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My First Car

  My father took me aside during a visit in the first term of my senior year at college and asked if I would like my graduation gift early—a car. If so, we’d take $2,000 and go car shopping when I was home at Christmastime. Would I like a car? I pretended to be humbled and overwhelmed by his generosity, but inside I was nothing but excited!

Ford had brought out the Mustang in 1964, and ever since then, cars had become sportier and more muscular. By 1967, most of my friends either drove or wanted to drive a high-performance car with a big engine and a 400-cubic-inch, V-8 roar that growled, “don’t even think about it.” Hemis, dual carbs, and glass pipes were parts of our everyday vocabulary. We all envied the driver who had the GTO Judge, or the Dodge Charger, or the Chevelle SS. It was horsepower, not size, that mattered.

These cars got anywhere from 9 to 12 miles per gallon. But who cared? We could enjoy the power and coolness because gasoline was cheap. If you paid more than 30 cents a gallon, you were shopping where gas was expensive. The only gas wars we saw took place between gas stations on opposite corners of the street. Every now and then, gas prices dropped below 20 cents a gallon, and if you just happened to be filling up at the time, you figured you were having a lucky day.

For $2,000, I realized, whatever car I got wouldn’t be much to brag about. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for my father), the only cars I could get for that price were ones my father considered flimsy. He increased the budget, and I could get at least one of the next-best-things. For less than $3,000, I wound up with a dark blue, 1968 Pontiac Firebird, with 350 cubic inches, 265 horsepower, a two-speed automatic transmission, and a bulbous nose that distinguished it from its Camaro cousins. It wasn’t a top-of-the-line muscle car, and the two-speed transmission wasn’t exactly designed for peak performance. But I could still feel cooler than my friends who had push-button Corvairs and orange-crate-shaped Ford Falcons.

In contrast to the cars of today, my Firebird was primitive. It needed to be tuned up every few thousand miles. This involved replacing the spark plugs, calibrating the timing, gapping the ignition points, adjusting the carburetor, and performing routine maintenance, all of which went out with fuel injection. You could do this yourself, or you could take it to the local service station, where a mechanic could do it for you. Today, the service attendant just plugs into your car’s onboard computer. Back then, the mechanic depended on his (it was almost always “his”) experience in troubleshooting, diagnosing, and fixing problems. Some mechanics were actually pretty good at that.

I had no real experience buying cars, so I didn’t think to look beyond performance. The Firebird was upholstered in “Morrokide,” a fabric that sounded like it was some exotic variation of Moroccan leather. In reality, it was vinyl. That was no big deal in December, when I bought the car. It was another thing in summertime, when the sun heated the Morrokide to the temperature of molten lava. Everyone heard stories about drivers in shorts who suffered first-degree burns when they unwittingly sat on the seat. I learned quickly to put a chair pad or a towel on the seat during the summertime. After a few years, the Morrokide cracked from the temperature extremes.

Compared to today’s cars, my Firebird was primitive. It had manual door locks. From the inside, I could control the locks by depressing or releasing a small post beneath the window. From the outside, however, I needed a key. If I happened to lock myself out of the car (which did happened), I could break into my own car by fashioning a hook out of a metal clothes hanger, inserting it between the window and the door frame, and pulling the locking post up. If I preferred, I could hook the door latch with the bent hanger and yank it to open the door, but that required fussing and more leverage. Either way, I had to find a clothes hanger. I couldn’t stow one in the trunk, however, because the trunk, too, required the same key that opened the doors. I didn’t follow the lead of a few  enterprising drivers who used the hangers as radio antennas. They said the reception was more than adequate.

Like most cars of the time, the Firebird had manual windows that were operated by cranks on each door. The cranks, of course, were just far enough from my driver’s seat that I had to stretch to operate them, which was something of an inconvenience when the car was moving. The newfangled air conditioning was too expensive and out the question, as was cruise control. I could switch between high and low headlights by tapping a floor switch with my left foot. My radio received only the AM band just at the time when FM radio was getting interesting. After a few years, my mechanically inclined brother-in-law installed a separate FM radio. It was monophonic, but my Firebird was just a little cooler.

The car performed pretty well, and that was the main thing I cared about. It had plenty of pep, and there was no street in San Diego it couldn’t accelerate up. The firebird pulled a U-haul from Michigan to California, through even a snowstorm in Socorro, New Mexico. It pulled a Cardinal trailer from San Diego to Mammoth Mountain, where its 2-speed automatic maneuvered the trailer into a steep and narrow recreational vehicle space. I probably shouldn’t have made that trip. Shortly after I got back, the Firebird blew a rod. Fortunately, the community college where I worked offered training in automobile mechanics. A few weeks later, I drove out with an engine rebuilt by students. Automobile painting students repainted the car a lighter blue. I felt like I had a new car.

I learned quickly, however, that the performance I was used to had one major disadvantage. I hadn’t been concerned about the gas mileage as long as gasoline stayed low. But within a few years, the price of fuel went up, and up, and up, and my 12 miles per gallon became a handicap. The last insult occurred when the gasoline companies changed the way they measured octane. “You won’t notice a thing,” they said. “We’re just calculating the number differently.” And the new pinging from my engine was my imagination, too. Not only did the gasoline cost a lot more, but now I had to add a gasoline booster to each tank, which added another 25 cents a gallon to each fill-up.

That was it. In 1986, I traded in my Firebird for a 69-horsepower Hyundai. I spent several months becoming accustomed to the difference. I missed the zip of the Firebird, but I had a new car, not a 19-year-old near collector’s item. Everything worked. I still had roll-down windows and no air conditioning, but the radio played both AM and FM in stereo. And the gas mileage was 3 to 4 times better. I soon forgot about the car of my youth and settled in to the tamer life of a grown-up.

After a while, I didn’t think much about the Firebird.  When I did, I figured the car had been shipped to Phoenix or Tucson for resale or maybe even scrapped. Several years later, I thought about the Firebird and marveled that I barely remembered it. A few days later, I drove home for lunch and for some unknown reason, decided to drive back to work by a different route. As I passed a construction site, I glanced at the cars at the curb. There, parked in front of the site, was the familiar license plate and big snout of my Firebird. The new owner had even restored its original blue color.


My first car