Rebecca’s Acura after the crash

RIP My Acura TL 3

Driving, to me, always signified a form of escape, a way to harness otherwise inaccessible power.

By Rebecca Loftin


Two months ago, I crashed my car. Or rather, a Nissan cargo van crashed into an old pickup truck which crashed into a grey Acura, hitting another (different) Nissan cargo van which crashed into a black Toyota Camry. I was in the Acura. I asked the woman at Caliber Collision when I could expect to have it repaired. The woman, not looking up from her computer, said, “It will be a total loss.” It took me a few seconds to realize she meant there would be no repair, that the car I had driven since I was 15 would be stripped and sold for parts.

When I was 17, I named it Stacy after the Fountains Of Wayne song (I was big on 2000s pop-punk as a teenager). I drove it across the Red River on break from university, through West Texas and various desert climates, to Phoenix and Los Angeles when my boyfriend at the time helped me move one week before my 21st birthday, and up the Pacific Coast Highway to the upper lip of the United States just last year. The Acura and I saw Canada on the other side of a placid, mirrored lake. The car was grimy and scratched—a decade, much of it with a teenager, leaves no machine unscathed. It had been mine when I got my learner’s permit, though I had, several years earlier, already learned to drive.

My father said teaching me early would help in emergencies, but I think he mostly wanted me to love what he loved in the way he loved it. Lessons were held in empty parking lots on my father’s 2003 banana-yellow convertible Mustang. If I did well, we’d get milkshakes at the drive-thru, and my father would hand me leather cleaning wipes for my hands. Those nights I went to bed with my skin still reeking of Meguiar’s.

A car was meant to be clean, the driver’s side especially. There was a religiosity to driving, though we never spoke of it in those terms. Cars, to us, were more than methods of conveyance. Every outing, every drive, was sacred. Colors seemed brighter, the sun burned hotter, music sounded better. Driving was the closest I ever saw my father to having a spiritual experience.

When we wound through 2222 (a central road in Northwest Austin), I would reach for the wind, moving my hand against the gust, riding invisible waves as cars flew past. My father tried to scare me into caution: the speed could take me out, part my arm from its socket, abandon me entirely. It was serious business. There were two gravities; one of nature, like the wind or an impending storm, and one of machinery (pistons, forward propulsion, etc.). It is the knotting and blending of these gravities that make the best cars and, to an extent, the best drivers. It was a lesson better felt than told.

Our Mustang paled in comparison to my favorite: the 1969 model in baby blue. It didn’t have the looks or handling of the ’65 Mustang or the ’63 Stingray (unpatriotically nimble). But I saw the ’69 at a vintage car show in Chicago, or somewhere south of it probably, where an expanse of beautifully restored cars could comfortably sprawl. The ’69 convertible, oily in the light, made my heart leap out of its chest. It was the first time I ever loved a machine.

I began to see what your car said about you. Apart from class or income, your choice reflects what kind of person you are or, at the very least, what kind of person you aspire to be. Picture the typical Camaro driver, and you get what I mean. Dad loved the old American ones because they were real men’s cars. Ford in particular had a ruggedness about it. There was a musculature to their shapes, meant to convey power and strength, so unlike the ’62 Alfa Romeo Spider or the ’61 Jaguar XE-E, with their luxe agility and Stradivarius sounds. If Italian and British cars aimed for felinity, American ones had something of the dog.

Lana Del Rey, more than any other pop culture figure, captured how I used to picture America of old and her trappings. Cars were frequent motifs. A Chevy Malibu gets a shout-out in “Shades of Cool,” the “Born to Die” music video features a 1969 Mustang, and in “1949,” Del Rey sings "We in the Pontiac from July to July.” On the cover of four of eight albums, she is posing with cars, most notably her 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380SL for Ultraviolence. Photographed in victory rolls and cherry-red nail polish, Del Rey hit upon a specific nostalgia for an America of our vividest imaginations. It was the America my father believed in, one in which cars were exemplars of freedom and individual triumph, myths we perpetuated in theory if not execution.

America’s automotive dominance waned in the 70s, a period defined by increased gas prices and workers’ strikes (dubbed “The Malaise era”), and never fully recovered as a fleet of attractive, well-made Japanese vehicles arrived. This is how, in 1989, we got the second car I loved from afar, the Mazda Miata MX-5—an affordable sports car inspired by British roadsters like the Lotus Elan. Almost immediately, the Miata rose to cult status among motorheads and aesthetically minded young women for its chic design and 50/50 weight balance (courtesy of its front engine and rear-drive powertrain). Vibe-wise, it was similar to The 1975’s early fanbase—think music blogger dudes over 40 and screaming teenage girls in Dr. Martens.

The MX-5 was nimble, exciting, and a fraction of the cost of its luxury counterparts. In his 1989 Car and Driver review of the first generation, Arthur St. Antoine wrote, “I reveled in the sweet mechanical purity of the Miata, the delicacy of the controls, the steering response that's so direct you don't have to think about it, and the terrific Formula 1-sized shifter…Go drive a Miata. Then tell me if you'd change even one bolt.” The Miata was known for bright colors, pop-out headlights, and a friendly, smiling mug. Later generations shifted to more neutral colors, and the smile was traded for a scowl, but what made the Miata revolutionary remained.

Car and Driver reviewed the Miata again, this time with the 2016 model. “Fat, gummy tires and stonking power don’t deliver this sort of driving joy, despite what some makers of sporty cars seem to believe. It’s about usable performance. It’s about flirting with the limits without necessarily flirting with disaster.” Miata people love their Miatas. There are videos upon videos of Miata drivers talking in precious tones about their cars—their drivability, fun, reliability, and ineffable magic. It is the kind of romanticization few people have for, as an example, Audi A5s. The Miata epitomizes why some drivers become deeply attached to their cars—how with the right explosion, contained beneath bolts and leather and paint, you can make the inanimate breathe.

After some back and forth with State Farm, I returned to Glendale to send my Acura off to the land of unusable scrap. For this heap of metal, I’d get a (surprisingly) generous insurance payout, enough to replace the Acura. So I cleared out my things from the back, kissed the wheel, and took an Uber back to Silver Lake. On the way home, I looked up used Miatas in the Los Angeles area, all thoughts of a practical crossover long gone. A two-seater convertible with less than five cubic feet of storage isn’t a sensible Los Angeles car, but teenaged Rebecca would have loved it, and I felt I owed her something—her car just died, after all.

Driving, to me, always signified a form of escape, a way to harness otherwise inaccessible power. There is something deeply personal about the bends I have driven, or the way my car feels under me. An indescribable feeling comes over me when I hit the freeway. At around 65 miles an hour, flesh and metal combine, and the line between driver and machine is imperceptible—you cannot travel a mile a minute, though at highway speeds, in the right hands, it can feel like it. It is why I was so determined to get a Miata, used-car prices be damned. I believe (hoped) it would remind me how it feels to come alive at the wheel, restore those dreams of cars yanking at my heart. I am, to my core, a romantic.

I signed the paperwork at the Inglewood CarMax. It was night by the time I left the building to find my new (to me) 2016 Mazda Miata parked in the front lot with a bright yellow bow on the hood. The dealer asked if I wanted a picture. I declined, awkwardly handed over the bow, and got in. I lowered the top and rolled down the windows, felt the wheel beneath my palms, and remembered another scene, much like this, all those years ago—another state, another car—and drove off.