Chip in for gas, friends!
My car goes where I aim it.
Just us. No parents.
–First car haiku
Our 21-year old has just purchased his First Car. I thought it would happen sooner, but then I’m the one that always said you don’t need a car until you graduate from college. And, truthfully, he’s not been keen on driving since he got his First Ticket blowing a stop sign in front of a patrol car one foggy evening after a late shift at his First Job at McDonald’s (the last day before returning to school). It made him skittish; it made him hitch rides with us and his friends as often as he could. But heading into graduate school in Southern California, the reality of needs set in. He had to get his own car.
In America, the first car is a rite of passage, though it wasn’t always so. A hundred years ago, cars had just been invented. My grandparents didn’t own cars until well into their thirties; my grandmothers didn’t technically own the cars at all. My parents didn’t have a car until they were in Europe when they were working overseas after college. My brother and I didn’t have one until we were out of college as well.
Bridge to Freedom
Still, for most high school teenagers over the last several decades, that first car is a bridge to freedom, adulthood, and the future.
That First Car notion is sold by car companies as an ideal gift, especially near graduation time. But though a handful of teens receive cars as gifts, many more scrape together the resources or borrow from their parents to get that first jalopy. The car is a ticket to the rest of the world — most often a link to a job — but also a way to achieve the independence craved by those on the brink of adulthood.
Parade of Cars
I reached out to ask people about their First Cars, and not surprisingly received a raft of photos and lofty descriptions. People wax lyrical about their first cars. That first evokes feelings of freedom — before the notion of car payments and accident insurance layers bricks over their airy dreams. The car was the way to get away from home. Even when the cars were dodgy or troublesome, the young of us would rather learn how to change the oil and pump the brakes just so as payment for the ability to go.
I could feel the pride in all of these former selves as my friends and colleagues talked about what they’d chosen or built.
1969 VW convertible, although mine had a white convertible top. I LOVED that car!—RJ L.
… my first car [was] The Brown Dog. It was a Volvo that I purchased for only $300, which was all I could afford at the time. The brakes didn’t really work that well but I could get the car to stop if I pumped the brakes assiduously. I guess my sense of judgement wasn’t fully developed yet as I thought that was a perfectly good alternative at the time.—Nancy C.
I rebuilt a Fiat 850 in autoshop and my teacher gave it to me… it was a POS. We painted it desert camo with house paint. So picture the photo above, in camo.
…[here’s] one like it.Mine was scrapped many years ago sadly. Triumph Spitfire mk3. It was a beautiful little car quite zippy. I was a Physics student in Manchester when I had it so unfortunately the local neighbourhood kids took a liking to cutting the vinyl hood..So I had a patchwork hood where I had it mended….. Loved that car.
Curiously, only a few could lay their hands on a picture of their car, but everyone else did some serious googling to find the right style. They may not have captured the image thirty years ago but all have a very clear image in their mind and were hell bent on finding it! Though in one case, the graduation gift and group paint job made the local paper :”Flower Power” was both the name of the car and the lawn mowing service that used it. Looking at the group conjures up notions of what must have been some entertaining road trips.
Not mine specifically, but this is exactly what it looked like. Brand new 1974 Ford Maverick. While all the cool kids were wanting Mustangs and Cameron, this ‘maverick’ wanted one of those—Dar V.
This one looks just like it – 1973 Ford Pinto Station Wagon (white)–Dian S.
It was my mom’s first. 2 door, slick seats, vinyl hood. Could fit 10 of us for the drive-in. 1975 Chevy Impala.-Luca H.
The Adulting Side
Once you have your First Car and your first serious taste of freedom, you also get a serious dose of adulthood with it. First Car can lead to First Car Trouble.
Our daughter was the unfortunate victim of chance as she happened to be driving when the ancient Saturn threw a gasket one evening…also at the end of a work shift. Straight from the street to be towed off to salvage.
Then, there’s First Insurance. This was the next stop for our son after returning home from the used car dealership. Five hours later, both parent and young man had massive headaches from the lengthy discussion over multiple choices, limits in coverage, and staggeringly high cost (20% of the cost of the car). As free as you may feel driving down the road, there’s nothing like contemplating insurance to coat your happy feet in cement. Ritchie Cunningham and Greg Brady likely didn’t have insurance on their used crappy cars, or else it was pennies on the dollar.
First Car You Own or Build or Drive or Borrow?
I had my own epiphany in writing this post, triggered by the purchase. The first car I owned was my spouse’s used cast-off. She was working full-time when I was a student, so she could afford a sporty red Nissan Pulsar (early 1980s) — a ticket magnet we used to call it. I got the root beer-colored Honda Civic. I felt a sense of ownership in that car already since I bashed the door in years earlier borrowing it to go get donuts. Paying to fix it didn’t put me in a hurry to own one, though after college was over and I donned my corporate ID badge, I needed a way to buy soda without carrying it on a bicycle.
Since then, we’ve pooled our resources for lo these many years, and it hit me like a stone that I’ve never bought my own car. I’ve never negotiated a price or chose the color, without having to consult and share the decision. My nostalgia isn’t the same as other people’s. So the car I consider My First Car?
I spent the summer after high school in Florida with my aunt and uncle and they let me borrow their “extra” car to drive myself and my brother to summer jobs. My First Car was their 1973 Ford Gran Torino. That’s the Starsky and Hutch car, and a red model with a white racing stripe seemed spiffy with Starsky sliding over the hood or shooting at bank robbers from behind the door. This borrowed metallic green version with white vinyl hood was a beater. After a few winters in Detroit slush and salt-encrusted streets, and a few summers of Gulf coast humidity, the car looked decades old though it was only five. It had bench seats, also vinyl, nearly lethal in a Florida parking lot in the afternoon.
Like most Fords, the car would ping and bang like crazy when you tried to hit the accelerator, so it was just as well that at seventeen and in someone else’s car, I was pretty timid. I will say the best way to learn how to drive well is in a car already beat up on long stretches of Florida highway with just enough traffic to keep you alert but not too much to make you panic. The car doesn’t show it when you go over a curb or get a tiny little scrape in the Dairy Queen parking lot. At least, I couldn’t tell.
Insurance…freedom…dealing with the DMV…go where you want…tickets…stay out late…car trouble…independence….driving a stick…the pendulum swings.
Favorite Son’s new car has manual transmission — part of the explanation for the cheap price. My wife showed him how to drive it, and he has been practicing every day in our hilly neighborhood, getting the hang of it, before he goes back to graduate school. He can tell that story in thirty years.
My first car was a stick shift that you had to tease up the hill out of our neighborhood. I stalled it probably every third time. It was black, which was hot as hell in San Diego, but I got it cheap. One time, we fit eight people in it after a concert…
–Future comments from KJK (maybe?)
Author’s Note — Many thanks to friends who responding to my request for stories and pictures — as you see, I loved them all and used as many as I could fit!