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