By Paul LeBlanc
I love cars. I read the auto columns of the Globe and Times on the weekend and whenever passing through airports I grab the latest issues of Car and Driver and Road and Track and whatever else looks good. I can easily let hours slip by in a great car museum like the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in Maine. It’s not that I ever owned great cars per se — in fact, for most of my life my friends’ cars were way cooler than mine. While I was driving a pick up in high school, they had Camaros and 442′s.
But many of the cars I’ve owned were great to me.
It got me to thinking about them today. I learned to drive on construction sites long before I was legal while working summers and weekends with my father. One of the greatest things he ever did for me was to slide into the passenger side of the bench seat in his 1968 Chevy C10 1/2 ton pick up and tell me to take the wheel. One of my earliest memories had been of sitting on his lap in a near empty parking lot waiting for my mother to get out of her factory job and steering our family car around while he worked gas and brake, but this time I had the driver’s seat to my gangly twelve-year-old self. I crawled up and around the unfinished dirt roads of the construction site and could feel my heart pounding at the thrill of my 10 mph ride.
It wasn’t long before he was sending me to get another load of sand or for a few more concrete block and no one at the job was happier at the prospect of such back-breaking errands. It was a rare summer day when I didn’t fall asleep on that bench seat on the way home, exhausted. The smell of sawdust, cigarette smoke, and stale coffee — the smells of that truck cab at the end of the day — still evoke warm memories of my father.
My own first vehicle was a used 1965 Ford F-10, a retired highway department truck painted highway department orange and still sporting a working orange warning light on its roof. It had a step-side body, a design that evoked older pick ups (smooth-side boxes with more capacity were only introduced in the 1950s) and a look I still like on trucks, though they provide less space for hauling. I had started a landscaping business in high school and this was my necessary work truck, hauling my friends/workforce, lawn mowers, equipment, and raw materials around. It didn’t do much for my already dismal dating life, but by the end of the summer I had paid off all my capital costs and made some money besides.
More importantly, that truck meant freedom. I could go where I wanted when I wanted. Just months before the boundaries of my freedom were defined by how far I could pedal a bicycle and now it was how much I could put in the gas tank of my hearty little orange pick up. There is a growing body of data suggesting that teenagers are declining to get licenses or purchase cars because they so readily engage with their friends online and over their cell phones, another example of virtual lives overcoming the physical. But in the 1970s we had our permits and driving tests schedule for the very first possible day and a warm summer night could be blissfully spent just driving, anywhere, with the windows down (who had AC?), the radio blasting, and a satisfying sense that the world was now available to one’s young self. We connected with friends by driving — to each other’s houses, to playground basketball courts, to the parking lot of the local McDonald’s.
Because all I could ever afford were cheap used cars, it meant that I learned how to do all the basic maintenance and repairs myself (impossible today) including oil changes, tune-ups, and the patching up that those old heaps often required. My favorite was the impromptu muffler fix: usually some pieces of sheet metal, often flashing from a roof repair job, wrapped around a leaking muffler pipe and held on tightly with hose clamps. These could get one through a car inspection and two weeks of relative quiet before the metal burned out and the blare of the exhaust would once again irritate the neighbors. I cringe when I recall finishing up an oil change by pouring the waste oil into the storm drain in front of our house, not exactly a high level of environmental awareness at the time.
What were some of my other favorite cars over the years?
VW Beetles. Loved them then and love them now (the older ones, of course). I had three over the years. During college I had a ’68 Beetle and when I made the drive down the Mass Turnpike from Westfield State to my home in Waltham, I would get on the highway and put the accelerator all the way to the floor and hold it there for the whole one hour trip, the 54 hp engine straining to hit 40 mph on the uphills and screaming along at 65 on the downhills. Because Beetle heaters were notoriously bad (actually it was the problem of heating tubes rotting out because they ran through the rocker panels, which were always rotted), I took advantage of VW’s new 12-volt electrical system and rigged up a little heater/fan to the dash. While frostbite was often setting into my toes at the end of a winter’s drive, I could fend off full-fledged hypothermia and keep the windshield clear.
Pat and I shared the last of our Beetles, the “Blue Ghost” as she was known, a car whose body was falling apart on her, but whose engine would not die (hmmm…I’ve had days when I’ve felt this way, come to think of it). When Pat was a newly minted lawyer she would drive the Ghost to the courthouse in one of her newly purchased and prim lawyer outfits, gather her briefcase and papers, and then stand back from the driver’s door and give it a good swift kick, the only way to get the latch to catch. Not a wholly reassuring scene for a worried client.
During college I had my other favorite car, a red 1965 Dodge Dart GT hardtop coupe. My parents surprised me with it when one of my old cars had died and they had found it for something like $250. It was no muscle car of the kind I envied (while a 273-cubic-inch V-8 was available, mine had the can’t-kill-em but less powerful slant six), but it did have a console shifter (whew!), leather bucket seats, and was the sportiest of the small compacts that American car companies were struggling to get right (remember the later Vega, the Pinto, and amazingly ugly AMC Gremlin?). It was as cool a car as I had ever owned.
