In the Olympics of car ownership, Rachel Veitch of Orlando, Fla., is a marathoner of the first order, with a record virtually impossible to match.

For one thing, Veitch is still driving at the age of 91. For another, she has had her 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente for 45 years, racking up about 559,000 miles on it. Together, Veitch and her car have outlasted her three husbands -- a feat surely worth of a footnote in the annals of automotive history.

This happened for a simple reason: A retired nurse, Veitch likes to keep things in good working order -- a trait that her patients no doubt appreciated when she cared for them in critical care units after open-heart surgery.

Veitch also hates to discard anything that still works. "I have never been a throw-away person. I came up in the Depression and my whole being is devoted to saving, and conserving and preserving."

But as much as she has babied her "chariot," as she calls it, she never spared it from life’s hard knocks. She has taken it on trips from Florida to Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin, among other states. "How else do you think I put 559,000 miles on it?" she laughed.


Note: Veitch's current age (91) and mileage (559,000) are reflected in our story; Growing Bolder's video account of her mileage and age was accurate at the time it was published on their site. Happy Birthday, Rachel!

Her excursions are mostly shorter today, taking to her volunteer work and her jobs as a professional parliamentarian. As a nurse, she became an expert in Robert’s Rules of Order years ago to help tame the occasional unruly professional conference. The skill is in high demand at meetings of all types, it turns out.

Veitch also volunteers a day a week at the Orlando police department and teaches her parliamentarian craft to student groups. 

These days, however, her difficulty with night vision limits her mobility a bit. So does the occasional maintenance or repair work on her car.

Her beloved old Comet was in the shop in early August for cosmetic work after a runaway shopping cart badly scored its sheet metal.

"Right now, it’s in the hospital for what I call a facelift," she said. She commissioned one of her favorite repair shops to replace a door exterior with fresh sheet metal and fix the other dents and scrapes.  She expects the repairs to cost about $2,000.

Her first husband picked out the Comet, agreeing to pay $3,289 for it, no small sum at the time. She got to keep it after their divorce in the early 1970s, "He took the new ‘72 Pontiac and I kept my 'chariot'" – her pet name for the 2,500 pound, V-8 powered compact.

Along the way, she has never stopped maintaining it to perfection. She says she has no doubt she has come out better financially than people buying many new cars over a lifetime.
She has the original bill of sale and keeps all the receipts for its maintenance and repair work in one three-inch-thick notebook, along with "the name of every mechanic who has worked on that car. Or I should say," she corrects herself, "every mechanic who has served it."

In early 1980s, she discovered to her surprise that it qualified as a vintage car, and she embraced its special status. She has displayed the vehicle at innumerable shows and has a shelf full of trophies for her efforts. Even today, many jurors often find the idea of a 90-year-old woman owning the same pristine car for 45 years nearly irresistible.

Her favorite trophy is a replica of the Duryea, considered the world’s the first commercially produced automobile, which she was awarded at the centennial celebration of the auto industry in Dearborn, Mich., in 1996.

But the laurels haven’t come easily. She has had to stand her ground against well-meaning technicians who want to modernize the car, sometimes insisting that they remove the "junk" they put on it.

And some don’t really understand its technology, she said.  She makes no claim to knowing much about cars in general. "But I do know a great deal about my car. I have to put a lot of men down when they try to tell me something about my car when I know better. "

A case in point: Someone once tried to tell her that a dealer had installed her Mercury’s air-conditioning, since it was located under the dashboard. "I insisted that it was done at the factory." Later, a Mercury expert confirmed that the fittings for the equipment indicated factory installation, she said.

"Even the big Monarch had air-conditioning under the dash in 1964," Veitch said. "It went under the hood in 1965."
She once paid more than $3,000 to have her engine rebuilt, "and I drove it six miles before the car died." Fortunately, a second mechanic was more successful.

It’s not just that many technicians weren’t born when her Comet was built. In some cases, their parents were barely toddlers at the time, she notes.

But she has had an ally in her decades-long effort to keep her old Mercury running: the extended warranty. She is on her eighth Midas muffler and her third set of Sears-guaranteed shock absorbers. "And I have had 17 lifetime-guaranteed J.C. Penney batteries," she said.

Her biggest problem has been generators. Technicians tell her that air-conditioning and the rest of the ‘60s-era electrical systems put quite a strain on the old generators. But she has never had a problem getting spare ones -- thanks to the small library of vintage parts catalogs she maintains.

And she doesn’t hesitate to credit the Comet’s longevity to its special relationship with her. When technicians recently installed rebuilt transmission, they noticed that a piece of the old one was missing and that they couldn’t figure out how the car could still have been running.

"I just said it loves me as much as I love it."

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