By on February 17, 2012

We advance into adulthood by degree, and every one of the degrees is a first time that cannot be duplicated or get a do-over, no matter how much we would like to change our personal history. So we romanticize the clumsy moments and brash decisions of youth as we get older and view our teenaged pasts in a nice golden hue. It may shave several layers of reality off the actual events but it makes our younger years more glamorous and heroic in a Paul Simon ‘Kodachrome’ kind of way.

One thing that never changes in my memories is my first car. We should remember our first cars with the same degree of reverence as other really big first time events from our youth. The kind not found on the pages of a collector car website.

However that first car led in a meandering path to those other big first events in young lives, because a car is the first tangible moment of freedom that you get in life. A car is the first step toward adulthood because it requires a sense of responsibility to own and drive a car.

The main appeal of a first car is the moment when you get behind the wheel and drive to any destination of your choice. You can choose any road that you want on the way, preferably the kind that interests a 16 year old female crowd when you are a newly minted 16 year male driver.

My first car was a 1954 Austin A-40 that I bought for 50 bucks off my brother-in-law after he purchased one of those new-fangled Datsun 510s as a second car. It was the fall of 1971 and I was the proud owner of my first car; an underpowered British sedan with minimal heat, power and brakes. I was thrilled with the idea of my first car-even a pretty un-cool car by early 70s high school standards.

The first thing I addressed on the car was the cool factor as visualized by a 16 year old kid with a limited budget. My older brother got involved in a trunk lid transformation that turned the rectangular trunk lid into a perfect British flag via careful masking and paint cans. It would later become the only reason that I got anybody to buy the Austin, and clearly the buyer was not from Northern Ireland in 1972.

I decided that the leather interior needed a spruce-up so I bought some Mac-Tac and put a cheap psychedelic pattern over the door panels. Remember, 16 year old mind at work here folks.

So I pretty much had it covered cosmetically, but I soon faced my first hurdle after I was faced with a bad cylinder head and a big repair bill. I got the job done by a local rebuilder who was saddled with my daily visits to their shop because I really wanted to get back behind the wheel.

It took almost a month for them to do the job, which is approximately a century in high school time. Then I took the project over to a buddy’s parents’ place because it was winter and they had a heated garage.

His father was also a plumber who dispensed some plumber advice for an automotive project: use gasket glue on the head gasket. It had predictable results when anti-freeze began to spray out of the non-seal.

Luck was on my side when a small garage in town had the last Austin head gasket in town because I had already purchased the second last gasket from him.

He told me not to listen to plumbers when it came to cars and we put the last head gasket in town on the Austin in my buddy’s garage-without the gasket glue. It worked and I was finally on the road again.

The winter of 1971-72 was a brutal one in my town. It was extremely cold and no place to drive a British car with no heat and questionable brakes, but I loved every minute of the short time behind the wheel of that car.

My English teacher called me “The 10 o’clock scholar” because I was always about ten minutes late for class so that I could avoid any traffic jams at the bottom of a long hill with two high schools in a one-block radius. I was unwilling to test my limited driving skills and those spongy brakes against heavy traffic.

One bitterly cold night I was stopped by the police. He could see that my car was completely frosted up, but I didn’t see his lights, so he hit the siren to get my attention. I pulled the car gently to the curb and into a snow window to slow me down so I didn’t have to pump the brakes.

He was impressed with my ability to use an ice scraper on the inside of my windshield, but he strongly suggested that I wait until warmer weather (called Chinooks in my neck of the woods) before I again drove the car.

I didn’t have the car very long because it blew up on a highway in January 1972. I was push starting my future sister-in-law’s Volvo automatic and it required serious speed that frigid night. I got us up to 70 mph, the Volvo started, and the Austin breathed its last because of a bent piston rod. The death rattle meant the end of a brief fling between me and the Austin.

The car and I parted ways when I sold it to a cynical biker type who subsequently became a legendary airbrush artist for murals on vehicles and bikes. I like to think that my British flag trunk inspired him.

