Thursday, July 31, 2014

My First Cars

Cars are part of our American culture and as such, everyone remembers their first car. Some remember their first car for what it was - year, model, make, engine, etc. Others remember their first car for where it took them, the friends who rode shotgun, the responsibilities it brought (or didn't bring) or the sense of freedom that came with it.

For me, it was much more of the second group than it was the car. Perhaps if I had driven one of the the "muscle cars" of that era, it would be about the car. But my first car was anything but a muscle car. It was closer to a aircraft carrier!

When I got my South Dakota "learner's permit" back in the fall of 1974, I inherited the family station wagon. It was a 1967 Mercury Colony Park Station Wagon. Before it belonged to my family, it was the property of the Holiday Inn in Mitchell, SD. They had a vinyl sign on the wood grain side of the wagon. When the vinyl was removed, one could see how the wood grain had weathered. The wood grain under the vinyl had not weathered so my first car advertised the Holiday Inn in a not so subtle way.

That mattered little to me. Nor was I bothered by the fact that you could land small aircraft on the hood, that you could rent out the back of the vehicle to a small family, that it got about 3 gallons/mile (yes that is backwards but gas was about $.35 so it mattered little), or that it was a "sled".

I can't find any photos of the old Mercury but the photo below is a pretty good representation of my car. It was maroon instead of white. (Picture a dark image of a Holiday Inn sign on a faded wood grain!)

It was my car. It got me where I needed to go. I did not have to ride my bicycle or depend on my parents for a ride anymore. And the optimist in me rationalized that I could get all my fishing gear in the back of the wagon easily. What more could a 14 year-old ask for?!

1967 Mercury Colony Park Station Wagon

...until I started high school. The upperclassmen were not near as enamored with my "Woody Wagon" as I was and were quite outspoken about it. Let's just say I caught my share of crap about it. Soon after starting high school, I was working Mom and Dad for a better, "cooler" ride.

After a year or so of "salesmanship" on my part, Dad took me to the local Ford dealership and bought me a two year-old 1974 Ford Pinto - it was the top selling car in America that model year. It was orange with a stripe across the rocker panel and it had a glasspack muffler (exhaust gas passes straight through the center of the muffler) which meant it sounded a tough as a Pinto can sound.

I was thrilled and immediately began customizing the Pinto. While for most high school boys, that meant headers, wheels, new carburetor, etc, for me it meant a new stereo - the first automobile cassette player in Chamberlain -  a 5-band equalizer/amplifier and speakers with enclosures. I'm certain that 200 decibels was within my reach!

Soon I had all the upperclassmen stopping me to look at the stereo in my Pinto. Shortly thereafter, they were asking for my help in securing and installing a stereo of their own. I sensed a business opportunity and before long I was ordering and installing stereos.

All the money I earned went toward upgrading my Pinto's system. It was my "demo" model and was certainly justified as I tried to expand my audiophile empire. It allowed me to own the best automobile stereo in town throughout high school.

This was much more important then than it is now. We didn't have iPods, Walkmans or even "boom boxes" yet. If we wanted music, it came from our cars. We would often spend hours "cruising" the streets of Chamberlain. That was a big part of our recreation. The cruising was much better with great tunes blasting from a hot stereo!

One summer day my Dad came home to find I had cut a hole in the roof of the Pinto with a jigsaw. He was aghast to learn I was putting a sunroof in my car. He was sure I had ruined the car. I did a good job though (after I endured fixing a couple leaks) and I'm certain I had the only Pinto with a sunroof. 

1974 Ford Pinto
I drove the Pinto to Creighton University in Omaha in the fall of 1978. While it was an adequate vehicle, there wasn't much room to transport my limited belongings back and forth (especially with those speaker enclosures in the way!). So while the Pinto was a great high school car, it certainly wouldn't do for a "college man" - or so I told my parents.

1978 Ford Thunderbird
After several months of "salesmanship" again, they bought me a one year-old 1978 Ford Thunderbird in the summer of 1979. It was a luxury car compared to my Pinto. The Pinto stereo certainly would not do in this car - I would need an upgrade. And so it went.

My college buddies called it the "Thunderchicken" but that did not stop them from piling in for our road trips to follow our beloved Creighton Bluejays basketball team play or to follow Bruce Springsteen's tours across the Midwest. We roamed from Denver to Chicago with five of us packed to the car. It was a good thing that our luggage was little more than a change of underwear and a tooth brush!

The "Thunderchicken" served me well through the rest of my college years. I drove it until I went to work for Lederle Laboratories and got a company car. I courted my wife in both the Pinto and the T-bird (it was a long courtship!). I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have acknowledged knowing me when I was driving the "Woody Wagon"!

Each of these cars is still a part of me. Unlike others from my generation though, I have not spent any time looking for these vehicles or a facsimile to restore. I have many fond memories of these vehicles, the places they took me, who was with me and the events we attended stored in my mind. That will do just fine!


Bradford Oliver said...

The cars you have owned are all lovely. If only we can request every car manufacturer to launch those models again, I’m sure everybody will still prefer them. Anyway, I found it adorable that you were reminiscing about your first cars. You made me so envious and wanting to experience driving any one of those. Hahaha! Thanks for sharing that, Doug! All the best to you!

| Bradford Oliver @ la customs

Lonnie said...

What a lovely past history of cars. They all look like really cool classic cars that I would not mind owning myself today. What a great piece of information to read, always love hearing about peoples automobile passion and past. Thank you again for sharing this with is and I look forward to reading much more in the future. Thanks.

Lonnie @ Viva Chevrolet