For me, first car was my parents’ car, a 1958 Hilman Lynx. This thing was a squat, 35-horsepower English import the size of a VW bug, except square. It had the aerodynamics of a grocery store. Four months after I slid behind the wheel, roaring down Mt. Helix, I ran that bastard child off the road and rode it to its grave: totaled.
Question: What do you do when you wreck your parents’ car?
Answer: You ask for another one.
It is an indelible occasion, hacking out your parents’ driveway for the first time, realizing the moment is yours and you can go any damn place you like. First car is the end of direct supervision, the first saddle-up onto life’s increasingly bucking horse. More than sex, more than a job, more than college, our first car is the preeminent ticket to the big show, to life as an adult.
Bob Dale, Channel 7/39 weatherman
“I was bom in 1925. It was very difficult to own a car when I was a teenager because nobody had any money. I didn’t get my first car until after WWII. One of my favorite cars was a 1940 Ford because that was the first time that Ford put a gearshift on the steering wheel. The ’40 Ford had hydraulic brakes for the first time, and it was a real pretty little car. I was able to buy one in 1947.I paid a thousand dollars for it because they were so hard to get. That was big money then, I hope to tell you it was.
“I was in Cleveland, Ohio, when I bought it. I was working in television at that time. We went on the air December of ’47. I bought the car from the sales manager who worked in this brand-new thing called television. I thought he was an honorable man, and I want to tell you I’ve never trusted a television salesperson since.
“He had driven it all the way through the war and hadn't taken care of it, but it was my dream car, although everything in the world went wrong with it. I really got took on that car, wound up burning 60-weight tractor oil in it.
“When I first got it, I tried to get it into a shop, because to me, a shiny car is the only thing that’s important. I couldn't afford to take it to a shop so I fixed it up, patched the rust holes. I was so proud of it, put a radio in, I even painted it myself.
“They sold big round tins of paint in those days that you put on with a powder puff. So I wiped the car down with this paint, and from a distance it looked pretty good. Then I repaired the lights because I’d be driving down a two-lane road to my hometown in Canton, Ohio, and all the lights would go out. And then I found a little spot where the paint bubbled and I poked my finger in it and my finger went through the whole damn fender. So I learned how to patch metal. I had to, I didn’t have any money. I was tending bar and working in television on weekends. It took me until April of '48 to go full-time in television.
“The car was a mess: the wheels were loose, the front end was shot, all the bushings were gone. I didn't know anything about mechanics, I just had to keep saving my money and gluing that Ford back together. I kept it until early 1950. By that time they made me television spokesman for DeSoto-Plymouth cars in northeast Ohio. I started advertising their cars.
“I had my Ford pretty well fixed up except for using a lot of oil. The advertisers insisted that I buy a new Plymouth car. I said, ’I can’t afford it,’ so they said, ’Well, we’ll charge you $350.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I can do that.’
“I don’t want to say what I did with the Ford; I’ll tell you, but you’ll think I’m a terrible person. I had it all fixed up. I had a radio put in it and I went to sell it, but my mother objected. See, when I was in the service I sent money to my mother. She’d saved everything I sent her, she never used it. She was taking in washing, cooking in a restaurant, and never used the money I sent. So I borrowed it back from her when I bought the Ford.
“Now, when I got ready to sell the car, my kid brother — who is nine years younger than I am — was looking for a car. My mom felt bad because she helped me buy that car, and she knew I’d got this Ford pretty well fixed up, so she bought it back from me. And I took the money. For years I tried to give her the money back, she’d always say, ‘BOB-BEEE. ’
“My younger brother just wore the crap out of that thing. I went back down to Canton one night, and I saw him driving around shifting gears without using the clutch. It broke my heart. He just wore it into the ground. Nothing left but hot, quivering metal.
