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A new car revs up memories of old ones

My wife, beaming angelically at last Saturday's traffic on U.S. 19, loving for once in her life all humanity, drove off the Walker Ford lot in her new green minivan.

If I could have bottled her expression, temporary as it was, I would have sold it to Honeybaked Ham for use on its sweetest hams.

She was only behaving like the rest of us. Driving a brand new car home is one of the joyous chug-a-lugs of the American experience.

We all but embrace the contraption. We smile fondly at the bright paint and gleaming plastic. We listen, as to a symphony, to the purring of the engine.

We swell with pride at the growl of power that comes with a press of foot on accelerator.

We breathe the fragrance and refuse to wonder if it comes out of a can labeled "New Car Smell."

My starkest memory is of a bright red Mustang I bought years ago in suburban New York. We had just run our Ford Falcon into an overdue grave at the elderly mechanical age of 7.

This time I did things right. I ordered everything they would sell me to be put on that car, including a little ski rack, though I didn't ski.

I drove it home, took the kids for a drive, then put the newest family member in the garage, which was on the side of the house, with the driveway invisible from our bedroom windows.

My wife was breeding dogs then, and there were eight or 10 bull mastiffs in a kennel down a small hill from the garage.

There were another four or five sleeping here and there around the house.

About 3 a.m., the dogs in the kennel started barking. The house dogs took up the cause. A dozen barking bull mastiffs can sound like the opening hour of D-day on Normandy Beach.

I leaned out the window, saw no enemy tanks in the back yard, and yelled, "Quiet, you dogs." They lowered the volume. I yelled again. Finally, they stopped. I went back to bed.

Next day, the Mustang was gone.

I imagined what had happened. Thieves were jump-starting the car, and must have been frightened by the noise _ until I yelled to quiet the dogs.

Also, no dog had come in person to check out the bad guys. Clearly the guards were locked up.

Thus, with the silence I so obligingly provided, the thieves could regain their nerve, take their time and get the car stolen properly.

The insurance company made me wait four weeks for replacement money. Then I got another, quieter Mustang. It was a mere blue. Had a smaller engine. No ski rack. My spirit was broken.

I actually showed a profit between the insurance payoff for the red wonder and the cheaper blue anticlimax. But the fun was gone, and it was weeks before my morale recovered.

Now we're leasing cars instead of buying them, which means a brand new replacement every two or three years. But the fun of a new car is as strong as ever. Maybe that's because most of us never really owned the "bought" cars; banks did.

So we learned to pretend ownership, which is a grand old American tradition too.

My best new car glow was my first. From Europe I had made a reservation back home in Ohio for a 1946 Chevy convertible. It would be among the first crop of new cars since 1942.

I got out of the Army in May. The car became available in August. Not a convertible but a coupe. "Take it or leave it," said the salesman. They were tougher that year.

"Take it," I said. I didn't care. It was the most beautiful new car in the world.

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