A tribute to every car I've owned, in order
Looking back (with photos!) on all the new-to-me cars I've driven, wrenched on, and loved.
HEAR: “Cars” by Gary Numan
READ: George Saunders’ writing timeline. (PDF, hope it works)
VIEW: The Oakland library made a page for everything they’ve found in returned books. They’ve scanned notes, photos, and art. It’s great.
No. 86: A tribute to every car I’ve owned, in order
Car 1) 1967 Ford Mustang Coupe
That my first car was a classic Mustang is evidence that my parents love me. It also speaks to their apparently relaxed attitude toward the frailty of life, since no car is more unsafe for a sixteen-year-old than an airbagless steel cage with bucket seats and seatbelts that fasten across your waist airplane-style. The car was red. I named it Sadie. It had the rich smell of oldness. I would roll up the windows and just take it in, wondering if this was what the 1960s smelled like. It was a straight-six and had a few body issues, which is how we bought for only $3,700. My dad helped me replace the muffler with a glasspack to make it annoyingly loud. I blew up the radiator trying to do a squealing, smokey burnout. The tires never broke traction. In time, the inevitable happened. I crashed it. It was nothing serious, just a fender bender due to the shockingly ineffective drum brakes (I still marvel that people used to drive around with these in cars much bigger and heavier than a Mustang) and me being distracted by my then-girlfriend waving as she pulled up next to my car. When she saw me ram the car in front of me, she accelerated away. After the crash, I lost interest in Sadie. I was afraid to drive her with those brakes, and she was all crooked and sad, and I didn’t have the money to fix her. I sold the car for $5,000.
Car 2) 1996 GMC Sierra Pick-Up Truck
Ah, my cowboy years. Somewhere mid high school, I decided I was a country boy. I had always loved the outdoors and fishing and the “live off the land” sentiment, and these were all things promoted by country music. The songs paint such a glorious image of American lifestyle that I became sedated by a haze of cornfields and light beer and blondes wearing daisy dukes. It was white, lifted, and had huge knobby tires. I got it for $2,500. I was really out here living the fiction of a country song. I even bought a rodeo belt buckle-looking thing to put in the trailer hitch. It was weird. As soon as I realized the whole country music thing was a sham portraying a world completely unlike the one we live in, I gave it up. Be careful with country music. It’s an addictive drug that makes you believe in an alternate reality, one that has a serious obsession with trucks and beer. I sold it for $3,500.
Car 3) 1993 Mazda Miata
I had fallen in love with the design of cars by looking them. I fell in love with the feel of cars by driving my British racing green Miata. This car made me rethink the whole concept of driving. Turns out, driving from point A to point B can be recreational instead of mundane. Because the engine was small, I could shift from first to fifth from stoplight to stoplight. By the time I reached the last gear, I was going (maybe) 45mph with a grin on my face that a twelve-cylinder Ferrari would have a hard time reproducing. And the handling! It was like driving a road-legal go kart. I would find the curviest roads and throw the car’s weight into each turn. It carved through corners with the speed and accuracy of Apollo Ono. And as if all this wasn’t enough, all Miatas are convertibles. Whenever I was feeling saucy, which was very often, all I had to do was press a latch to throw the top back. My dad and I picked it up for $2,000 in Sebastopol. After a year of driving it, I sold it because I was an idiot and let the prevailing “wisdom” of my car “friends” get to me. They called Miatas “Barbie cars” and poked fun at the engine’s meager power numbers. I brushed it off, said I didn’t care, but I guess somewhere deep down I did. Or I just wanted to switch it up. These things are hard to say in retrospect. I sold it for $2,700.
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Car 4) 2003 Subaru WRX Wagon
Now it’s my senior year of high school and I’ve had a new-to-me car every year. Of all of them, my World Rally Cross blue WRX wagon was the most “badass” by the standards of your average car enthusiast. By my standards, it was more than that. It was the only car that mattered in the world. I bought it from a kid named Cole Moody for $3,000. The windows were tinted, the interior was all black, and it was turbocharged, something you could tell by the (functional) hood scoop. If you’ve ever bought the Black Ice variety of those little scented trees—I think they’re literally called Little Trees—that hang on the rear view mirror, you know exactly what this car smelled like. When I bought it, there were about ten of them hanging from the rear view mirror. It’s a smell I can never forget. I’m lucky to have not died in this car. With all-wheel-drive, a manual transmission, and almost 300 horsies under the hood, this was an actual performance-vehicle, or at least the closest I had ever come to one. I took it up into the Santa Cruz mountains and drove like a maniac. Once, after a fight with my then-girlfriend, I did the angsty teenager thing and drove way too fast on a rural road. A local kid and his friends recently died on that road, probably doing the same thing. I took the car down to San Diego with me when I left for college. I’d probably still have it if my parents didn’t present me with a proposition. My brother, still in high school, wanted the WRX. If I gave it to him, they would give me money to buy a different car. Deal.
