It was 1986. Delusional visions of grandeur flooded my mind as I approached the age of sixteen. A car, I thought. Driving will be awesome! With my father’s handy abilities as a mechanic, service manager job at a car dealership, and stock car building and driving experience, I knew I’d end up with something good. That something good was the 1979 Dodge Aspen Wagon in green with a caramel interior and exterior wood paneling. Although an automatic transmission, it stalled in the rain and at random stop signs on my way to school.
I learned many things from that vehicle such as to remember to put the gas cap back on after filling up the tank. I also learned that $5 worth of gas does not go a long way, and my babysitting money became even more valuable to me. Today’s cars have gas tank caps and covers; however, the Aspen Wagon’s was one and the same (see below photo). After I left the Mobil station with the third gas cap on top of the car, my father chained a new one to the outside of the car so that I couldn’t lose it. It resembled a chained wallet in the back pocket of a biker’s jeans. It was ridiculous looking, but my own fault.
Lesson two was how to check the oil in my car. There was a slow oil leak in the engine, so my father instructed me to check the oil once a week, and I would end up having to put in a fresh quart. I thought most sixteen-year old girls were learning this, too, but I was wrong. I reminded myself that I was lucky to have something to get me from A to B, even if stalling meant I might be late to wherever B was.
The third lesson was in flexibility and growing a thicker skin. I already had the chained gas cap, and my friends’ parents always wanted me to park on the street since the Dodge left a puddle of oil in their driveway. It was the Pig Pen of cars, but it was mine. The horn stopped working, too. My father fashioned some wiring and installed a red button on the steering wheel, and this red button became the new horn. At that point, the car resembled the family truckster in dark metallic pea driven by Clark Griswold in Vacation. It wasn’t Jackie’s antique BMW, Jason’s Volvo, Leslie’s Jetta, or Dana’s ‘60s Mustang convertible. It was more akin to Anne-Marie’s brown Datsun pickup truck and Lisa’s Crown Vic complete with horrendous horn. I was in great company.
One day a Mrs. Davis from Fairfield was in the right lane of Elm Street and I was in the left. She decided to be in my lane without waiting for the rest of my wagon to pass, and her front left bumper inserted itself into my right front passenger door, rendering the door permanently stuck. No other damage, so not worth pursuing with the insurance company. Thanks to Mrs. Davis, any passenger of mine either had to pull a Dukes of Hazzard move and slide herself through the passenger window, or the lucky duck got to sit in the back seat as I chauffeured. The fondest memory I have of this seating arrangement is when I was at Kelley’s house one afternoon. She and I had been hanging out listening to records, talking about clothes and boys as teenage girls do, and then it was time to go home. Her dad asked if I could give him a ride to town on my way. I was a bit embarrassed; I had to let him know that he would either have to hurl himself through the window into the passenger seat or sit in the back. “And also, Mr. Franco, it stalls a lot, so just a heads up.” Father of eleven, Dick Franco was not daunted. With a genuine smile on his face, he hopped in the back seat, and it was smooth sailing from Tommy’s Lane to Elm Street.
Later that spring, now 1987, my mother was horrified when I shared a particular Friday evening’s plans with her. Some friends and I had the notion of watching a movie at someone’s house. The movie idea didn’t horrify her; she just didn’t want passersby to see my awesome ride parked at a party. She would be embarrassed, she said, if her friends saw that her responsible daughter’s car was at a party. She couldn’t argue with my reply. “Mommy, I am embarrassed driving it everywhere I go, so we’re even.”
The Dodge Aspen wagon was memorable for all of these reasons, and yet, I felt I should get my near-thirteen-year-old son’s endorsement on the most recent auto purchase we made since he might learn to drive with it: a pre-owned 2012 Mini Cooper Countryman. It’s a stick, it’s the John Cooper Works model, and it’s fun to drive. I think of my first car and all of the lessons I was forced to learn, all of the embarrassment I suffered between the chained gas cap, Bat Man button for a horn, and a Luke Duke method of car entry for passengers. I can’t deny Aidan a similar rite of passage.
Something tells me that Aidan’s first car needs that memorable character, something a little larger than the Mini, something that sticks out so he can learn his lessons, too. Our 2005 black Suburban Z71 has more than 102,000 miles on it, and it’s still going strong. The next three years of wear and tear on it could be just the thing to thicken a teenager’s skin to the realities of fiscal obligations when it comes to automobile maintenance. New and shiny it is not, and it has certainly earned its moniker DAVe (domestic assault vehicle*). Although DAVe blends into town a bit better than the ’79 Dodge Aspen Wagon did, I absolutely think that everyone’s first car should be a used one. It just doesn’t have to be as hideous as mine!