I never really forgot the little Austin and I have looked at a few of them over the years. The decision not to buy one has always been tempered an obvious reality: you can’t replace the first one – in most things from youth.

For more of J Sutherland’s work go to mystarcollectorcar.com

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25 Comments on “For A Teenager, The First Time Is The Most Memorable...”


  • avatar
    Junebug

    Agreed 100% there is only one first time, good, bad, or clumsy, you can NEVER equal it.

  • avatar
    RSF

    My first car was a 78 El Camino that I paid $500 for in 1986! The thing re-defined rough in every way, but I loved the car because of the freedom I now had (and I didn’t have to drive mom’s Cutlass Cruiser wagon any more)!

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Yep, and add in there, your early 20’s too when it comes to those first times.

    My first car was a semi tired but still running quite fine, 1968 Chrysler Newport which I owned for 2 years back in 1982-83.

    Spent many a time in that car doing this or that to it, like rewiring the rear window blower as the original wiring has burned up all its insulation some point and thus didn’t work and adding an old AM/8-track deck to it and making what would be my one and only 8-track mix tape and all I recall it having was Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith, Sweet Home Alabama: Lynard Skynard, Centerfold and Freeze Frame by the J. Geils Band. Ah, those were the days! I would graduate from HS in 1983, BTW.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    The sensible adult in me is horrified by the inherent danger and inconvenience of the 1965 Volkwagen Beetle, a vehicle that had no business on US highways in the Midwest, but the nostalgic adult in me still smiles to think about mastering a 4 speed manual and rebuilding my first carb.

  • avatar
    tedward

    My first was a 1986 F-250 with a mild suspension lift (courtesy of previous owner) and a rear facing GM sourced bench seat in the bed. I got a huge kick out of driving it to my entirely urban high school immediately outside of NY, where most of the other students had never even sat in a pickup until I showed up with one. My parents were really excited about having an official “tow bitch” (actual quote) in the family. I was thrilled, even though it tried to kill me quite a few times.

    3 brake failures at speed in a hilly neighborhood (I was even congratulated by an officer for crashing it responsibly once), a reserve tank that would overpressurize and spew fuel at random moments (2 HAZMAT responses while shopping), and a floor button high beam selector that caught fire twice. I loved that damn truck.

  • avatar
    Banger

    My first was a 1993 Isuzu Pickup. That’s all it was called. Not “P’up” as the Chevy LUV clone was called years earlier, just “Pickup.”

    It was at one time bright red, but was fading to pink. A standard cab model, it had power nothing, a heavy (in retrospect– I didn’t realize it at the time) cable-operated clutch, and no A/C. That last little option delete made for a lot of fun humid spring and summer evenings when I was late getting home from a date with my girlfriend. Often had to resort to rolling down both windows and putting the heater on full tilt out the defroster vents and pray it was enough to get the fog off the windshield. The original dealer papers still in the glovebox said my Dad had paid $7,500 for it brand-new in 1993. Nine years later, I was the only one of my friends who had a carburetor in my ride (!) and subsequently got stranded a number of times because said carburetor was in bad need of a complete replacement due to the cheap gas my Dad had used for years finally pitting parts of the carb with rust.

    I recall rushing to get my girlfriend home one day when my dad was being particularly overbearing about getting back to his house in a very short time span, as he usually was. Driving down a very twisty road out of a state park and hitting an indicated 90 mph (!) on a few stretches. Found out a few weeks later that the truck effectively had no back brakes because the shoes were worn completely and were out of adjustment anyway. It was a miracle we didn’t get killed. That girlfriend is now my wife, God bless her.

    I only drove it four or five months, I think, before it stranded me while I was doing my job as a weekend photographer for the local paper. I used to have to travel to all the little country churches and take photos at bridal and baby showers– real hen parties, for sure. That combined with my dad’s selfish demand that I bring it to him to be fixed even though he wasn’t as capable as my stepfather with a wrench nor did he have as much time to work on it caused my mom and stepfather to load up the Isuzu on a trailer– still not running reliably thanks to the cruddy carburetor despite a full rebuild and soak in carb cleaner– and drop it off in Dad’s driveway.

