In search of a not-so-crappy first car

the_carI didn’t have a car in high school, but I had friends with cars. One girlfriend’s dad used to buy used heaps and work on them as a hobby. He regularly had one in working condition for her to use. It wasn’t always great condition, but it got her from one place to another. Janet went through at least four cars from sophomore to senior year.

One such vehicle was an oxidized red Cutlass convertible, probably chosen because it was a boat of a thing, capable of withstanding a bigger impact in an accident than something smaller. That car eventually went away before actually falling apart like some of the others. I suspect Janet’s dad got wise to the fact that a red convertible is not a car in which you want your teenage daughter and her very loud and reckless girlfriends cruising around town, the propensity for causing a ruckus being that much higher in such vehicles.

Come to think of it, convertibles and cars with sunroofs or any opening through which someone can wave a hang-ten while screaming whoo-hooo down Main Street at midnight should probably be illegal for anyone under the age of 30, really.

The Cutlass was a huge upgrade from the car before that: a white, Chevy Monza which had a weird objection to being turned off. Whenever Janet pulled into a parking lot and removed the key from the ignition, the thing wouldn’t simply stop running, it would make a series of sounds: whomp, WHOMP, pa-pa-pa-TSUCHHH as it wound down.

Sometimes the whomp-whomps would go on for a really long time, and whoever was in the car would have to just sit there, consoling the thing as it died. Sometimes Janet would drive us off campus for lunch, and when we returned, everyone would flee, like rats from a sinking ship, as fast as we could before the protestations started and people stared.

At least it was a car. Janet’s wheels put her in the position of being in charge of determining where we would go, whom we would take and when. I lived somewhat outside of the center of things, which meant I was regularly extorted for gas money, and lived in weekly anxiety of displeasing Janet and ending up stranded at home for the weekend.

About as soon as Jack started taking driver’s training last summer he also started talking about getting a car.

I had no intention of letting him become the neighborhood godfather when it came to doling out rides and shaking people down for gas money, but we’d always intended on getting him one. His school is 30 minutes away and not on a bus route. We needed something reliable enough to get him there, nice enough looking to not raise the hackles of the neighbors, and sturdy enough to survive some jerk rear-ending him, or worse.

Jack had additional criteria. He quizzed us, relentlessly on how much we planned on putting toward a vehicle purchase (answer: not much), and when we’d be able to do it. He wanted to get a job and add more to the pot for an upgrade.

He started perusing Craigslist, looking at his options in the four and five-figure range. Sending me links he thought looked promising…

Turns out, what looks promising to a 16 year-old boy, looks a lot less so to the person who’s anticipating having a drippy, corroded piece of crap stranded in the driveway.

We had regular conversations like this:

“Mom, mom, MOM, take a look at this (insert name of whatever) this guy’s offering up for twenty five hundred … the body’s in MINT CONDITION.”

“Sweetie, the thing has no seats …. or engine.”

“MOM we can buy it and I can work on it after school, So-and-so said he’d come over and help.”

I understand his optimism. I buy all kinds of crafty things I swear I’ll one day make into something useful. That’s how people end up with a basement room full of upholstery fabric. And a glue gun.

And here school was starting in a week or so and we were kind of getting down to the wire with this car thing. The whole used car market is really depressing with people trying to offload their barely functional crap, and I was having daymares of my kid breaking down on the freeway on the way to school. I wasn’t really sure what we were going to do.

Then our friend, whose own kid left for college last week, asked if we would be interested in looking at his car. A Pontiac about a year older than our son. It’s a cute thing. Sturdy enough. Not very many dings at all. And a functioning engine. Our neighbors might not hate us for parking it out on the street. It’ll likely not strand our kid on the freeway most days. This could be fantastic.

Or not. Jack’s been ruminating about cars for the last two years. We’ve had endless conversations about makes and models, the names for which escape me even now – I care so little about cars. We’ve talked about what his car collection will look like when he’s grown, what he’ll buy me when he comes into his bajillions, the perfect car for his brother, his dad, himself, etc.

Would he ever acquiesce to something sensible? That doesn’t look crappy? Something in which the air conditioning doesn’t work, which is okay because the brakes do? That makes a big ka-DUNK noise when you shift from park into drive?

Turns out, the answer was a big, fat YES on all counts. The kid barely had to test drive the thing to give up all dreams of having the frame of something red and sporty and completely non-functional dripping all over our driveway, thank God.

And thank God for friends who are willing to offer up a discount and the opportunity to take something off their hands that isn’t crap, whom we can call with questions and who offer to take our kid to the junkyard to rifle through stuff for an armrest to replace one that’s missing.

Thank God for a little independence and a shred of reliability being more important to a boy than something showy and sporty and new. Thanks for our ten hours a week commuting time back. For some leverage to keep grades up for good-student insurance discounts. For incentives to get some yard work done around here in exchange for gas money.

And for the distinct lack of a sunroof. Thank God for that one as well.


And thank you for your vote. One click on the banner below keeps me up in the ratings and motivates me to spin out more crap like this.

In a good way, I mean.



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  1. My daughter came to love her 1998 Toyota clunker. We are lucky to be friends with a woman whose husband is a car broker/ mechanic. He was able to find the perfect cheap but safe car for her when the time came. Now I\’m hoping that it stays in good enough condition that we can just pass it down to her brother in another couple of years when it\’s his time. Fingers crossed!

    1. I never realized how scary the prospect of paying for what could end up being a useless hunk of junk in the driveway, or worse, something that\’ll leave my kid stranded on the freeway. You are lucky to have such a friend!

  2. School starts for my boys on Monday and we still have a room to finish, including new bedroom furniture and the whole shebang. Where did the summer go? We totally ran out of time. My oldest will probably get his driving permit next year, and once he gets his license, the plan is to give him the truck his dad is still driving. Then we plan on getting a new vehicle for dad. Not sure what we\’ll do when both of them are driving. Eek.

    1. It\’s been fantastic for us. Sending the kid on errands … taking his brother to get a haircut … driving himself to school. Bliss, I tell ya.

  3. I\’m glad you got a reasonably good car in the end. I do wonder, though, if the one with the body in mint condition might have been a better choice. Okay, so there were no seats or engine, but with a couple of beanbags in the front and a donkey, or possibly a small ox, to pull it, I think it had potential.