Cars for the rest of us.

What’s a Clunker?

May 18, 13 • by Craig Fitzgerald • New Cars5 CommentsRead More »

RoadmasterContributor David Esch wrote something for me the other day. Reader Brian Epro mentioned exactly the same thing. People have an idea in their heads of what a “clunker” is. For some, it’s a crappy car they never want to see again. For others, it’s tied up in the 400,000 cars the government crushed in 2009. For us, it’s the preservation and enjoyment of things that a lot of people thing are disposable.“Etymology,” David Esch wrote. “You might not expect this, but as it turns out, this whole clunker thing has ties to Jalapa, Mexico.” Apparently, it’s the place where jalapeno peppers come from. It’s also where a whole lot of cars that American citizens didn’t want anymore ended up.


Jalopy. The original clunkers.

“The first reference I have found for the word jalopy dates back to 1924, and the first words they used were a little different,” David wrote. “Jaloupy. Jaloppi. Even Gillopy. They all meant the same thing: Battered old automobile.”

MercedesClunker, David reminds us, is something a little different. “That is a little different. That used to mean a ‘thing that is totally unsuccessful.’ As late as the 1940’s, it was agreed that it meant ‘anything inferior.’ ‘Clunk’ in the sense of an old, worn out machine.”

Eventually, it came to be associated with cars, especially in the early 1950s. Interestingly, David points out that “Hooptie,” the current pejorative term for “clunker” started out as “Coupe D,” as in “Coupe DeVille.” Now there’s a car that’d be right at home here.

Q45Then the government went and DEFINED “clunker” for us in 2009. To get the $4,000 check toward the purchase of a new car, a “clunker” had to be:

  1. Less than 25 years old.

  2. Provide fewer than 18 miles per gallon of fuel.

  3. Owned and registered for at least a year before you traded it in.

That’s it. A whole lot of really nice, formerly expensive automobiles were permanently disabled and crushed for a $4,000 check. Some of those vehicles included:

CFC Jaguar1999 Merceedes C43 AMG

1992 GMC Typhoon

2005 Mazda RX-8

2006 Nissan 350Z roadster

1997 Bentley Continental R

530I went to my local Honda dealer in Bennington, Vermont one Sunday morning and was aghast to find FOUR B-Body wagons exactly like the one I love so much right now, sitting behind the dealership waiting to be crushed.

Screw the government. Let’s redefine what the word means:

A clunker is a car that’s past its expiration date that requires a little more attention to get by.

It’s often a car that someone felt so unconnected to that they moved it down the road to us, and we took it in like an old stray mutt.

On our Facebook page, I suggested that we should stop calling these cars “used,” and start talking about them the way that a lot of pretentious dog owners have ameliorated the dog they picked up for free at a pound. “It’s a rescue,” they say, like they rappelled out of a Huey to save them off the top of a burning building.

I’m going to start referring to my 1996 Roadmaster Wagon as a rescue, too.



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5 Responses to What’s a Clunker?

  1. Tony says:

    Another well thought out and heartfelt missive written from your innocuous little shack in the woods Mr. Kaczynski :)

  2. William Robinson says:

    I define my 98 s-70 as a clunker. It seems that it gets its definition because there is always a clunk in the front end. No matter how recently the parts have been replaced the roads around her eat at tbem quickly and it starts, first are the sway bar end links that may last 10k km and then its the ball joints that almost make the 25k mark. So my old clunker see daily use and I love it clunksand all.

    • Craig Fitzgerald says:

      I think you have to have at least hone persistent issue in your car at all times. For me it’s the smell of gas through the vents in traffic. I’ve brought it to three people and can’t solve it.

  3. BJ says:

    In the late 70′s, when I was in my late teens, I was privileged to be driving my dad’s ’75 Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon. It was so big, I could fit at least 5 across in the middle seat without them touching each other, and we used to hide two in the back when we went to the drive-in — one in each wheel-well storage area. For a time, due to some mysterious ignition problem, I had to disconnect the battery and pull the coil wire to get the car to shut off, so I traveled with a socket wrench and a pair of pliers everywhere I went, including in my evening bags. I was happy as hell to have that car to drive, and I’d have beat the hell out of anyone who called it a clunker.