Remembering Old Friends: Cars I have known and loved

by Carol A. Westbrook

My DeSoto Detroit copyNew Year's Eve, 2014. Time to ring in the New Year, to reminisce about good times, and remember old friends that have left our lives. No, I'm not referring to relatives who have passed, or ex's that have moved on, I'm talking about … cars.

Now, I'm not a car person like my husband, who has cars like Imelda Marcos has shoes, one for every season, in both of our houses. I like to drive only one car at a time; I grow attached to my car, give it a name, and when necessity demands “out with the old, in with the new,” I shed a silent tear on losing a good friend.

I've not yet taken a picture of a favorite car, though at times I wish I had, unlike my husband, Rick, who has photographed every car he has ever owned, and some he has rented. Rick's first car was a 1957 DeSoto HemiHead V8, shown here.

MGBThe next picture shows him as a young assistant professor in 1968, with his powder-blue, 1965 MGB convertible.

He has even photographed some cars that he has rented, such as the memorable black, 100 series BMW hatchback that we drove on the Autobahn in Germany, as you can see in the picture. We even drove this delightful car through the “autos verboten” square near the 500-year-old cathedral in Strasbourg on market day–quite by accident–after bad advice from our GPS.

I searched my photo archives to see if I could find pictures of my own favorite drives, but they exist only incidentally, at the periphery of a family photo, or near a landmark on a vacation trip. I don't need a picture, though, because I remember them all well, every car I ever called my own. I rarely remember the model and the year, but I remember its make and color, “like a girl,” Rick would say.

I learned to drive in 1972 on my ex's Karmann Ghia. Not recognizing its value as a collector's item even in 1979, we traded it in for a pittance to buy an orange VW Golf, after we had our first child. That car had energy and spunk, and it was fearless. It drove us across country three times, through the high mountains of Canada, and it hauled our sailboat and our children. We sold it for cash through an ad in the paper, and shortly thereafter it was used for armed robbery. The car's title hadn't yet been changed, and the cops came for my husband, who fortunately could prove that he was out of town during the robberies. I felt violated, since our old faithful family car was robbing taxis and convenience stores, but it certainly had spunk! The sale funded the down payment on a 1983 Dodge Colt hatchback, also known as The Gray Ghost, which I kept after we split up.

The first car I bought and paid for on my own, after the divorce, was a maroon Toyota Corolla. It was a new car in 1992, when I returned from my sabbatical year in London. My boyfriend at the time, a Professor of Genetics in a London medical school, helped me with the purchase, though as it turned out he didn't know much about cars. I got a good deal on the car, which was brand new with a full warranty, and had a standard transmission that was very forgiving and reliable, unlike the Professor. The car lasted longer in my life than the Professor.

I loved that car! And so did all of my children. The story of that Toyota is the story of my family. It came into my life when my family was very young, and I was on my own, and it left when the children were grown and left home, almost 15 years later.The car was used by our European au pairs–all of whom were adept with manual transmission drives–to run errands, and to shuttle the kids to school and their various karate, music and drama lessons. They also used the car on their free evenings, when they went out with boys, or went to nightclubs in Chicago. One of them managed to get the trunk jammed, which we didn't get open until after her term was up, where we found a large stockpile of empty beer bottles.

I taught all three of the children to drive in that car, including where and how to park in our crowded neighborhood in Chicago, and how to navigate the Chicago freeways in rush hour traffic. They all passed their driving test in the Toyota on the first attempt. Eugene shouldn't have passed, because he went through a stop sign during the test, but the instructor was so impressed by the fact that he could drive a stick at all that he was given a pass! What I didn't realize was that our au pairs had been teaching the kids to drive for some time even before they had their permits.