    Not wanting me to have to give up my job because of my lack of transportation, my mom and stepfather in turn bought me a 1994 Nissan Hardbody pickup, which was very similar but had A/C and fuel injection. It was light-years ahead of the Isuzu as far as reliability and comfort were concerned. Within the year, I would earn a 95 mph (in a 65 zone) ticket with it. On the way home from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation Basic RiderCourse, no less. Ah, youthful stupidity.

  • avatar
    jfbramfeld

    I think for many of us our first car was a nightmare best forgotten. How does an ex-Chicago police dog wagon sound? It had 90,000 hard miles, back when 90,000 miles was about 20% more than you could usally get before rust made the car dangerous. It was about a 1965 Chevy with no back seat because of the dog cage. It did have front disks, which were so warped the whole car shook like a paint mixer during braking. Its six cylinder engine got 12 miles per gallon no matter how fast or slow I traveled.

    The worst part is that I bought this from my police mechanic cousin for $400 and my much beloved Honda 305 Scrambler.

    I blame you for resurrecting this unpleasant memory.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    My third car was my memory – a gorgeous 1964 Chevy Impala SS convertible, goldwood yellow w/black interior. In Northern California. THAT’S the car I remember most fondly from my youth. My first two cars? Better left forgotten, as they were both hoplessly rusted-out, St. Louis area bombs. Only when I entered the air force out of high school in 1969 did the finest four years of my young, single life begin – in California! Before that – just moments and chapters. Wish I could have a few of those memories as a “do-over”, though…

    What if? indeed…

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    My first car was a 1993 Ford Aerostar Eddie Bauer edition. I bought it from a friend of my brother’s dads for $750. It had a missing fender, this awkward fiesta like paint job, tan on the rockers and turquoise for everything else, the tires were mismatched and the thing was a pig. I liked it because it was my first car, but would have liked something more along the Explorer lines.

    • 0 avatar
      johndoe1

      Did you get talked about being a teen in high school with a minivan? How was it on gas? Hw much did it cost to fill up the tank?

      • 0 avatar
        tankinbeans

        Not really. Most of the people in my class didn’t even know since I wasn’t vein enough to pay $210 a year, and submit to a ‘lottery’, for a parking pass just to avoid riding the bus. My friends didn’t care because I had the largest vehicle of the bunch and could stuff 6 people in the back.

        It was crud on gas. When I had it gas was trending up to $2.50 and it was costing me around $50 give or take. I was getting about 200 miles out of a 20 gallon tank. Needless to say, I didn’t keep it very long.

  • avatar
    threeer

    1978 Plymouth (nee Mitsubishi) Arrow GT…in that crazy orange with houndstooth interior. God, how I miss that car. My best friend had a 1979 Fire Arrow, and I was always envious of the 2.6 in that thing compared to my 2.0. But still…I loved that Arrow! No A/C, but who cared? Rolled the windows down and let it roll. That car still had the best air circulation I’ve ever experienced out of a two door. Never mind that I always nearly burnt my hand on the metal gear shift pattern on the stick…I used electrical tape to black out the initials of my then G/F on the rear lights…dorky, but it scored points with her…big time!

  • avatar
    dts187

    My first vehicle was the family hand-me-down 88 Dodge Dakota with the 3.9 V6. Power nothing, automatic nothing, no carpet, no headliner, no problems. In it’s previous life it was a meter reader truck that had a cheap paint job slapped on it before my family bought it. In the right light you could still see the outline of the Ohio Edison decals they painted over.

    I sold it off to have some cash to go towards a lemon 1998 Dakota. Huge mistake.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Please tell me that I’m not so old that my first car was an 11 year old 1947 studebaker champion. Nope. You aren’t glib enough.

    And yes. Thats probably why I never owned another studebaker although I was sorely tempted.

    • 0 avatar
      Joe McKinney

      My first car was a 19 year old 1962 Studebaker Hawk my father and I found at a local used car lot for $1,000. This car was my daily driver for several years and I kept it until 1989. It was great looking car, but over the years it rusted like crazy in the humid Florida air and everything on the car seemed to rattle whenever you hit bump in the road.

