Jeep Cherokee on Borrowed Time

When I pulled into the parking lot at Beta Theta Pi to meet senior Jim Habig, I immediately knew which car was his before he even had a chance to identify it. I had been warned about “Steely Dan” (the name friends of Habig have given the car) ahead of time and in the sea of preppy collegiate standards – A4s, Jettas and the usual host of midsized SUVs – Habig’s rusting, 1990 Jeep Cherokee was certainly a notable exception. An eye sore? Yes. A hunk-of-junk worth kicking to the curb at the first available opportunity? One might think so. The hanging wires visible from the back of the car, the mismatched tire that the mechanics warned Habig was “dangerous” to drive around with, and the two-toned exterior of rusting grey and rusted grey do not inspire much confidence. But a ride inside this family heirloom with Habig at the helm, driving and narrating, would suggest otherwise. With 132,000 miles under its belt, it’s no wonder that the power-locks, rear windshield wiper, air conditioning unit, radio and clock have all bailed. Habig boasts that his would-be Cherokee (all that remains of the Cherokee badge are dull surfaces on the paint where shiny raised silver letters once gleamed) can get about 350 miles to the tank. He would know this, because in order to avoid running out of gas, Habig must keep track of how many miles he has traveled between fill-ups. This nicety comes thanks to a mishap he once had with his gas tank when an incessant leak required Habig to replace the reservoir. When a mechanic quoted him $250 for a new gas tank, a price which Habig claims matched the car’s worth, the resourceful Habig resolved to replace the gas tank on his own. The only problem with this was that in the installation, the gas gauge, which no longer reflects with accuracy the amount of gas in the tank (since the new tank is not the same size as the original), somehow became inverted and so Empty now signifies Full and vice-versa. Thankfully Habig’s tachometer still works – at least for now.This inconvenience is a small price to pay for other luxuries that the car affords. Swanky tweed seats and vinyl lining around the dash, doors and console make the interior pleasant and comfortable. A useful, albeit oddly placed, storage compartment, cut out of the glove-compartment door, proves to be a great place to stash a pair of sunglasses or a tire-pressure gauge. You may need one or the other of these items when you’re riding in “Steely Dan,” as the windshield is scratched due to an attempt at ice removal with a Snapple bottle and the tires have been known to blow out on occasion. Habig offers some sage advice when it comes to tire calamities: $20 and a six-pack will enable you to convince the mechanic to put on an incompatible tire so that you can continue cruising in style. Not surprisingly, Habig knows this from experience. In spite of its one aberrant tire, Habig’s Cherokee is no worse for wear and offers an unexpectedly smooth ride. Though its top speed is a mere 80 miles per hour, Habig tells me that his car has managed to earn three speeding tickets. The fact that “Steely Dan” has managed to skirt two other tickets is a testament to the vehicle’s unwavering nimbleness. Responsiveness seems not to have suffered any despite the car’s misalignment, which requires the driver to hold the steering wheel at a 45-degree angle in order to move straight. With a horn that sounds more like a bicycle bell, a front hood that could potentially fly open at some point when traveling on the highway and a dysfunctional rear-view mirror, it’s no wonder that Habig’s vehicle did not pass New Jersey inspection this year. Nevertheless, optimistic Habig reflects on the perks his 1990 Jeep Cherokee offers, citing the car’s ability to get him from point A to point B and the comfort he takes in knowing that if “Steely Dan” “should accidentally get pushed off of some ravine, [he] would only be out $250.” The lesson to be learned in all of this is that hunk-of-junk cars may be worth the inconveniences. Their lack of traditional vehicular comforts and their constantly worsening states of dilapidation are only small prices to pay for the wonderful stories that their owners accrue in driving them. Although friends may make fun, most do so endearingly. It was actually Habig’s friend, senior Doug Klein, who appreciated “Steely Dan” enough to bring it to my attention. Although Habig suggested to me that he’d prefer a name like “Iron Mike” for his Jeep, I think “Steely Dan” is much more fitting. After all, if Habig’s Jeep could sing, its namesake’s lyrics would certainly be fitting: “illegal fun, under the sun,” or “they’ve got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose.” Habig’s car is, by most accounts, a lost cause, but thanks to the efforts of Habig and Klein, this 1990 Jeep Cherokee has certainly made a name for itself.