“I have so many beautiful memories of that car. I was so proud of it, the first car I ever owned. It was probably a piece of junk, but I thought it was so peppy, it started right away. I saw one a couple of years ago, and it is not a sleek, racy-looking car. It was tall, antiquated, had tiny windows. I was horrified when I saw it. I said to myself, ‘It couldn’t have changed that much.’ At the same moment I happened to look up in the rearview mirror and saw my own face, and I thought, 'Well, yeah, I guess you can change that much.’ "
Patrick Madrid, La Mesa
“I’m vice president of Catholic Answers. We’re a lay Catholic organization with a staff of 13 full-time people. We conduct seminars, publish our monthly magazine on apologetic issues. Apologetics is the reasoned defense of the faith. I’m 33 years old, married, have seven kids.
“My first car was a 1975 Datsun pickup, mag wheels, oxidized pumpkin orange. I bought it from a friend who wanted to trade up to a better car. That was 1978. I was working a full-time job so I had some money. I worked at Sears, of all places, in the hardware department. I was 18.
“Right after I got it my girlfriend and I went for a drive and rolled down the windows. I felt excited, no longer tied to my family’s car. At that time we lived in Temecula. There were a lot of open roads out there; we enjoyed the back roads. The music of the mid-’70s was the kind of music I listened to. I was very much a fan of the Beatles, still am, so I played Beatles music. Sergeant Pepper was one I wore out.
“I never took long trips in the truck, although we’d drive to Orange County and L.A. a lot. The worst trip was on a date one night. My girlfriend was asleep; of course, it was just a bench seat in the truck, and she was asleep. I was falling asleep as I was driving home. I wound up driving down an off ramp of the freeway. I was coming down to the end of the off ramp and realized that I was no longer on the freeway so I snapped wide awake and slammed on the brakes and we spun out. She sat bolt upright. We were both petrified.
“Nothing happened, there was no damage to the car or anything. We were in the middle of nowhere. I felt totally embarrassed and stupid. I said to her very bravely, 'Oh, man; I just saved our lives. A guy cut in front of us and if I hadn’t swerved off the road we would have been history.’ She said, ‘Oh, how brave.’ She was so happy about my quick reactions. Of course, her parents were very pleased with me also.
“There were engine problems with it. I blew a head gasket one time, had problems with the electrical system, had to have some wiring replaced. I had that vehicle for two years, paid $1600, probably spent an equivalent amount in repairs. There were many moments when I said that I wanted to move up. On one of those moments I acted and put an ad in the Penny Saver. The car was running very well at that point so I was able to sell it when it was still reasonably worth selling. I think I got something close to what I paid.”
Carol Cahill, Coronado
“It was an old drop-head Jaguar, 1950-something. A drop-head Jaguar has a convertible top that rolls down, and it also has a wool liner. That was made for the cold English climate.
“It was a car that I bought with my very, very own money. It was a wreck when I found it, and I took it back to almost brand-new. After I bought it I got some burl walnut, and a finish carpenter helped me fashion that into a new dashboard. Then I took it to a local shop and had red, real good leather upholstery put in. The exterior was black.
“What was fun about it, I had a gang of kids, I could put my kids in the little back seat and roll the top halfway down so that the kids were enclosed, but I looked like a single woman flying down the highway.
“I can remember what I looked like. I had long, blond hair at the time and I used to pretend, just like playing a part, that I wasn’t a mother with six children, I was an emancipated woman. I felt real good about driving it, believe me. It’s a wonderful thing for a woman because you maintain your identity, your flamboyance, and you have an elan. It was a lovely feeling for a young mother.
“My mechanic was Mexican and he said, ‘What you people don’t understand about these cars, they need a Mexican tune-up.’
“I said, ‘What is that?’
“He said, ‘You got to blow that thing out; these cars are meant to be driven. You have to go a hundred and some miles an hour, blow out the engine and settle it down.’
“So I’d take it down to San Ysidro where we had a ranch and go down Monument Road at 120 miles an hour when nobody was around. I used to take it out every Tuesday and bring all my naval officer pals along. I’d take turns giving them rides on the tune-up run.
“It wasn’t worth much when I started, it was just a little piece of thrown-away car. I didn’t have a lot of money to fix it up, so I did it piecemeal. The tires alone were great big, thick, heavy, expensive tires.
