Readers' First Wheels

If Monitor readers are any indication, the memory of one's first auto is universally indelible. In response to our question "What about your first car?" (Dec. 18 Monitor, Page 16), we got responses from across the United States as well as from England, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and Australia. The cars ranged from an 18-year-old's 1982 Ford pickup to a nonagenarian's 1910 Elmore. A few "first wheels" were new, but most were secondhand. (The cheapest one that still ran was a 1923 Model T bought for $27 in 1929.) Many had mechanical idiosyncrasies; some weren't even watertight. Many thanks to all of you who sent us your stories!

To the Mall, With Muscle

CAROLYN CHAPLIN, RACINE, WIS.

In the late 1960s, the Pontiac GTO was the ultimate muscle car. My husband bought me this prized vehicle for my first car at a bargain price from his boss's wife. All I had wished for was a reliable used car to drive myself and the kids to the grocery store and the shopping mall. But a few months after acquiring the GTO, I experienced the unexpected pleasure and status of driving a cool car.

I had always been a little nervous about entering the short freeway ramps in the city. But with my GTO, I felt as though the car would take off like a jet on the end of the runway, and away I'd zoom. I soon acquired a deft sense of timing and confidence that came from the car's hefty engine. It had a velvet-smooth ride. No bumps, no noise. Instant response.

It was a heady experience to find the admiring eyes of teenagers gazing at me - or rather, at my GTO - as I sped along the freeway. I sat a little taller and felt a little prettier. Soon, though, my husband got a raise and thought it best if I had a new car. I became the owner of a shiny but sedate Dodge Dart. It was nice. It was dependable. But I was never cool again.

Putt, the Magic Wagon

YVONNE HUBMAYR, ROCHESTER, MINN.

In 1969 I was 19, 5 feet, 1 inch, a poor Australian student, and hot to purchase my first car. I rescued "Putt" from the searing tarmac of a used-car lot one blistering January day. As soon as I sat in the blue-vinyl bucket seat and discovered I could reach the pedals, I knew she was for me; we were both Lilliputians.

Putt was a tiny, white, automatic Toyota 700. She had two doors - and two cylinders to match! One turn of the key cinched her name, for the most noticeable thing about her was the lawn-mower "putt-putt-putt" that demanded the attention of everyone within earshot.

Putt went about as fast as a lawn mower, too. She could go 70 miles per hour downhill with a decent tailwind and no passengers. But my friends soon tired of the necessity of planning a hill-free route to avoid overtaxing the car. That saved me a lot of gas money - well, not that much gas money. Putt had a two-gallon tank, and I topped her up every two weeks for the eye-bulging sum of about $1.

Putt embodied all the qualities of my ideal car. Her safety came from low speeds and my acceptance of her limits. Her reliability was linked to the beauty of her simplicity. She was as cute as a bandicoot and as cheap as a poinsettia after Christmas. To me she was, quite simply, magic.

Taking the Plunge in a VW

ROBERT SENGEBUSH, ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

My first car was a used 1969 Volkswagen Squareback. The design was ahead of its time: a mini-station wagon with a hatch-back door and a fuel-injected, air-cooled engine in the rear. I found it hidden in the basement of a local VW dealership.

In the light of day, it was about as ugly as a car could be, a fact that only gave it more character. The exterior lines were rounded, hinting at common origins with the VW bug. The dashboard was cleft by deep cracks that reminded me of the spreading of the sea floor, something I was studying as a geology major in college. Its color was somewhere between purple and black. I had planned to have it repainted a deep forest green. However, once in the paint shop, something in the name "Grabber Orange" caught my attention, and my car emerged looking like a ripe Valencia.

It took a lot of abuse. It was not an off-road vehicle, but I sometimes drove it as one. Once, when the dirt road I was on ended abruptly, I continued driving. I fishtailed and wove between mounds of sagebrush. Suddenly, the ground dropped away, and I plunged off a steep, 10-foot-high road cut. I landed, unscathed, on the main road to my destination.

I Preferred a Boxcar

MARY FOLSOM, KENNEBUNK, MAINE

The first car with memories for me has forever soured me on antique automobiles. It was a 1927 Packard, big and rectangular - like a railroad boxcar. I would have preferred riding in a boxcar. It was my worst nightmare to be in the car, parked at the curb while my mother shopped, and see a friend coming along the sidewalk. To avoid detection, I would hurl myself on the floor, knowing I was well hidden.

In those postwar years, a few of my friends had cars, but no one had one as old as this. I longed for one of the new, sleek models just off the assembly lines where jeeps and tanks had recently been made.

But all was not embarrassment. Once off the main street, I knew that it could be fun in that car. My stair-step siblings and I had all manner of imaginary play. There were slanted, upholstered footrests, a glass flower vase on the side panel, and window shades that went up and down.

The Packard also served as a weather indicator of sorts. On the inside roof line, mushrooms grew during damp weather.

Except When It Poured

LIZ BARR HELMER, ELSAH, ILL.