Car 5) 1986 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia
I could really write a book about my love for this van and the adventures I’ve had in it. I bought it in the desert of San Diego for $3,000. Driving it home on the freeway, one of the tires exploded. I named it Valerie, or Val. It was the perfect car for San Diego. My friends and I would topple into it and drive to the beach, then slide open the big side door and relax on the couch or the fold-out bed with an ocean view. The passenger seat could spin backwards to add to the party. It has a pop-top with another bed for campouts. My nine-and-half foot surfboard could fit in it no problemo. It was my daily driver and my adventure vehicle, executing both tasks beautifully. When classes ended and winter break came, my friend Jason and I drove it up Highway 1 from San Diego to San Francisco, stopping at pristine California beaches to surf and camp along the way. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. We had to find low-key places to sleep, like the loud recesses under freeway overpasses. If we risked it and parked in a neighborhood, we’d get stares or the cops would show up. Homeowners were especially upset when they happened to spot a steady stream of yellowish liquid threading through a crack in the sliding door and onto into the gutter below. When I graduate, I left the van in San Diego while I gallivanted around Europe for two months. When I got back, it started up first try and I drove her home to the SF Bay Area, stopping in Santa Barbara for few nights. It still sits off to the side in my parents’ driveway, being tenderly maintained by my dad. I don’t think I will ever bring myself to sell it. I’ve had some of the happiest times of my life in that van, and I’m sure there are more to come.
Car 6) 1991 Mazda Miata
After college, I entered work mode. I got a job at Apple in Sunnyvale, and Val the van simply wasn’t going to cut it as a commuter. The car that was? The car that could do anything? Potentially the greatest car ever made? Easy, a Miata. I bought a silver one for $3,000 from a guy on Craigslist. It was silver with a matching hardtop and it became my pride and joy. This was also right around the time I fmet my girlfriend (as of Sunday, fiancé) Grace. She hated that car and I loved that she hated it. I would pick her up. We would squish together in the car’s tiny cockpit. I would proceed to drive like an ass. She would scream. I would laugh. Memories. This time around, I finally had some money to do the things I wanted to do to my other Miata. I bought a roll bar (a big metal frame that protects your head in case you roll over) which made it look very race car. I installed some tasteful body modifications. The car came with lightweight wheels, and I installed a pricey suspension system that made it handle like what I imagined a semi-legitimate race car would handle like. Apparently I didn’t learn from my previous mistakes, because soon after getting everything perfect, I sold it. I wish I didn’t. It went to a teenager for $4,750. I thought I was doing something nice, giving a kid a deal on my dream Miata. I shouldn’t have, because he proceeded to fuck it up completely. Again, I’m not really sure why I sold it. It might have been because Grace moved back to Illinois and memories were wrapped up in the car that I didn’t want hanging around. Or maybe I just needed a new project. Maybe both. Again, who can say? I distrust the person who confidently summarizes their reasons years after the fact. I usually think I know my reasons, and then I write and think on them and realize that I don’t.
Car 7) 1965 Ford Mustang Coupe
When I picked up a spray-painted black 1965 Mustang 289 V8 from the shop of a bay area electrician for $8,500, I purchased the only car I can remember wanting from a young age. Now I had some money to blow, it was the middle of the pandemic, and I was ready to build the coolest classic Mustang to ever grace the Earth. Thank God, this car had disc brakes. The engine was strong and sounded as beautiful as any orchestra. With the help of my dad, I quickly got everything in order (bigger wheels, better tires, converted from an automatic to a five-speed manual transmission), sanded it down, and spray painted it black and blue. It was a ratty hot rod, not by the true definition, but to me. These were its glory days. The internals were bulletproof, the outside was questionable. I loved how dirty and beat-up it looked. I could throw it around and make a ruckus without caring. This is what you did with crusty old cars, drive them obnoxiously. Then I decided to get it professionally painted. The painter did a masterful job, perfectly mixing my chosen, period-correct color of Ivy Green. But when I got it back, things between me in the car were different. To use an analogy, I went from having a do-it-all, rough around the edges, badass roller derby ladyfriend to having a prissy diva that I had to tip-toe around. The paint was fresh and immaculate and had to be meticulously cared for. I felt weird doing obnoxious things like revving the engine to better hear its music. This was something cars of this status just didn’t do. People suggested I get a cover for it, since it sat outside, and when I replied that I kind of wanted it to get weathered a bit, they looked at me like I was crazy. I made some great friends in the classic Mustang community and went on some amazing driving adventures, but after the paint job, I pretty much lost interest. I sold it for $30,000, which went towards our home here in Chicagoland.
Car 8) 1987 Volvo 760 Turbo Wagon
This brings us to present day. I write this looking out the window at my battleship-gray Volvo wagon. It’s the typical wagon. Long, many windows, low ground clearance, ugly. I love it dearly. It’s so boxy you could cut yourself on one of its corners. I bought it when I moved to Oakland for $1,500 as my “Oakland car.” Driving a grey brick, I wouldn’t have to worry about hitting other cars, getting hit, or being the target of a break-in. My instinct was right. I hit—some call it a love tap—a lot of people while parallel parking. I was hit by a lot of people. And the car was broken-in to a couple of months after I bought it. The thief was either not the brightest or just rude, because they broke my window even though none of my doors lock. When they found nothing, they stole my battery. I wish them the best. They tried, and failed, to take down my Volvo. But nothing can take down this marvel of Swedish engineering, not even a Chicago winter (to be seen, but I have faith). If there’s one thing I’ve learned since owning this funky wagon, it’s that the Swedes know how to build a car. I’ll never need another car again.
But then, did I need any of the seven cars listed above? The answer is absolutely not. I’m glad I owned them anyway. Every car, I’ve learned, comes with new stories. And these are only mine. None of the cars I’ve owned were built before the year 2000. I wonder about their previous owners and the fascinating stories they would tell about their time owning the same cars that made up such colorful periods of my life. ♦
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HEY! I’m ending the Mailbox section. It’s not because I don’t want to hear what you have to say. It’s because, if you have something to say, leave it as a comment! Substack, like, built a feature for exactly this purpose! I’ll reply to you there. See ya.