I had many other cars in the years after college and remember them fondly. Three European cars we owned: a red (I have a thing for red) Opel, a fairly rare car on American roads at the time and similar in look to the much cooler and expensive BMW 2002. Aside from our go-kart feeling VWs, it was the first time I had a car with a European driving feel for the road. There was also an Audi 4000 in which we drove our newborn Emma home from the hospital on a bone chilling winter’s day in January, 1988. Two and half years later during a scorching heat wave, we drove newborn Hannah home in a Volvo 240 wagon. Each one of these cars was used, high mileage (I could hardly afford a new Volvo on my meager salary as a newly hired Assistant Professor), and prone to maddening mechanical breakdowns, but they felt safe to new parents with the newly existential realization that the world was now far more dangerous because they loved others — these two infants — more than they loved themselves (the real gift of parenting).
In fact, I soon traded that Volvo in for our first new, “never been driven by anyone else,” vehicle: a 1982 Isuzu Trooper. They gave me a few hundred dollars for the Volvo as a trade-in and when I was driving it to the dealership to pick up the Trooper all the warning lights started blinking, the engine bucked and seized, and we had to coast into the dealer’s lot. As they handed me the keys to our new car I kept praying they would not try to start the Volvo. We got out of there as fast as we could. Two babies, our first house (that was practically taking every dollar we had), and now a new car. We felt like we had officially entered adulthood.
From any technical perspective, the Trooper wasn’t much of a vehicle. But it had a rough and tumble look and with car seats behind me and Raffi playing on the stereo, I could still lapse into Walter Mitty reveries of driving across the Sahara as I made my way to the grocery store for diapers and cereal. It also had that new car smell and a lack of any scratches or scuff marks – soon to be replaced by the scent of french fries stuck between seats, baby vomit, and the marks left by little feet kicking against the backs of front seats — but those first days and weeks were something we had never experienced.
I think what I liked best about the Trooper was what critics howled about: it drove like a truck. In that, it tied back to my very first driving experiences and just felt right. Bouncy and loud, rough and ready, unrefined and not very pretty — everything I liked about driving.
We have grown up and older and rarely feel genuinely excited about cars any longer, though my interest continues unabated. It’s rare that we drive a car that brings a smile to our faces, though Pat’s Mini Cooper S comes pretty darn close. It is just pure fun to drive. I found an eight-year-old Z4 on E-Bay last year and bought it instead of the motorcycle I had in mind. It is awfully fun to drive too and gets lots of appreciative comments, though I’m unsettled by a memory it evokes. I remember as a teenager seeing these old guys, gray-haired and obviously ancient in their fifties or so, driving the coolest cars, Vettes and T-Birds, and thinking “Wow — such a great car and wasted on that old fart.” Now, when some 18-year-old drives by and gives me a thumbs up, I wonder that I’m the old fart.
So it is. I read somewhere that we stop listening to new music not because new music is bad (though that’s often the defense), but because the old music we hold onto is so powerfully tied to key moments in our lives, many of them “firsts.” These are the songs that immediately transport me to the summer I fell in love with Pat (Gerry Rafferty’s ubiquitous “Baker Street” with its bombastic sax riff) or arrived at college, scared and nervous and excited (all of Steely Dan and the more embarrassing Boz Scaggs and “The Dirty Lowdown”), or rocked Emma or Hannah to sleep (James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”).
Maybe cars are like that too. An old butt-ugly orange pick up truck evokes youthful freedom, a maddeningly unreliable Volvo young parenthood, a Chevy C10 days of working with a father I still miss, a Dodge Dart with a teenage coolness I so achingly lacked but could pretend to when driving down the highway, and an Isuzu Trooper that signaled we had grown up. I think Emma still loves her Saab 9-3, her first car, not because it was a great car (though Saab owners are a cultish sort about that much overrated vehicle), but because it gave her freedom. Hannah loves her 2007 Civic — the height of Japanese dependability and superb, affordable and oh so boring reliability, because it takes her anywhere she wants to go. It is always there for her. It’s her partner in adventure, in song, in solitude.
That’s why I loved my old cars, as unimpressive a lot as they were, and don’t really love any car that I own today. It’s not a sad thing. It’s a growing up thing and I’ve learned not to love objects so much, though we have many more of them, and to love places and experiences and, most of all, people. All of those cars have come and gone, but a first kiss, a sleeping child’s soft breathing, the thrill of independence, the weight of a father’s hand on a sleeping shoulder…..these are the things to hold onto. Cars were only stage props, and maybe even the stages sometimes, for the things that really mattered.
For that role, they are worth cherishing and letting go of at the same time. But if you see a 1965 Dodge Dart GT in good shape for sale…..