“I bought it during the Vietnam War. I used to have some rental units in Coronado that I'd rent only to naval officers or pilots because they had a hard time finding accommodations. So, I would babysit these fellas. I’d send a maid in or I’d go in myself with a maid, change their sheets once a week and cook them a dinner, bake them a cake. The days filled up, or at least the mornings, babysitting these guys. A lot of times this was their last home.
“I can remember I lost a SEAL team, five of them got killed on a mission in Vietnam. Then I started noticing that some of these fellas were high-risk takers. Down the street from me I had a little cottage that I rented to four pilots. I used to see one of the boys drive his little MG, or whatever it was, so fast. I said to him, ‘You know, you’re a real risk taker and I just buried five. Do you have a girlfriend to go to when you get home?’
“So, I said, ‘What do you have to come home to that will teach you not to take risks?’ because in Vietnam when one plane went down the other pilots would be so angry they’d move in closer than they were ordered just to knock out those surface-to-air missiles. I said, ‘What would it take to make you want to come home?’
“He said, ‘Your Jaguar,’ which was worth, probably, $40,000.
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what: I’ll make you a bet — I’m used to betting, I have horses. I’m a bettor — you leave me a thousand dollars in your will and if you come back I’ll sell you the Jag for a thousand dollars.’
“When other fellas came back from their tour in Vietnam, they told me that every time that kid would think about going in a little closer he’d say, ‘I’m not going to get Mrs. Cahill’s Jaguar,’ and he’d roll away and go back to where he belonged.
“Well, that little red-headed kid came back and knocked on my door. He was so angry that I bet on his life. He stood on the porch in his uniform and said, ‘Here’s your thousand-dollar check, give me the pink slip and the keys.’
“I said, ‘Will you come in?’
“ ‘No.’ He wouldn’t even come in, he was so angry. I went to the garage, started the Jag, brought it around front, got out, the engine was still running, he gets in, and without a word drives off.
“I’ve never seen him since, and I haven’t seen my car, but I’ve heard about it. I’ve heard it’s won in the shows. I see people once in a while, and they’ll ask me about my Jaguar and I’ll say, ‘I bet it away.’ A good bet though, wasn’t it? I have never regretted it one day of my life.”
Sharon Currier, San Diego
“I'm executive secretary-treasurer of Local 135, United Food and Commercial Workers Union. We have 13,000 members here in San Diego and 90,000 in Southern California.
“My first car was a faded, red-and-white Ford station wagon, four-door. It was a 1960s model. I was living in Mission Hills. I was 17 years old, got it from a friend of my father's for 50 bucks.
“After I bought it I went for a drive, picked up some high school friends, and went over to the ice rink. It was really exciting because it was my very first car. The doors were tied shut, you had to unrope them to get in, water leaked out of the radiator, the air leaked out of the tires. I thought that was fantastic, I thought it gave the car a fantastic personality. I owned it for seven years.
“But I enjoyed it, it was always a conversation piece, you were never without something to talk about. It used to drive my brother and my father crazy. If the car stalled or stopped they’d try to fix it first, but they wouldn’t be able to start it and then I’d say, ‘Okay, let me see what I can do.’ I’d get out and get the oil dipstick and wherever it looked dry on the motor, I’d just dab a little oil. I would say I was christening the engine, sprinkling oil all over, and I would get back in and it would start. It used to absolutely drive them crazy because it made no sense.
“The car had a radio, and I can remember listening to 'Teen Angel’ and ‘Theme from A Summer Place.' We’d go to the beach and we’d go to the drive-in. When we were at the drive-in the car would run out of water so you had to keep a pitcher in the back seat because you always had to fill the radiator with water if you were going to be any place for any length of time.
“I stored water in the back and everybody just loved it, everybody bought into it. That was just part of the kit. We’d carry water in a pitcher like one you use to make orange juice. We always had to have two pitchers. This is terrible to admit, but the tires were always bald. We kept the baldest tire in the back of the station wagon. That’s where we set the pitchers. If I had to be someplace for two hours, I would figure I’d have to have at least one pitcher. But you know, at the time, there were gas stations all over, it was real easy to pop in, add a little air, add a little water, and be on your way again. That was part of the fun and excitement. I never felt embarrassed, I felt extremely fortunate that I was able to have transportation.
