The Cars that Drive Us


My family always had interesting cars. Cars with good stories to them.  Most of them fell into the “gently used” or “new to us” category.

Except for my mom’s 1965 red Ford Falcon, she bought that one new.  It wasn’t really bright red, it was kind of a dull tomato soup color. She said that ash from the factory near where she lived ruined the paint job.   It had black vinyl seats and I remember the very particular smell of the interior on a rainy day.

We had a big Buick station wagon after that, it was tan.  It had a “way back” where the seat folded to face the rear window– we constantly fought over the way back.  I remember sitting there with my cousins Alison and Shanda, surrounded by sleeping bags and duffels.  My mom had snapped a picture of us, we were on our way to camp for a week.  This was also the car that would ferry all my friends and their stuff home after a sleepover.  I thought it was so cool that my mom had a car that would fit all my friends in it.

My dad had a blue Ford Econoline van, possibly 1974.  He said I could quote him, it was “very dependable, one of the best engines Ford ever made.” He always took great care of this van, and received numerous compliments over the years.   It had a flat nose because most of the engine was actually inside the cab between the front seats.  The engine cover was like a center console that would collect key chains, receipts, candy, gum wrappers, etc.  It was a cargo van, so there were no seats in the back.  At some point however, my Dad needed somewhere for me and my brother to sit, so he “found” (bought? bartered? salvaged? I still don’t know) a vinyl bench seat that looked like it came from another similarly styled van.  Instead of setting it up like a second row behind the front seats, he put it up against the outside wall behind the driver’s seat.  There were only two bolts holding it to the floor.  If there were any seatbelts, we either never found them or just didn’t use them.  It was a little unstable , but we really didn’t give it a second thought.

When my Dad took a right turn, we relaxed into the back of the bench.  When he took a left turn, we planted our feet on the floor and braced our bodies against the bench to keep from being thrown across the interior of the van.  On long trips, my brother and I would take turns falling asleep on the floor of the van, and then whomever was sitting on the bench was responsible for bracing it on the turns. It was just what we did.

I don’t think my Dad made a habit of driving my friends home.

He also had an old Ford Scout that was used exclusively for plowing our long driveway (1964 maybe).   It was so beat up, that parts of the floor were rusted through- you could actually see the ground as you drove over it.  It didn’t have working brakes.  The only effective way to stop it was to drop the plow and drive directly into the snow bank.  As I got older, it became evident that his plowing was very systematic and choreographed.  He could only actually stop at certain places.  Therefore, it was very dangerous to disturb him or try and get his attention for any reason.

One time he was plowing during a snowstorm, and the driver’s side door fell off.  Just completely fell off the hinges and slid down the driveway.   From then on, the door was held on by (a lot) of bungy cords.  I do believe that he had to climb through the open window to get into it.  I think this is when our neighbor coined the nickname “Fred” for my Dad- as in “Fred Flintstone.”  He might as well have stomped out the rusted floor and used his boots to stop it.

He told me the frame literally rotted in half.  The last time he drove it (obviously), the rear axle disconnected from the transmission.

I’m sure you can imagine that I didn’t have very high expectations for whatever I might be lucky enough to find for my first car.

My family’s motto for cars may very well have been,  If you’re lucky enough to have a car that runs, well, then you’re Lucky Enough.

I didn’t own a car until I was a senior in college; a fact that seems inconceivable to my oldest child, who is of driving age.  I really didn’t need one, until I started my student teaching.

My grandparents no longer needed their second car.   I paid my grandfather $1 to have a valid bill of sale, and I was the proud owner of a 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger.  My grandfather had purchased the car brand new and had rarely driven it long distances, so the odometer read 49,000 miles.

It didn’t matter that it was metallic olive green with a matching olive hard top and vinyl bench seats.  It didn’t matter that it was rear-wheel drive and didn’t have power brakes.  So what if it only had an AM radio, with an 8-track player?  It was a car, it worked, and it was mine.

I was a little skeptical when my dad said it needed a paint job, and that his friend at the auto body shop could take care of it.  The car came back pastel mint green.  Apparently, the guy was low on paint, so he had to mix it with white to have enough to cover the car.

Because it was an older car, it had a few quirks.  I had to pump the gas pedal twice before trying to start the car, but not any more or I’d flood it.  Then after it started, I had to let it warm up for at least 10 minutes or the engine would stall, unfailingly, at the first stop sign or light.  It was a mild nuisance when I was home to let the car run in the driveway.  But while I was away at school, I had to sit in the car, in the parking lot, while it warmed up.  Even in the dead heat of summer this car had to warm up for 10 minutes.  Wherever I was, the mall, my job, the train station, people would look at me and wonder why I was just sitting in the car while it was running.

I never had to take the Dart in for an  oil change because it leaked oil so thoroughly and continuously that all I had to do was learn to read the dip stick and know when the level was too low.  Then I’d just dump in a new quart… or two.

The gas gauge didn’t work, it was perpetually on “E.”  I got pretty good at estimating when to get gas. I never actually ran out.  I always filled up right before I made the two hour trip to or from college.  It wasn’t even a big deal really.

The signal lights didn’t work quite right either.  I’d flip the directional for a right turn, and it wouldn’t blink- the light would just stay on.  So I had to manually move the switch up and down, up and down, or down and up, down and up, depending.

I honestly don’t even know how this car passed inspection.

But I loved that Dart- it was unique and tough as a tank.  And then one day part of the frame rusted out and I could really no longer safely drive it.

Thanks to my Dad, whose “connections” at the auto body garage may or may not have been responsible for the passing inspection sticker for the Dart, (although he told me there were” less rules” for older cars)  I was able to get a replacement rather quickly:  a 1980 (deep tomato soup )red Monte Carlo.  I didn’t think it looked nearly as cool, but I didn’t really have a choice.

This car also leaked oil, but not as badly as the Dart.  I had to keep a ready supply of spark plugs on hand because one constantly misfired.  Which I know is indicative of a larger, more complicated problem, but my budget really only allowed for bandaid-on-a-gunshot-wound remedies at this point.

The  windshield wipers worked, but once they were on, they wouldn’t turn off.  Unless I turned off the car.

There was a leak in the driver’s side door along the window.  The door would fill up with rain water, which made it really heavy because there was usually an accumulation of about 5 gallons of water in there.  And every time I came to a stop, there was an enormous sloshing noise.

I don’t know how this car passed inspection either.

I drove this car for less than a year, then my brother got it.   By then, I had a better job with  benefits and a retirement plan, so I could actually finance my first new car.

And boy did I appreciate that car.  There’s nothing quite like having your expectations so low that pretty much anything is an improvement you’re grateful for.  For instance, it felt really good not to have to pray each time I got behind the wheel.

Here’s to keeping it real.  And to sharing all our “first car” stories with our kids as they become drivers themselves.  May we all be safe.




2 thoughts on “The Cars that Drive Us

  1. Pingback: Ready, Set, Type | Gretchen L. Mulroy

  2. Pingback: I Am From | Gretchen L. Mulroy

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