The first time I saw it was one of the happiest days of my childhood. I didn’t expect it to be. Before that, I was in tears when my dad told me he had sold our beloved Volkswagen Beetle. I couldn’t understand why. It had its share of mechanical faults, and its lack of air-conditioning meant that our summer road trips were cramped sauna stints powered by a rear-mounted engine. But that kuba (hunchback) was a part of our family, like a cool older brother with lots of stories to tell.
Don’t worry, my father told me (that’s him in the photo on the right, replete in ‘90s tito regalia). "God has something better in store for us."
Then it came. It started with my dad’s typical rhythmic honk to signal his arrival, except with a lot more vigor, followed by my eldest sister yelling “Ayan na!” I was as confused as a four-year-old could be. For the first time, a brand-new car was making its way through our garage’s rusty gates. I could see my dad’s smile as the sunlight cleared over the windshield, my sisters squealing on either side of me. I still wasn’t sure what was going on, but I could tell that something special was happening.
Get dressed, my dad said through his beaming smirk, barely containing his own childish glee. He drove us to Glico’s that day, and I wondered then if life with a brand-new car was always a great adventure.
Just like the Beetle, that Toyota Tamaraw FX grew to become our new kuya. It ferried us on out-of-town jaunts to Tagaytay where we pretended we were in another country during winter, thinking it was as close as we would ever get. To get-togethers where only the other kids could afford branded swimwear, but my dad was confident my siblings and I were the better swimmers.
Thanks to the Tamaraw's battery, our aging house had working lights and at least one electric fan going during the infamous ‘90s brownouts. Its rear-most seats, which I called the 'tunay na likod,' was my personal playground on the road. No matter where it took us, that AUV always reminded us that there was something to be thankful for.
I knew I would end up driving the FX one day. And I did—13 years later. By then, it had gone through the inevitable aging process worsened by Manila’s harsh environment. Its paint had faded in the tropical sun. In the age of the iPod, it had a cassette player. Loose wiring meant that some things worked sometimes. And there were dings that definitely weren’t present the day we drove to Glico’s. Still, the car worked (and unlike the Beetle, had air-con) and it was all we had, so that’s what I drove.
Somewhere between my childhood and my teens, the FX graduated from sought-after family car to ordinary UV Express hauler. Conversations with our neighbors went from “Wow, bago kotse niyo!” a decade before to “Luma na niyan ah!” And imagine how well my ride went over with my ritzy high school friends. Some of them told me that it wouldn’t matter if I crashed the damn thing, because “FX lang naman ‘yan.” Their daily dilemmas, you see, involved choosing between a hand-me-down BMW or a brand-new Mercedes to take to the mall.
I’ll admit that in my teenage angst, I found it a little embarrassing to be seen in the FX. I feared what people would think about me or my family. The feeling grew worse when commuters would flag me down in earnest, before slowly putting their hand down and averting their eyes from my irate gaze. Even a stray auxiliary cable in someone else’s car, the promise of then-new iPod connectivity, would be enough to remind me of what mine so dearly lacked.
One day, in what must’ve been just another aimless drive around the neighborhood, I found myself in a messy gridlock of cars moving around a church. As I hit an intersection to turn left, I mistimed my downshift and, with cars waiting from every side, the FX shuddered to a halt.
I was stuck for just a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Beads of sweat poured down my cheeks as I fumbled between the key and the pedals. A voice echoed in my head, and it sounded a lot like my own. “What matters now, huh? Playing your damn T-Pain songs on the stereo? Or getting your sorry ass out of this intersection?” Funny how much a newbie driver will panic in a crisis.
And it wouldn’t be the last time something like that happened to me in the FX. Once, I couldn’t get it started when I picked up a girl from her house and her mom stood in the driveway to see us off. Another time, the handbrake got stuck halfway and I managed to drive a few kilometers before realizing that I was burning the ever-loving you-know-what out of something.
We all felt its time had come. About a decade ago kuya FX drove away from our house for the last time. As my dad and I watched it turn the corner, sunshine gleaming against its paint as if it were actually waving goodbye, I felt a tinge of guilt. Maybe I didn’t appreciate it then as much as I should have. That car, I would grow to realize, was one of my greatest teachers. Early on, it was where my dad sat me on his lap, teaching me right from left and how to turn the wheel. Where my family bonded over old jokes and even older songs. Where my dad drove me to school a few blocks away.
When I got older, the FX showed me how to time my shifts to get the right mix of power and fuel efficiency when I needed it. It taught me to always double-check that the doors were locked. It guided me on how to drive it just right, because my allowance couldn’t possibly cover a trip to the talyer if I pushed it too hard. After many years of loyal service, it was still a reliable ride, and it schooled me in the nuances of proper car maintenance. It forced me to learn, sometimes the hard way, that how well you drive matters a hell of a lot more than how cool your car looks. Maybe I wouldn’t have picked up on these things if I was stuck with a brand-new Mercedes.
More than that, the FX opened my eyes to the fact that it doesn’t matter whether your car is new or old, or whether or not it’s packed with the latest tech. Your ride is an extension of who you are, as my dad loves to say, but that’s all it is. What's more important is the character of the person in the driver's seat. Even today when I get to drive the latest cars on the market and call it work, I hark back to those days in the AUV and thank my lucky stars that I’m able to drive. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have that.
So, whether it’s a luxury car or your family’s old Toyota, a make-believe winter road trip to Tagaytay or a test drive in a faraway land, you should always appreciate what you have right in front of you. A little gratitude goes a long way.