“I ended up giving it away to a cousin. I didn’t get my 50 bucks back.”
Sandy Dijkstra, literary agent, Del Mar
“Hi, did your secretary tell you what this was about?"
“Yeah, I’m going to listen to that one more time and then I’m going to disappear because it sounds crazy, but I want to hear you say it.”
“Just tell me about the first car you ever owned, how you got it, how much you paid for it, what kind of a car it was, that sort of thing.”
“It was a Buick, I think. Buick, about $3000 bucks...."
“I think it was a two-door.”
“Did the car ever have mechanical problems?”
She laughs. “I don’t remember, I was so thrilled to be driving that I’ve repressed everything.”
“Do you remember that first moment you took possession of it? There it was, it’s yours, you got behind the wheel, what happened?” “No," she laughs. “I mean, not really, I don’t."
“Did the car have a radio?” .
“Any particular tune come to mind?" “No. I don’t remember what the tune would be.”
“Did you ever have any long trips with it?”
“I think I had that car in high school, and when I came out to Berkeley I got another car. It was a high school car.”
“Were you a senior when you got it?” “Uh-hum.”
“It must have been a big deal to have a car in high school?”
“It was a big deal to have a car, it’s true."
“Any romance come to mind?”
“Oh God. I’m sorry, I don’t remember a romance in my car.”
“Did it ever break down?”
“You’re gonna get better people, I know you will. I don’t know, I just know that it was a thing to have a car, and yes, that was very much the beginning of car culture.”
“Where were you living when you got it?"
“I was living in Long Beach, New York. Population of my high school was about a thousand. A lot of kids had beat-up, second-hand cars."
“Do you remember the year of the car?”
“I think it was a ’59. I wanted a Lincoln Continental, but my mother thought my taste exceeded reason.”
Nick Reynolds, original member of the Kingston Trio, Coronado
“The first car I ever owned myself? It was a 1952 MG TD. Brand-new.
“There was a tiny English auto parts store in San Diego, uptown between Ninth and Tenth. It was just big enough to hold one car. They had this cream-colored MG TD, the first one in the county. I worked in a drive-in theater and saved a bunch of money. I also had some war bonds that my grandmother had given me. I scraped up everything I had and my dad countersigned a loan; it sold for $1800, 2000 bucks.
“I remember backing it out of the showroom. I was going to the University of Arizona. The MG had a folding windscreen; it would fold forward so I’d wear a crash helmet that I got from a friend of mine. I was driving from San Diego to Tucson, and I’d stop in these gas stations with my face just covered with bugs, driving across the desert at night, horrible, just nothing but bugs. I didn’t give a shit, I was having such a good time. All these people would come running out these gas stations, 'What is it?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s a race car.’ They’d never seen one before.
“It wasn’t a race car, it would do maybe a hundred, maybe, downhill. It had red leather upholstery. Oh, it was so hot, a convertible.
“Those were the days when you tipped your cap if you saw another foreign car. I didn’t have a cap, but I would tip my head or something.
“When I got down to the University of Arizona, in order to make the payments, I had to hold down two jobs. I loaned the car to my roommate. I said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, you can borrow my car, you’re just going to drive around town, right?’ He goes to Guaymas, Mexico, and hits a cow head-on. Jesus, he crashed it. We fixed it up, but it was never the same as driving it off the showroom floor new.
“But it was a good car. When you have a car like that, at the University of Arizona — which is really a play school, especially in those days — a cream-colored MG, brand-new, good God! There was no problem with the chicks, let’s put it that way. They’d say, ‘What is this?’
“I’d say, ‘A race car, a race car. Wait a minute — I have a helmet in the back here, wait a minute.’ It really wasn’t a race car, I mean, it really wasn’t. I burned out a clutch because I thought it was a race car. I kind of talked myself into that. I’d be sitting at a stoplight, and I’d see a guy next to me and I'd gun it and let the clutch out, see if I could beat him to the next stoplight.
