Loving Cars

I have always had a love affair with cars.  Well, perhaps I shouldn’t go that far.  But it certainly has been at least a crush.  My first car was a four-on-the-floor 1969 American Motors Javelin.  That’s a manual transmission, for anyone not realizing that, once upon a time, the driver had to shift gears.  At the time of my Javelin, a four-speed was a way to show off one’s ability to operate such a powerful vehicle.  I never was one to pop the clutch to spin tires and peel out, as we used to say.  Too frugal to waste tire rubber on the road.

  My Javelin was a lovely Willow Green Metallic, with a sleek low chassis and a long snout of a hood.  Very sporty.  White interior.  Yikes!  But the father of one of my best friends was the local American Motors dealer, and he must’ve contacted my dad when he found out I needed a car.  I wasn’t too thrilled by the white interior, thinking ahead to hours of having to clean the vinyl.  But my worst response–which I never voiced to anyone but my parents–was to protest the clock.  I wasn’t about to pay for such extravagance.  Arrogance, on my part.  My parents were quick to disabuse me of that.  The car was a good price, and had come in with some of the extras.  I kept my mouth shut.  I soon found out that the clock was a good thing when I was trying to get someplace on time.  But it was considered a luxury at the time.

I needed the car to get to my teaching internship in Bonduel, about an hour north of college.  The drive took me through more and more rural countryside, which was a delight to travel.  It helped me relax on a Friday, when I headed out after a week of hard work with kids and administrators.  Luckily, I was boarding with a wonderful old woman, who made the best Parker House rolls and…well, everything, really.  When she was 13, she cooked for the entire threshing crew on her parents’ farm.  Lots of practice made for perfection.  She lived in a former gas station, and I had a room off the living room.  She loved to crochet and knit, and her quilt frame was up permanently in the attic, accessed by an outside staircase.  She gave us a pair of pillowcases, edged in some of her lovely crocheted lace, for a wedding gift.

But I digress.

I really wanted to purchase my boss’s 1965 lemon-yellow Mustang convertible.  That car had a black leather interior.  Dr. Randerson, biology/genetics professor, was a generous guy, and I often borrowed his car, even when the trips were rather shorter than necessary for a car.  But I could tool around town, knowing I looked cool.  When I left for the summer of 1968, he was talking about wanting to buy a Triumph to replace the Mustang.  I emphasized that I’d need a car in the fall, and please contact me before he sold it, so I could put in an offer.  I left him with my address and phone number, and extracted a promise from him.  Which he promptly broke.  Because when I returned in the fall, he had his new Triumph, and I?  Oh, dear, he didn’t think I was serious.  Surely, he was able to see the steam that emerged from my nostrils.  I consoled myself that it didn’t have power steering or power brakes.  The steering wheel was huge.  It was a bit of a pain to get the soft top up and down.  And the years of winters would surely not be kind to the body.  And…that rationalizing didn’t work very well.  Even now, when I see a Mustang of that era–and there are still a few on the road–I get nostalgic.  I know, I know.  Those old Mustangs took a lot of work to keep them running, probably new engines, to say nothing of keeping the rust at bay.  Still…  Oh, get over it.

When we got married, Denny had a copper-colored Comet, which we called the Vomit.  That car lasted until my parents bought a new car and gave us their dark blue Buick, a really nice sedan.  When it started costing us too much in repairs, we sold it for a song to our mechanic, who gave it to one of his kids in Arizona, I think.  Shortly after that, the car crossed the border into Mexico, reborn as a real Tijuana Taxi, mimicking a popular song of the time.  I wonder just how long it survived, although I know it was a taxi for a good number of years.  (Which always brought me back around to that Mustang, wondering how long I could’ve kept that pony car alive.)

A van eventually replaced a smaller box-like Horizon.  The red van was replaced by a forest green one as our family continued to schlepp kids and stuff around.  The red van went to St. Louis to live with our son at medical school. He and his friends called it the People Mover, as he was the first one called on when a bunch of friends were heading out.  Sadly, it didn’t last long, less than a year, if I remember right.  But at least our son could recycle it at a junkyard.  Each of our vans made annual treks to Stratford, Ontario, to the Shakespeare Festival.  We’d pack students and another adult in, requiring everyone take only one bag.  No roof rack, so everything got positioned very carefully into the van.  I became the Queen of Packing.  Grand trips, each one, for 10 years.

When my mother gave up driving, she gave us her Aircraft Carrier, a big brown Buick Le Sabre that my dad insisted on buying as they got toward the end of their driving years.  He anticipated dying before my mom, and wanted her to have a heavy, safe car.  It was all of that.  The hood was big enough to land a fighter jet, while the trunk could probably accommodate a small helicopter.  Always good for a laugh.  We also received Denny’s mom’s car, a big green Ford sedan.  When Carolyn drove, we always hollered, “Here comes the Blonde Bomber!”  She could barely see over the steering wheel.  Those were the days before the driver could adjust the vertical lift of the seat.  Ethel was really too short to drive it, once she got her driver’s license after Harry died.  She was 55 years old.  I gave her lots of credit for learning something she was terrified of doing.  We persuaded her to buy a smaller car, more her size.  Perfect.

Now, we are into SUVs, as they give us better visibility, both for us to see the road and for others to see us.  We’ve gone from manual transmissions and carburetors to computerized…everything.  The seats are adjusted electronically, and can be set to respond to each separate driver.  With power steering, biceps the size of a weight-lifter are no longer necessary.  With ABS, Anti-lock Braking System, braking on slippery spots means no longer standing on the brake pedal and then having the brakes lock up.  The system “stutters” in order to provide the best traction.  I could go on and on.  I’m still learning the computer that sits on the dash, a personal aide that can tell me where to go and how to get there, that can turn on any radio station or bring up a world of music.  The best part is, I can talk to it and it talks back.  I could make phone calls, though I’ve never thought that a good idea, as I can’t drive and do much else at the same time.  I can, however, ask the car to read out any messages I get.  I feel so pampered.   Occasionally, I check to see that my hood ornament isn’t a Jaguar or the fancy-schmanzy Rolls Royce “Spirit of Ecstasy.”  Just kidding.  I don’t have a hood ornament.

In the 1960s, I could identify most cars by their taillights.  Or more often, tailfins.  Chevys with their lifted fins that looked like eyebrows.  Fords with fiery Cyclops eyes.  Cat’s eyes and oblongs, squares and rows of perfectly cut rubies.  So much personality.  Much of that is gone now.  Unless I see a top-end car, a Ferrari, or a Corvette (and even those are getting more generic), cars have subsided into some sort of average look.  Safety, as is only right, and environmentally aware designs are the norm.  Exterior glamour, for the most part, has passed away.  The glamour has, however, retreated to the interior, which is really where it should be.  We are, after all, driving for ourselves, and should be surrounded by safety and luxury.  Too much on the outside is distracting for others.  That’s my rationale, and I’m sticking to it.

I’m still waiting for the day when I tire of driving, or even of scanning the roadways (when I’m not driving) for attractive cars.  Someday…maybe I’ll see that lemon-yellow Mustang again.