I needed a fresh set of wheels. I’d just dropped my first car at the wrecking yard, a clapped-out Oldsmobile businessman’s coupe with non-functional rear shocks. I’d gotten the Oldsmobile for $85 and hadn’t driven it very long before I found out it wasn’t worth all that money. I was fussier now and willing to pay more than the meager amount I had available when I bought it.
I toured up and down Aurora Avenue in Seattle, past a dozen used car lots and saw some decent vehicles. But I wasn’t stirred until after a couple days searching, I found my dream car. It was a lovely 1949 Ford convertible, baby blue with a white top and white sidewall tires. The tires and interior were in good shape and the body solid. The dealer wanted $475 for it. I road tested the beauty and loved it, but was sure I could get it cheaper.
And so came the haggling, a test of how serious the dealer was about the price he was asking. I told him my target price was $350. It didn’t take long to get him to $450, but I said $425 was my limit. He shook his head and said, “Sorry, I can’t do it. The boss won’t go that low.”
I was still in high school, and he probably figured I’d be a softy as a negotiator. I said, “That’s bull, you are the boss, and I’m not a pushover. All I can handle is $425. I was looking for a $350 car, but I’ll push myself to $425 if you can come down 25-bucks. Deal or no deal?” Fortunately, he decided I meant it. I drove away with the car and bill of sale, minus my cash.
The 1949 Ford custom convertible was a big step forward for the manufacturer. The body was fully enclosed, no outboard fenders or running boards. The engine was moved forward to make more room for the backseat, the frame was stiffened, and the engine put out 100 horsepower. The car sold like hotcakes in 1949 and you can still find one on the Internet, but for a lot more money now than its original cost, about $917.
Even with the top up, it was a terrific car, but I thought of it as a tent on wheels. When I put the top down it was more like a mobile playpen. I was looking forward to driving around Roosevelt High School so the girls could see how cool I was. By the end of the school day, my buddy Dave and I would be hosting girls who were looking forward to being cool and being seen by their friends in my top-down convertible.
One toasty, summer day, Dave and I, with our guests Janet and Diane, stopped at a red light at the bottom of the 45th St. viaduct and took off again when the light changed. I went through the three gears fast, but the overdrive wouldn’t work anymore. I found if I floored it, I could burn rubber when shifting into third. The girls were thrilled and believed it when I told them the car had a racing engine. The next day, Janet and Diane lost their ride because several other girls wanted the thrill. I was suddenly smarter, handsomer and sexier than I’d ever been before. It didn’t matter that the gas mileage suffered from the loss of the overdrive, or that burning rubber was going to mean buying new tires a little sooner than otherwise necessary.
By the end of summer, I was facing my senior year in high school. I played intramural sports but went to the school football games as a spectator. It was more fun to meet people (girl people) after the games, rather than bring dates. Dave and I rode out to the stadium to make new friends. We would ride around with the top down and exchange pleasantries with the unaccompanied girls. We were charming and cheerful and discovered that a happy girl is a friendly girl. Offering them a ride home seemed to make the girls happy.
By the next spring, I graduated and planned to go to the University of Washington. I went through fraternity rush but had to be careful with my car. Some of the rush parties got wild and loud, and featured dancing girls. The party atmosphere tended to make me silly and reckless, and I didn’t think much about the safety of my car or passengers.
One night after a rush party, I was careless and forgot to turn on my headlights. Just in time, I realized they weren’t on and flipped the switch a minute before a police car came by. That was a good jolt to remind me be more cautious.
Dave and I eventually joined the fraternity, and on another night, we double dated. His date was a girl who came to the United States from Hungary. We were headed to our fraternity’s winter formal after attending the pre-dance party at the fraternity house. Carla, Dave’s date observed my happy-go-lucky driving for a few minutes and said, “I survived the Hungarian revolution; I don’t want to die cheap now.”
Dave and I agreed I was driving just fine, notwithstanding my usual clowning at the party. I didn’t kill myself or anyone else, became more serious and careful, and eventually got my degree, the beautiful Ford still intact.