“A friend of mine and I used to put on crash helmets, we’d find a Polaroid, and pretend we were going around a comer, like we were racing, but we were actually driving three miles an hour. The pictures turned out great. It looked like we were race drivers at Le Mans.
“I sold it in 1956 for 1800 bucks. Today they’re worth in the 20s. I wouldn’t want another one. I’ve got an old man’s sports car right now, Porsche 928, real comfortable, a lot of power, don’t have to drive it fast, everything works.”
Susan Golding, mayor of San Diego
“This sounds like a major policy interview. Let’s see, the first car I bought was a used Plymouth station wagon that was replete with dents and rust. Its color was a nondescript, brownish gray that matched the color of the rust. I bought it in 1968. It was used, a 1964 or 1965.
“I don’t have the slightest idea what I paid for it; not much, I can tell you that, because I was a graduate student. I got it for three reasons. One, it was cheap. Two, it ran. And three, when you drove it people would take you seriously because if you had a nice car, the other cars know that you’re not serious. Driving that car everybody took me seriously.
“I got it in New York, from an ad in the paper. I remember the first moment I took possession, it was a big deal. I had never spent money, it made me feel like a grownup.
“I was 23, not as young as other people when they got their first car, because I lived in New York. At that time you couldn’t have a car in the college where I went to school, and then I was in graduate school and you were crazy if you had a car. People who had cars got rid of them.
“I can remember, the wonderful thing about buying a car in New York, one that you really didn’t care about, one that was already damaged cosmetically, is that you could fit yourself into parking places that most people — even New Yorkers — might think were unreasonable. If you got another dent or two getting into the parking place, it really didn’t matter. When I lived in New York, I don’t know how it is now, but then you had to move your car every 12 hours. So, if you found a parking place anywhere near where you lived, you grabbed it. You developed a whole system, you watched people leave, you went out, you studied when marked places might open up and what streets they opened up on, and you fought for it. You'd just lay in wait for someone to pull out, and it probably took at least an hour or more a day to do that. But I couldn’t afford to have it in a garage.
“I had it a short time in New York and then I went to graduate school in Boston, had it all the way through graduate school, so I owned it at least four years, maybe five years.
“It was a four-door. I remember being proud, just being thrilled that in Boston I had a car that looked like it had been through a lot. Having that kind of a car made it much safer to drive in that city. Boston is one of the most aggressive places in the world to drive, and the drivers are the most obnoxious — more obnoxious than New York or Rome or anyplace. And they’re mean. If you drive around Boston in a nice car, you are in deep trouble.
This car had rusted areas; by the time it had been in Boston three years it was a mess. You can’t leave a car in Boston without rusting it. I never did anything to fix it up or touch it up, nothing, because I figured the minute it looked nice somebody would run into it.
“I eventually traded it in on another car, a used Datsun. It was yellow and it looked like it had some style to it as opposed to driving a clunky station wagon.”
Frank RunJe, buyer,
Colonial Ford on the Mile of Cars, National City
“I started working here in 1957. I’m retired now, only work five days a week. I’m the buyer. I’ve looked at millions and millions and millions of cars.
“I was in high school when I got my first car. I went to a Ford dealer, and he had a 1931 Model A Roadster. I grew up in Washington state, and in freezing weather, a Roadster wasn’t exactly the type of car you’d buy. I lived in the mountains, in fact, Roslyn, the town where they’re filming Northern Exposure.
“I knew I had to have that car so I went home and discussed it with my dad. My dad and the fella who owned the garage were friends. This would have been 1942; I couldn’t have been more than 16. The garage wanted $75 for that Roadster, which was a lot of money. Two or three days later my dad said, ‘If you want to stop by the Ford place, you can pick up your car.’ He bought it for me. Afterwards, he never drove that car.