      I had a lot of good time in this old Studebaker, but it terms of engineering and build quality it was nowhere near as good as the the 45 year old 1967 Thunderbird that currently resides in my garage. Like the Studebaker, the Thunderbird is an unrestored driver. Unlike the Studebaker, the Thunderbird is almost entirely free of rust and rattles.

  • avatar
    Spike_in_Brisbane

    Cars 1, 2 and 3 were all 1960 FB Holden’s, each better than the last but each costing exactly $100. One was a brown with white wings wagon with no starter and LOTS of rust. I spent my weekends moulding two-pack epoxy into holes and painting it and my Saturday nights at parties where I could park facing downhill. (Sometimes a long walk from the drinks). One memorable night I returned my girlfriend to her parent’s place, asleep in the back, under the weather and as I later discovered, under the spare wheel which had fallen on her.
    Two was an FB sedan with every panel hand painted a different color. It’s most impressive attribute was to be able to idle smoothly so slow you could almost pass your hand through the fan. (Never actually tried though)
    Three was the best. It was actually shiny, a two tone blue but it had no engine. I bought a Repco short motor and Yella Terra head and enjoyed the next month putting it together. I loved that car. 12″ widies on the rear, standard 5 1/2s on the front. It finally expired after running into a parked car in the fog on the way home from a friend’s 21st birthday. Police arrived and actually helped me lever out the fender and get it mobile to go home. Their only insistence that I leave a message for the owner of the parked car. Those were the days. (Seventies)

  • avatar
    Broo

    My first car was a modest 1989 Toyota Tercel I got in 1994, 2 doors hatch. Very reliable, cheap to run (42 MPG). It was white. In a foolish moment I had it striped green and red on the sides. Toyota was then involved in rally races and their main sponsor was Castrol, that’s why I chose these colors.

    When I got it back home all striped, my mom instantly called it the christmas candy cane.

    I have fond memories of this car. Very smooth manual transmission, small, light, cheap tires (13 inches), to this day it still seemed a quality econobox, if a bit underpowered. Perfect for the beginner I was.

    It died in 2006, when something major broke in the engine and the repair cost was higher than the car’s value. Amazingly the body was still in near perfect shape due to my obsessive cleaning and detailing habits.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    1982 Chevrolet Celebrity which had been in the family since 1985 (I got my license in 1993.) Might 151 cubic inch 90 hp throttle body injected IRON DUKE and unkillable Hydramatic 125 (the little FWD edition Hydramatic). The car had around 100,000 miles on it when I got it and my Dad had nearly sold it about a year before when purchasing his next car a 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham sedan. Celebrity received an engine rebuild right before I got it, in the words of a dealership technician; “The cylinders are egg shaped and the cam is ground flat.” It never failed to start on me and the transmission ran right up till about the 200,000 mile mark on original fluid.

    God I hated that thing it was rusty as hell, it had power nothing. The mighty Iron Duke had enough torque to light the tires (I still blame it for my torque addiction) but not enough hp to pass on the highway without filling written permission with the engine first. It ate front brake pads, alternators, and O2 sensors. In fact I tried to cover the “check engine” light with a holy card for gods sake! (No wonder that thing never got me laid.) It idled at such a high RPM that you could let your foot off the brake, not touch the gas and cruise around my small town at 20mph all day long. When my dad tried to get the dealership to cure the high idle they couldn’t do it and keep the engine running so at that high idle is where it stayed.

    Redeeming qualities? Freezing AC, flaming hot heat, great snow traction, good handling, cheap tires (13 in rims), 29mpg combined 50/50 city and highway driving, good snow traction, good rear seat leg room, and it once started on a -50 degree F day when I was in college. I think fondly of it but my lust is reserved for my second car the Cutlass Supreme Brougham with posi-trac and the 307V8.

