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Image Obviously, any car enthusiastic (read: maniac) can work up a passion for such vehicles as Jaguars, Corvettes, Porsches, classic Packards and Lincolns . . . well, you get the picture, right? If it's criminally gorgeous to look at, generates downright sexy noises and catches the eyes of even those who profess they couldn't care less about automobiles, it's hot.

Such a car may elicit cries of right-thinkers, who deplore the wasted effort generated on such vehicles. Critics grumble that these things are built simply to give the driver a chance to blast blithely past less raunchy conveyances, whose owners can only grind their teeth and make, er, unfriendly hand gestures to the lucky.

Now, this is obviously a collision of values that will go on until our great green orb finally turns into a chilly chunk of ash. Nevertheless, it's worth considering -- and not necessarily from the viewpoint you might think.

Thing is, clunkers have a place in our our automotive world, too. No, really. And I'm not just pointing to the obvious argument, which is that clunkers make possible automobile travel to individuals and families who simply would not have access to four-wheel travel otherwise.

Now, granted, the clunker -- or the beater, which for some reason seems to me a more appropriate appellation for these creatures -- may find itself wrapped around a tree or sliding off a interstate -- but I'd wager that the beater really isn't all that much of a menace.

How so? Couple of reasons: First, your beater is living on bothered time. Thus, the beater driver has a strong incentive to treat his vehicle rather gently: The chauffeur in one of these creations is going to be thinking first, last and always about survival, and will be more cautious about tire-squealing stops and screaming departures from intersections. The beater's mantra is clear and simple: Survive, Survive, Survive.

Why do I say this? And what authority do I have to offer such observations? I'll tell you, my friend: Experience.

See, here's the thing: Many, many eons ago, I was lucky (and, not least, surprised) to be invited to the University of Michigan for a one-year visit. The object was to open my eyes, introduce me to new vistas, lead me to some truly brilliant teachers and instructors, and, perhaps most, to smarten up those who were in the program.

It was a mind-bending experience -- but you don't want to hear about that. Where does the car issue come into it, you ask. Here's your answer: I had not brought a car up to Michigan with me, opting to scratch around to find a beater when I got there. Happily, I turned up a '64 Plymouth Valiant, as austere and humble a vehicle as you'd ever find in the land of the free.

A huge plus was the fact that the car was propelled by Chrysler's immortal slant-six, an engine so loaded with virtue as to belong in the museum of saintly auto engineering. Oh, and it had an automatic transmission. That might have been a nix for the enthusiast -- but this automatic worked through push buttons. Was that a hoot, or not? You hadda love it.

Upholstery? Very nicely preserved, actually. On the other hand (coff, coff), it had a strong smell of dog. Specially on wet days.

What else? Let's see: This being a Michigan car, and Ann Arbor being a snowplow sort of town, where salted streets were de rigeur, there was a, ahem, rust issue. Like the car was held together by aluminum foil. But, my boy, it did stay together.

In fact, I had hardly a hiccough of trouble during that whole experience. And -- you can see this coming, can't you? -- I actually yearned to bring it back to Texas. Didn't do it, of course -- wouldn't be sensible, don't you know? -- but in a sense that doughty little black coupe is still with me. And from time to time, I recall a bit of wisdom that applies to that virtuous little coupe: The coward dies a hundred deaths; the Valiant dies but once.

You could look it up. Me, I lived it.