I was 16 when my dad helped prepare me to get my first driver’s license. We went over the local streets in my dad’s car, a boring 1946, 4-door Dodge. It had a steering column, 3-speed gear shift and a clutch. Several times in our Seattle neighborhood, I practiced as far away from traffic as we could get. Without danger to the rest of Seattle’s motorized population, I practiced shifting gears and tromping on the throttle until I was ready for my driver’s test. The tester declared I was qualified, apparently satisfied I’d be safe in traffic because he had survived my demonstration of moderate, if jerky, capability.
Now I was ready to buy my first car armed with $200 I generated working on weekends and during the summer in my dad’s grocery store. These days you would call a store like that a “mom and pop” shop. It was his second store, bigger than his first, and he occasionally made deliveries with the 1941 Plymouth businessman’s coupe he owned before the Dodge. A businessman’s coupe doesn’t have a backseat, but it does have a big trunk for delivering groceries. When I was a tiny tot, my dad worked six days a week, and on the seventh day, took the family for a drive.
My mom, dad and big sister rode on the front bench seat while I lay on the shelf just under the rear window of the coupe. It almost seemed a natural choice for my first car, the Oldsmobile businessman’s coupe, the kind of car I’d rode in throughout World War II. If it was good enough for my dad, it was good enough for me.
I started out searching the used car lots for the kind of car I might find priced at $200. It was pretty disappointing. I had worked so hard, and it seemed the best I could find was a junker that could barely make it off the lot. But I kept looking until one day, my dad said a customer of his had a car he was going to sell for $85. I was young and naïve and hoped $85 could buy me a decent car. If I’d been a little more experienced, I would’ve been pretty suspicious, but as it turned out, that car was way better than the ones I was looking at in the car lots.
It wasn’t perfect. The green paint job was pretty grubby, but it seemed to drive okay, and the interior wasn’t terribly worn. I handed over the $85 and happily drove away with the car. Now I could take girls for a ride, and I could drive to Roosevelt High School rather than take the bus every day with the younger crowd who didn’t own cars and were no longer my contemporaries. But my contemporaries, who also had cars, had nicer looking ones and commented on my scruffy, old vehicle.
I figured it was worth my effort to get the car repainted to make me and the car more presentable, especially to the girls. I brought it into a local auto repair shop and inquired as to the cost of a new paint job. The fact that my car was old didn’t affect the cost of the repainting. The price quoted was more than the $85 I’d paid for the car in the first place. The manager suggested that, if I would sand down the paint myself, it would cut the repainting cost to a point I could more easily afford.
I started with the left front fender, sanding it nicely and slopping on some primer to prevent it from rusting before I got the rest sanded down. I explained what I was doing when a couple friends looked at my nice new, old car and made encouraging remarks like, “Boy, is that ugly.”
Before I could proceed further with my project, I got an opportunity to take a couple nice, young girls, Lucy and Sue, for a ride. My buddy Dave arranged it for one Sunday morning. The girls were in front and Dave stood behind the bench as we went touring, heading down a steep cobblestone street towards a park across from Lake Washington. At the bottom of the cobblestone street was a barricade forcing the driver to take either a sharp left or a sharp right.
I set up to take a right turn and discovered that the rear end was bouncing over the cobblestones so the car was more up in the air than on the road. Stepping on the brakes was therefore ineffective in slowing the car for the turn. Rather than try to take the sharp right, I was suddenly forced to take the easier left. The girls apparently didn’t notice the driving challenge I faced and made no comment or shriek of terror.
After we had safely returned the girls to the house where we’d picked them up and said goodbye, Dave laughed his guts out over my miserable car with its semi-nonexistent shock absorbers.
After discovering that replacing the shock absorbers and repainting the car would cost triple what I paid for it, I took the car where it belonged. A wrecking yard. Then, older and wiser, I started looking for something better to drive, something the girls would appreciate and would put them in the right mood for romance.