  • avatar

    I like the very diverse range of ages that have posted their first car stories on this topic. I sometimes wonder whether the car guy culture will die a horrible death with a younger generation. The posters on this story give me serious hope that I worry too much about the future of the car culture.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      You know who wants into the “car culture” badly? Teenage boys with with strict families that don’t give them everything. To them the car still represents a chance at a job, freedom, and somewhere to go with a girl that’s not his house. I know this because I’m helping a 15 year old with a permit try to find a car.

  • avatar
    Slab

    I hardly knew my first car – an 11 year old 1968 Mustang. Bought it the summer between high school and college. It had some minor engine and transmission problems. Interior was in great shape, the two-tone glacier and navy blue. The exterior not so much. Someone had painted a mural on the hood and roof, then covered it in something like clearcoat. Whatever it was did not stand up to Las Vegas summers, and it was a mess. Planned to take it down to primer. The college I attended did not allow freshmen to have cars on campus for the first semester, so it sat for four months. At Christmas break, a jackwad ran a red light and totaled it. He had no license and no insurance.

    I inherited my father’s company lease car when he got a new one – 1977 Buick Regal. It turned out to be a great car for a college student. Road trip! Most everyone else had small econoboxes. I drove it up until my second job when I bought a used BMW 318i (shakes at at the folly of youth).

  • avatar
    nrd515

    My dad wouldn’t let my sister and I drive an old “junker”, so my first car wasn’t all that bad. It was a ’71 Olds Cutlass, blue with blue interior. It was a problem free car in every way, and I had it a whole 2 weeks after getting my license. I got hit by a VW bug going at an insane speed and it was gone. The replacement Cutlass (We had a bunch of them between ’68 and ’73)was a red Supreme with a white vinyl top. The interior was thankfully black, I don’t think I could have driven a car with a white interior. It wasn’t the greatest, reliability wise, it ate starters and had other electrical issues, along with a off idle stumble that too several dealer visits to resolve. I really didn’t like it all that much, and in May of ’74, I ordered a ’74 Roadrunner, with the decently powerful 360 4 barrel, 245 HP engine. I had that car over 3 years, then I bought something that rivals any $100 beater for unreliability, my ’77 Dodge Power Wagon. It’s really the only real lemon I’ve had, and I was so happy when I dumped it after 4 miserable years. Insanely, every time I see one like it on Ebay, I so badly want to buy another one. What is wrong with me?

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Technically, my first car was a 1969 Ford Torino GT I bought from my brother for $150 plus my Peugeot racing bike. I had the car for about a year, but during the time between high school and college, I landed a job as a union warehouse selector and truck loader. This enabled me to make payments on a leftover 1980 Mercury Capri RS Turbo. The Capri turned out to be POS, another story for another time.

    I kept the Torino around after I bought the Capri, mostly to use as a winter car. But it was 11 years old, had over 160,000 miles on it and developed serious electrical issues during my time with it. I could never keep a battery in it and I often smelled what I thought was burning insulation while driving it.

    Spring came and I was tired of paying insurance on two cars and constantly jump starting it too, so I sold the car to a used car dealer for $200 or so. He put a gun sight style of hood ornament and different wheel covers on it and sold it to some local kid. In that same summer I saw the burned out hulk of the Torino sitting a local gas station, I guess the burning smell finally turned out to be serious…

  • avatar
    Phred_da_Phrog

    My first car was a 1998 Mercury Mistake. Err, Mystique. The car had the Duratec 25 and an auto, but with a good suspension on it, it could outrun and outcorner a Saab 900 Turbo ‘vert (my best friend owned a 1994, then a 1997). Too bad I lost a ball joint and it took the CV with it after the body had pretty much fallen apart… Good car, but I didn’t have $1,000 to fix a car I’d bought 4 years earlier for $1,500.

  • avatar
    texan01

    my first car was the first car I ever rode in. a 1976 Chevy Malibu Classic sedan. My parents bought it brand new two months before I was born. fast forward 16 years and mom was looking for a new car. So I got the hand-me down Chevy with 120,000 miles on it. I learned a lot with that car, how to fix things, I kept it for 8 years before rust and a broken wheel forced its retirement.

    I bought a 77 model 3 years ago, and its in far better shape than the old 76 was, but its not the same.


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