“It was wintertime. They opened up big doors and I drove that thing out. The temperature was probably 12 or 14 degrees, and here I am riding around in an open car, but that didn’t make any difference. I went home, and I showed it to my dad. It had a rumble seat. That was a big thing. No one seemed to mind the cold; as a matter of fact, we used to go to Seattle in that car, which was 90 miles away, in the wintertime over Snoqualmie. Pass to hear touring big-band orchestras. We’d ride all that way in the open car, and when I say sub-zero temperatures, I mean it was cold.
“I kept it a year, it just got too miserable, and after a year or so you start to notice. I had a lot of problems with it, but it was such a simple car you could keep it running. I don’t remember buying anything for it, tires or battery or anything. The worst part was you had to use alcohol in the radiator. Prestone antifreeze was expensive, alcohol was cheap. But alcohol has a low boiling point, so the radiator was always fuming and it smelled because of the alcohol. We used to pour alcohol in a gallon at a time because if you didn't, the radiator would freeze that night. You could get around that by draining the radiator, but that was awful, crawling around underneath the engine every night.
“The roadster was like a magnet. I’d take it to school and then everybody wanted a ride home. Lots of girls.
“December 1, 1942, I remember that date like it was my birthday, that was the day they rationed gas in Washington. There were ways to work around it, delivery vehicles got different rations, and doctors got different rations, a lot of gas stations would give away coupons if customers didn’t use their gas. You could find a way to drive your car.
“They still have those old Model A Fords. You can go to any of these car shows, and they always have a dozen of them. They were durable, easy to fix, little four-cylinder cars, sat high off the ground. You could run them through the snow. I wouldn’t have one now."
San Diego Padres manager
“It was a ’68, 396 Malibu Chevelle, bought it in ’69. I got it from my brother, he went away to college, couldn’t take it with him, so I bought it. It was a three-speed, clutch, a very powerful car. I was 17.
“My brother gave me a good price. When it was new it was probably worth $3000. I’d worked summers since I was 13, caddying, and I liked the car, so I bought it from him.
“I think I gave him $1800 or something. At that time, as kids still do, you took a lot of pride in your car, you shined it and waxed it all the time. It was light green, a two-door, had a radio. I was a big Motown fan, so I put in an eight-track tape.
“I don’t remember the exact moment I took possession of it. My brother was the one who taught me how to drive a clutch. We used his car. And, being his car, when I got my license, there were plenty of occasions where I drove it, like when he was out of town. Eventually, with him going away to college, I just bought it.
“I kept it for two years. It was a gas hog so I traded it in, even swap, on something more conservative. The Chevelle was more car than I needed. I still see one around now and then, and it brings back memories.”
Stewart Kelly, homeless man 5th and C, Downtown
Kelly is 45 years old, stands six feet. His long, matted brown hair pours out from underneath a black Raiders baseball cap. Five bloody scabs mark his forehead. Beneath the scabs is a red bulbous nose. He wears an Army field jacket, blue jeans, new Nike tennis shoes, and pushes a shopping cart. Kelly pilots a mature cart, meaning: an overflowing basket guarded by 11 triple-lined, stuffed, 33-gallon plastic garbage bags hung all around his wagon.
“It was 1967. I bought a ’62 Comet. I think I paid $150 for it. I was living in Reno, and I remember it didn’t have no heat. There was a little hole on the passenger’s side floor, a circle five inches around. And every time you drove it in the winter, it was just like going into a freezer and turning on a fan. God, it was cold.
“It had a radio, AM of course. At night you could get the Frisco stations. I’d listen to Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cream, any kind of rock ’n’ roll, drive out to the desert, look at the stars.
“There was a lot of partying going on in that little car, I can tell you, brother. We’d go to this country-western bar in Sparks, keep a bottle of tequila in the Comet, go in and dance, come out, smoke a joint, go back in and shoot pool. It was good times.
“The Comet was a gutless little thing, bald tires, no heat, ugly, but it worked. I had it five years, finally wrapped it around a mesquite tree, but before that, nothin’ ever went wrong with it. Hell, I don’t think I changed the oil more than twice in five years.
“I wouldn’t want a car now. Paying the insurance and keeping up with a driver’s license. They’ll pull you over for anything, and then where would you be? I’m doin’ all right, I don’t need no car."