Cars for birders review #2: elderly Jeep Cherokees

Hi world, this is Poppy.

Poppy on a side road in Cordova, Alaska. Like Annika, she also looks better for a little (or a lot of) dirt. Is it just me that thinks that’s an important trait in a birding car?

Poppy is my 1992 Jeep Cherokee Laredo. I’ve had her for about 4-5 years now. I bought her as a second car when her first owners, some friends of mine, were leaving the state and needed to sell her in a hurry because the person who had been planning to buy her backed out. They’d called me and said “do you know anybody who?” and I said “I’ll see if I can think of anybody,” hung up the phone and said “what am I doing?” and called them back and said “I want her!” She was my best big ticket (not big like a Volvo, $1500 which was a killer steal according to my mechanic) whim purchase ever. I say whim, but really she wasn’t whim, I’d been saving up to get something relatively inexpensive that had some carrying capacity because of my day job as an archivist and I was really trying to keep my Jetta, Gerhard, pretty (more on him later) by not hauling around 750 pound loads of paper in him.

So I didn’t buy her for birding. For all that, she’s been a pretty decent birding car. Here’s the sum-up:

Positives: great visibility: those huge windows mean no blind spots in any direction. I once drove her backward on a one-lane curvy rutted country road through wetlands with no safe verge at a fairly decent speed while my passenger was tracking a short-eared owl on the wing and even I, while switching between the rear view mirror, the side view mirror, and looking over my shoulder to make sure I absolutely stayed on the road, managed to get in a few glimpses of the owl too. I can traverse a lot of questionable roads and park in interesting places in her because of that great ground clearance, light weight (she weighs about 600 lbs less than Annika, go figure), and the fact she has shift on the fly 4WD. Her height also allows me to see a little more than in lower vehicles. Her seats are super comfortable which I wasn’t expecting in a car of her vintage. She can take a driver and three passengers and still have cargo space sufficient for around-town and day long birding expeditions. There’s space between the door jamb and the base of the seat that neatly fits a pair of binoculars, is reachable while sitting in the seat, and completely out of view of passersby if you’re not in the car (hence a bit of theft deterrent when you’re parked and out of the car getting food or whatever.) I don’t have a scope but if I did, she’d have plenty of room for carrying a scope and serious tripod.

Negatives: Poppy is pretty elderly and getting frail. I’ll drive her around the Anchorage bowl and to Whittier (to catch the ferry to Cordova) but getting more than a few hours out from Anchorage now and at freeway speeds makes me pretty nervous. So distance birding trips aren’t really an option in her. (My mechanic might disagree but in that pic above? the door is open because the electrics had gone wonky and the door locks were behaving badly. I was also in bear country and wanted easy access to a metal enclosure). Next to no safety features as is typical of cars of this vintage which while important, isn’t more important to birders than anybody else.  I don’t think, anyhow. Also she’s not a very quiet car so it’s not like you can really hear birds when you’re moving slowly down those roads trying to watch for stuff. No cup holders is a biggie though. Even my 1992 Toyota that was probably half her original price had cupholders. You want me to get up when to go birding and want me to do it without benefit of caffeine? Seriously?

On the scale of 1 to 10? I have to say 6, if I gave Annika a 7. Poppy is pretty good and in a couple of important ways she outperforms the Volvo C70 for birding, but she’s still not got the visibility of a convertible with the top down. And the no cupholders thing. (Who was the brainiac at Chrysler who put electrics in for every system possible including a remote keyless entry in 1992 and didn’t think cupholders might be a good idea?)

Oh and a bonus review, #2.5, just because I’m in a reviewing mood: a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. This is me in my nephew’s Camaro. I didn’t actually go birding in her. I’m not sure I could have. I have a lot of affection for Lucy (I’m not the only one in the family that names their cars) for a lot of motorhead reasons, but she is distinctly not a birder’s car. You’d look stylish, but the engine noise, the lack of visibility, the ground clearance, the off-road lack of capabilities, that insane shifter/clutch making it difficult to do anything but take off like a kick-started gazelle, just makes her a bad choice for the serious birder. Have to say, the BlueRavenBirders score on this car is a solid 2, and that’s only because she picks up a point over the minimum for being so cool looking that all the other birders will be jealous.

Lucy, the ’67 Camaro. Or is she a ’68? Sorry, I can’t remember. I’m a very bad motorhead, and apparently a really bad Aunt, in some really embarrassing ways. Sorry Craig: I hope you’ll still let me drive her sometime again.

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