We had great times in the Toyota on road trips and family outings, and each of the kids borrowed it at some period in their lives when they were away at boarding school or college. It had a few bumps and bruises, especially when Eddy and his school friends sat on the roof, trying to be cool. They put a big dent in it. But it never had a major accident, and only one moving violation when the teenage Eddy got a speeding ticket on Lake Shore Drive–in spite of the fact that each of my children were given radar detectors when they got their licenses! Fortunately, the judge let him off with only a warning. The Toyota did, however, get quite a few parking tickets, but that was Chicago. The engine was remarkable. It kept running like the Everyready bunny. We never had a major breakdown, though it rusted through two radiators and about 5 mufflers. Chicago winters were hard on the undercarriage, but the Toyota was a great drive in the snow with its snow tires and front-wheel drive. Eventually the rust got to it; the engine ran well at 130,000 miles, but the vehicle body was falling apart, like an old man in a nursing home who is fully alert but physically deteriorating. We said finally said goodbye and sold it almost 15 years later, through an ad in Craig's list.

Of course there were other cars. There was the Chevy Cavalier wagon, Oscar the Grouch, bought to accommodate three children and their friends. Oscar was indeed a grouch, and was sold by Eugene, then a teenager. As a reward for a good sales job I let him have the proceeds to buy an electric bass guitar.

Then there was the haunted Plymouth van, which we bought from a dead woman. One of the mechanics in our local garage–which kept our old clunkers in working order–lost his mother that week, and he was anxious to sell the van before the estate went into probate. He signed his mother's name and we got a used but low-mileage van, a safe car that had only been driven to church once a week by a little old lady. Rick used the car, but whenever I took the driver's seat, without fail, the electric system would go haywire, the lights wouldn't work, I couldn't turn off the headlights, or it would lock me out. I was sure it was haunted. We sold the van to a Bible-thumping family of seven who just barely squeezed into it. They were thrilled to get such a good deal, and you can be sure they didn't tolerate any nonsense from the spirit world.

And who in our family could forget The Beast, a Crown Vic that was bought on auction from the police department of our town, like the car that Elliot Blues drove in Blues Brothers. It had a very powerful V8 engine that was outfitted with a police package including a side spotlight and low profile tires. You could still see the outline of the police insignia. Eugene loved that car! He took it to graduate school in Philadelphia, where it gave him a lot of street cred, and a lot of offers to buy it. When he drove on the freeway everyone slowed down, thinking he was an undercover cop. He finally sold the car because the maintenance and gas costs were excessive, but he still misses it today. BluesBros

I bought a green Dodge Neon when my oldest son, Eddy, turned 15, so he could learn to drive on an automatic transmission. It was the first automatic I had ever owned, aside from the haunted van. But of course, Eddy wanted to learn on the stick, and I was stuck driving the Neon, which promptly fell apart at 31,000 miles–the warranty ran out at 30,000. Eddy still enjoys driving a stick, and his favorite car was a green VW Cabriolet, now long gone. He is married, with two dogs, and drives a sensible Subaru.

I sold the Neon, and Rick insisted I could no longer drive the beat up old Toyota. My old cars were an embarrassment, certainly much worse than anything driven by the hospital janitor. I purchased a beautiful forest green 1985 VW Golf GTI, my second favorite car. The car had energy and spunk, though it never committed a crime like the orange Golf–unless you count speeding.

The Golf followed us to Boston, along with a new 2004 light green Hyundai Accent, standard transmission. The next year the Accent followed my daughter to college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and later to medical school in Madison, Wisconsin, where she and the car are still in residence. I suppose she will have to get a new car when she becomes a doctor, but for now she takes good care of her 10-year old drive, and she even asked for snow tires for her birthday!

My current drive is a dark red BMW, a 328xi, 2011. A doctor's car, my husband calls it. It is safe, with its all-wheel drive and snow tires and automatic transmission, so I can get to my morning clinic, which is 25 miles away in the Pocono Mountains. And it looks like a doctor's car. It is the second BMW I have owned, and my husband also is on his second. I suppose we are now BMW people, and of course we made the obligate visit to “BMW World” in Germany last summer. The BMW campus It's a striking architectural masterpiece, complete with the BMW logo on the tower, as you can see in the photo. 3 BWM World

Although I am fond of my BMW, it doesn't have much personality, and it was not hard to trade in the first car to get the second, newer model. I will probably replace it with yet another 3-series BMW when the time comes, but I will not sing Auld Lang Syne after it is gone. I still miss the Toyota.