Thursday, September 16, 2010

My First Car and Beyond

I have owned ten automobiles during my lifetime: four new and six used. One lasted only a few weeks. I’ve had another for more than 17 years. I’ve liked some my automobiles more than others. Some served well. Others not so much. I have learned lessons from each.

My first car was a 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass two-door. By today’s standards, the car was massive for a two-door vehicle. The main body was canary yellow and the roof was a dark brown. I didn’t really like the colors, but I liked having my own car. The seats were vinyl. The dashboard was mostly metal. It got about nine miles/gallon in city driving.

The Olds Cutlass had belonged to my scoutmaster, who had bought it used from a car rental agency. I rode in that car on many scouting activities. As the car began to hit the stage where it needed more repairs, my former scoutmaster sold it to a neighbor who loved to work on cars. He kept it and worked on it for a couple of years before my Dad negotiated with him to buy the thing for $400. (That was worth a lot more than $400 today.)

When Christmas came a couple of months later, I received an in-dash AM/FM radio with an internal 8-track player along with two speakers. My Dad and I spent Christmas Day out in the driveway in frigid temperatures installing the new stereo.

The car was reliable in that it worked most of the time and I could rely on it to have regular maintenance problems. My older brother used the car while I served a mission for my church. When I returned from my two-year absence, my precious beater was even more beat. Part of that was wear and tear. Part of it was due to vandalism that occurred when the thing was left parked overnight in a rough part of town.

From my first car, I learned that cars need more than just gasoline. The oil needs regular changing, there are all kinds of other fluids that need monitoring and changing (brakes, transmission), tires wear out and need to be replaced, brakes occasionally need work, there are all kinds of other maintenance issues, and some cheap aftermarket 8-track tape players function poorly in cold weather.

I also learned what to do when the car got stuck. I learned to be careful changing lanes in a rear-wheel-drive vehicle when the snowplow has left a ridge of snow a foot deep between lanes. (Fortunately, there was no other traffic around and I simply ended up on the other side of the road facing in the direction of traffic.) I discovered that even a cheap car costs a lot to drive. Insurance premiums, annual inspections, and registration costs have to be paid too.

After climbing the job ladder a bit, I decided to look for a more modern car. I scoped out used Japanese hatchbacks, which were all the rage at the moment. I got sticker shock when I saw how much four- and five-year-old models cost that really weren’t in decent condition. My Dad pointed out to me a sale on brand new Mazda GLCs that cost about the same as the used cars I was looking at. Sure, they were stripped down models that didn’t even have a radio. But they were sure to be better than any used pile of junk I could get.

There’s nothing quite like the smell and feel of a brand new automobile. I remember driving my new beige colored car at night on the freeway just a few days after I got it. I was thinking how cool the lighted dashboard looked. Sure, it had no carpet or A/C, the seats were vinyl, and it had a four-speed manual transmission. But it was brand spanking new. It gave me a feeling of having arrived at some new status.

Of course, the car payments and the higher insurance premiums heightened my sense of responsibility and accountability. My agent said that on his company’s scale where 17 denoted the highest risk (Magnum P.I.’s hot red Ferrari would be in that class), my car ranked at 14. But as a trade-off, I had far fewer maintenance issues and I learned about the advantages of front-wheel-drive. I installed a stereo system and enjoyed my car — for a while.

Next time: Minivans Forever

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