The clopping behind my car sounded like a horse trying to keep pace. It was my sister in her clogs pushing the car ... again. This was the fourth time my new Toyota had stalled in a downpour. In a heavy rain, the distributor got wet and the engine quit. The rest of the time, my first car was as dependable as Old Dobbin.

I had worked for four years paying the debts of my college education and saving to buy a Volkswagen Beetle. But by the time I had saved enough for the down payment, everyone wanted a 1968 VW Bug. The waiting list was long. And I wanted my own car now.

My sister and I were paying 10 cents a mile plus gas to use our grandmother's car. And since I was what might be called "automotively challenged," I felt I'd better have a new car.

Because a VW was not available, friends recommended the Toyota. With reservations I went to look at it. The minute I saw the baby-blue-with-blue-interior Corona, I fell in love with it.

On our first run in the car, while my sister drove, I tried every gadget. I'd never sat in bucket seats with reclining backs before. When I grabbed the lever by the side of the seat and pushed back hard, the seat back dropped with a loud snap! I suddenly and noisily dropped out of sight. My sister thought I'd been shot.

We had a lot of fun with my first car. I put 32,000 miles on it in two years. Then I moved to Arizona and bought a second-hand Beetle. But that's another story.

No Traffic in 1912

GENEVIEVE MINER, CLEMSON, S.C.

It was about 1912. Our first car was an Elmore. My father bought it secondhand, so it was probably a 1910 model. It had no windshield, and the rear seats sat way up. It was, of course, cranked by hand at one's peril. The driver, my brother, was an expert at 14 years old. There were no state requirements then. And every time we went anywhere farther than a mile or so, we had at least one blowout.

We always prepared intensively for any outing in the car: hats tied on, and long tan dusters. At least no traffic jams.

As Tall as a Doberman

MEL LOFTUS, ALEXANDRIA, VA.

My first car was a white 1959 MGA roadster that I bought used in 1962. The canvas top was unworkable, and the car had to be driven with the top down at all times, but I loved the car dearly. It was low and lean, and its exhaust seemed to sound just the perfect note.

Besides, I lived in San Francisco. If one dressed semi-warmly, the lack of a top was no problem. I even bought a jaunty little billed driving cap to keep my head warm.

When I roved about in my MGA, I was amazed at the number of people who tooted their horn and waved at me - even beautiful young women, a group with whom I could not speak without becoming tongue-tied. When I told a friend about this amazing fact - women actually waving at me - he said, "You dope! The local British motorcar dealer is running a TV promotion about tooting one's horn and waving when one sees a British sports car on the road!"

So much for my magnetic personality.

One Sunday afternoon as I was returning from the library after my weekly struggle with my calculus homework, I spied a large Doberman pinscher about a block ahead. The dog's owner seemed to be working in the front yard, and the dog was frolicking about. As I approached, the Doberman started to run toward me. I paid little attention. What harm could a dog, even a Doberman, do to a car? But I had forgotten how low-slung the MGA was. My car's speed and the dog's angle of attack brought car and dog together at the driver's door. To my amazement, I was looking up at the Doberman's large, white teeth. He snapped at my head; I pushed my foot down hard on the accelerator. The MGA responded, and I sped away, but the dog's jaws had closed on the bill of my jaunty cap and torn it from my head. I considered going back for it, but I did not. I bought a bill-less watch cap instead.

My Flying Standard

PETER HIGHFIELD, FALMOUTH, ENG.

My first car was a 1936 Flying Standard, a large bulbous sedan, which suited my similar build. It was already quite old when I purchased it for 80 (about $140), and it had a mind of its own. It was not called "Flying" for nothing, as that is what it would seemingly do, much to the fear of some passengers.

It had a hole in the floor by the driver's feet, but that did not matter too much, as it could be covered by a mat. The most disconcerting thing was the adjustable steering column, which suited my long legs and arms. The steering column would not lock into position, and so it rose up and down at random.

The gears were so badly worn that it was easy to engage the wrong one - which I did three times (putting it into reverse when trying to start on a hill) during my driving test. I still passed it, first time; perhaps the driving examiner was so glad to get out safely.

It transported my family, friends, and me for years, financed on my salary as an impecunious bank clerk, until promotion aided the purchase of a saner vehicle.

Unsentimental Journeys

ROBERT HAAS, CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, OHIO

My first car, the only one I've ever owned and the one I still own today, is a 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic. It was originally my father's, then my mother's. Its color is basic black. The model, just discontinued, was once among the most popular in America, and there are millions still on the road today.

I shine my car every weekend, pay a bit extra at work to park indoors in the underground lot, and go several miles out of my way to patronize a service station with a good mechanic. Each spring, when the snow and slush of our Midwestern winter is finished, I lie on the hard cement floor of my garage with emery paper and spray paint, and try to forestall having to buy new doors for one more season. I want to keep it a long time. This is not because I find it alive, or memorable, or exciting, or romantic, or an extension of myself. It is a large, complicated, and rather dangerous machine that I need to use to get around. I know that if I do not work at owning it, it will end up owning me instead!

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