Over the winter break, my daughter's car needed repairs, the cost of which exceeded the car's value. It was a gold 2002 Saab 9 3 purchased when we lived in Ohio, and a good first car for her to drive around her college town and to travel home for breaks. She used that car for her 50 hours of driving instruction and another 50 hours practice-driving. We remember the difficulty of concocting bogus errands (e.g., visiting an ice cream place in another community) to use up the 50 hours. I was a nervous instructor but I tried to provide experiences where she could learn how to merge, to pass, and other challenges, while building confidence.
For a trade-in, we got her a bright red, 2005 Saab 9 3 Aero. She laments that, now, even more classmates will be hitting her up for rides. As we transferred Manga-inspired seat covers, the GPS, CDs, and other items from one car to the other, we all felt wistful that a service appointment for the old car had unexpectedly led to its replacement. On the other hand, the increasing, necessary repairs for the car were lessening the pleasure of driving it.
My first car was a light blue, 1963 Chevy. In his book The Ferrari in the Bedroom, the humorist Jean Shepherd tells the story of "Lillian," an old car which swore at him (the transmission had a repetitive noise that sounded like an oath) as he tooled up U.S. 41. My unnamed car was friendlier than the resentful Lillian, but no more attractive. The car had a serviceable, box-like body, a rusting underside, and a thin coat of rust on the hood and roof. It had no AC. It had a poor radio and a hole in the floorboard. The stick shift, which emerged from the steering column, took a little effort. It wasn't my car, but my mother's; the title was in her name. My dad's stepfather had owned it, and when he could no longer drive he gave the car to my mother, who had done him and my grandmother many selfless favors.
I learned to drive in that car, when I was 14 or 15. A clear stretch of Illinois 185 east of Vandalia seemed a good place for Dad to teach me. Dad was a truck driver, he knew driving. Generous and eager to help, he could also be impatient, and he made me hurt and nervous as he strictly told me things like:
Never let out the clutch too quickly; you'll kill the engine.
Never ride the clutch, you'll burn it out.
Always look over your shoulder to check your blind spot before you pass.
Always check your tire inflation and oil, especially before a trip.
Always pull up to the next gas pump so that someone can pull in behind you.
Always top off the tank when filling up; you'll get more miles. (This is the only one of these things I had to unlearn later.)
Always remember that speed cops hide on interstate entrance ramps.
Always drive the speed limit through Odin, IL, because a state trooper lives there.
An acquaintance read this essay several years ago and declared, "I got pulled over by that cop in Odin!"
Once I got my license, I drove the Chevy for a few years. I don't think I felt the need for a fancier car; I was pleased with the Chevy. I made the car uglier still. I dented the fenders twice trying the master the vagaries of backing-out and turning, once at the IGA and once in the high school parking lot. As my daughter learned to drive, I remembered both Dad's impatience and Mom's disapproval of my faux pas; she couldn't understand that I'd need to learn by doing, making mistakes, gaining experience, and trying again. I tried to brighten the car by waxing it, but the finish had long since faded and the paint could no longer shine. For many weeks the hood showed great white circles where the wax baked hard.
In summertime I pursued innocent popularity with the opposite sex while working on a genealogy project which my grandma and I had started. I remember driving to visit a girl who lived all the way down in Farina, in the southeastern corner of Fayette County. My parents fretted about my safety and warned me of the extremely dangerous intersection where 185 met Illinois 37. "A lot of people have been killed there," Dad bleakly warned. I pictured one of those cartoon roads where the view is clear for miles until you step into the street and immediately a truck appears and squashes you flat. Once there, I found the intersection had reasonably clear visibility---not a place to linger or misjudge, but not a death trap, either.
As I recall, the car stalled a certain amount but nothing that required attention. One time it stalled when I was out on a country road doing cemetery research for my genealogy project. Barefooted, I wasn't sure I could walk anywhere for help. But after a few panicked attempts I got the motor runnin'. Only once did the car need service, when some essential pipe in the engine cracked. We simply drove up to Yarbrough's auto lot on U.S. 51, found a wreck with a comparable part, and an acquaintance bolted the part on. So simple, compared to the highly technological and electronic aspects of cars today!
In summertime I longed for AC. Of course, I drove with windows down, which blew around my longish hair and left the seats rather dusty. The hole in the floorboard provided some breeze; I humorously thought that I could widen the hole and use my feet, Fred Flintstone-like, to push-start the car when it stalled. As I drove around town, a favorite visit was my cousin's gift shop and their selection of 45s and LPs. That was a last-stop on errands because I'd have to take a new record immediately home or it would warp in the hot car, like my wavy LP of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.
I drove the Chevy during my first year of college. Eventually Dad traded the car at Oldfield's Auto Sales in Vandalia. For the trade he bought me a bright red Dodge two-door with black vinyl seats. I loved the Dodge but, when we drove away, I looked nostalgically at the Chevy. In a small town, one often sees former cars driven by new owners; in the 1980s, after I traded a '79 Pontiac wagon, I noticed it several times, parked outside Hardee's. But we never saw the '63 Chevy again. It probably went to scrap.
Something about our first cars haunts us. My dad remembered his parents' first car: a 1925 4-door Ford sedan, purchased with seventeen head of cattle from John Eakin in Vandalia. I've known people who kept their first cars, caring tenderly for them over the years. Adolescence can be a difficult time, and amid those struggles, one finds solace and pleasure in the ability to drive. Perhaps that is why we don't forget our first cars. Thinking of my old Chevy reminds me of that special freedom gained as a teenager. It is a freedom which, once acquired, mastered, and then taken for granted, never again seems quite so sweet.
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in Springhouse magazine and my book Journeys Home.)