving it while alone at 70mph. No one else was involved and I was extremely lucky to get away with just some bruising. But I swore off old cars. It had no airbags and slightly worn rear suspension bushings that may have contributed to fishtailing. Fishtailing that was not damped out because the car had no stability control. Even prior to the accident we'd stopped carrying our daughter's friends in it and used our more modern vehicle for giving rides. Who suggested Jack get a Grand Vitara? Why?

  • Brandloyalty Brandloyalty on Feb 04, 2014

    Today's diagonal shoulder belts are a compromise between just a lap belt and a proper harness. The diagonal belts were mandated because it was obvious lap belts were inadequate but it was assumed the public would refuse to wear racing-style belts. Certainly in my accident (which eventually resolved as side-swiping a concrete lane divider) the belt did nothing to protect me. I wonder if it's time to at least have racing-style belts available on all cars as optional equipment. Or, the between-front-passenger airbag that's starting to show up.

  • David S. For a single quarter, only ninth best-selling (estimated?) of 2022. Maybe ICE vehicles would sell at a similar rate if the government paid people to buy them too?!
  • Dukeisduke I don't like how they've changed their nameplates and font from the Star Trek-ish LEXUS, to L E X U S, kinda like VW's lettering on the back of the T A O S, or those stick-on letters you can buy at the parts store that people use to their own names on the back of their cars.
  • Dukeisduke So, the screen goes blank for two-tenths of a second, every once in a while - what could go wrong?
  • Dukeisduke "Hello, IT. Have you tried turning it off and on again?"(Roy in The IT Crowd)
  • Dukeisduke Just Say No To Bugs!