I watched one of my neighbors lovingly washing his car earlier this week. The windshield was cracked, the paint oxidized and beyond the redemption of any brand of car wax known to man. There were dents and scrapes from one end to the other but the soapy rag in the red plastic bucket was applied as carefully as it were massaging a Porsche. The once-gray Nissan Stanza was clearly close to his heart, no matter how battered. But wait: wasn’t the Nissan brand originally something else? After a period of ruminating, the memory came back: they were once called Datsuns and the marque dated back to the early 1930’s.
The manufacturer changed the name to Nissan, back in the early 1980’s and aside from car shows and club meetings you’ll probably never see one in the US. In Guatemala, they’re a daily sight. This is the country where the old, the decrepit and mileage-challenged imports end up: some are sold at auction as ‘salvage’ and some have to be helped onto the ship for the one way trip to the end of the road.
Guatemala imported almost 36,000 cars in 2010, of which 20,000 were new: that left space on the rusty freighters for some 16,000 worn-out and discarded Japanese economy models. Either they came through one at a time, as the recycled school buses do or the larger importers brought them in by ship. They have one basic element: they’re cheap and inexpensive to operate. The price of gasoline hovers in the $3-$4 range, depending on the latest war somewhere and used parts are available. If they come with a radio, that’s usually stolen quickly but the local stations aren’t that interesting anyway. You don’t have to worry about hub caps but you might be concerned about hood ornaments and medallions disappearing in the dark. The cost of a license is reasonable, as is insurance but if one’s already driving a wreck what difference does another dent make? The drivers in Guatemala are a brave breed: there isn’t a driving test for proficiency or skills and the passing grade on the written test can be purchased for about $50. There are neither safety inspections nor ‘fix-it’ tickets: if it runs, it runs, no matter how battered and beaten it is. The final fate is the salvage yard, where maybe someone, someday will come looking for a driver’s side door for the 25 or 30 year old rusted hulk that used to be someone’s pride and joy.