My First Car, My First Love

vintage-car-2-800pxMy first car was my first love.

Oh, I had other crushes – but nothing came close to love.

That car, that was love.

She wasn’t much to look at, just a green ’65 Rambler with only one working door – but in those days I wasn’t much of a catch either.

My brother said it best. He took one look at her and quipped, “that’s the kind of car you don’t want to fill with gas for fear of losing your investment.”

But what did he know?

That car wanted no more than I could afford and for someone as clueless to the two way nature of love as I, it was the perfect starter relationship.

I worked in a steel foundry back then.  My shift ended at midnight and every night I left work dead to the world – but there she would be, waiting in a pool of soft light at the far end of the parking lot.

We would spend the rest of the evening together, washed by the wind, cruising the sleeping city and listening to the radio until the first blue light of dawn.

We didn’t say much during those drives, we didn’t have to – love grows just as well in silence.

After the foundry, I moved into a rooming house while I attended college. There wasn’t much space there, so she slept on the street.

It was hard on her, especially during winter. Her starter failed that January and since I had no money, we had to make due.

So I parked her on a steep hill overlooking the Mississippi and every morning I woke her gently by easing off the parking brake and releasing her to coast down the slope.

As we rolled slowly down the river bluff, I would look out at the long snake of the Mississippi curving toward the south and watch as the steam curled off its dark waters and rose into the reddening sky.

Near the bottom of the hill, when she gained enough speed, I popped the clutch and she sprang to life. There was pure joy in that.

In those days, we had nothing. We wanted nothing.  It is what bound us together.

But that is the thing about young love. What binds you together is often the very thing that tears you apart.

Owning a cheap car is never cheap.

Over time, the guys at the NAPA auto parts store came to know us by sight.  I would walk in with a part dangling from my hand and before I could say a word the counter man would sing out, “That’s a AMX DX1858-B, we’re out of stock but the Coon Rapids store has two, should I call ’em?”

To which I would mumble, “Yeah sure”.

As our visits became more frequent, I became more resentful. It’s what happens to a lot of relationships when the arcs of life diverge.

One partner rises, one falls.

Our last night together was a nightmare.

I know I shouldn’t have but I took her on a long trip to see a girl I had met. It was not something we had talked about – but she knew.

Along the way, what started out as a light misfire grew steadily into a nagging cough. Soon she developed an unquenchable thirst; one that cost us more and more time..

North of Saint Cloud, I pulled in to a gas station to top off her radiator and noticed the pulse of compression throbbing through her coolant.  I knew what that meant.  She did too.  She had a cracked block.

All I wanted that evening was to see the girl.  So I selfishly drove her harder and harder and she, the one who was always faithful, did all she could. She was dying but still she thought only of me.

She faltered several times that night, losing power and sputtering to a stop – but each time she picked herself up and pushed on.

Forty miles south of Brainard, her will could no longer sustain her strength and she coasted onto the shoulder, trembling and gasping for life. I had never seen death and it frightened me. I always imagined it as something sudden and peaceful but never as the panicked thrashing of a loved one.

I shut off her ignition but she refused to give up and instead dieseled on her oil. In a panic, I violently threw her into gear to kill the engine but she was too strong. She staggered forward, lurching painfully along the shoulder in a mad attempt to escape death.

It was more than I could bear.

I took her out of gear and just sat there. We were both caught at opposite ends of the same struggle, she for life and me for her death. I didn’t know what to do, so I just walked away.

To this day I can still hear the thunk of her engine crying out to me through the fog as I walked along the roadside leaving her to die alone.

On the face of it, this story does not say good things about me – but in the end it does because the guilt of what I did changed me for the better.

There will always be a part of me that keeps trying to walk back through that fog, back to the one who taught me the greatest lesson of life.

It is a lesson has served me well as a man, a lover, a husband and a father – that giving is its own reward.

Author: Almost Iowa

41 thoughts on “My First Car, My First Love”

  1. Beautiful ode to first love. Not since Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when I was in high school eons ago, did I feel tightening of the larynx and tears about to form for a four wheeled mechanical entity. Thank you for this brilliant piece of writing. This should be published.
    Ben (& Peta)

  2. Well written. You evoked memories for so many readers and touched our hearts in the process.
    My first car was a ’60 Rambler that quit running at the same stop light every single trip through the intersection. It didn’t stop at other lights. ??? A curse? I had to add oil more often than I did gas. Eventually, it was hit by a semi on the Missouri interstate. I guided it into the median and cried as I left it to be towed.

  3. Beautifully written love story! At times I forgot you were writing about a car… Btw, our cars have always had to sleep in the street… Sigh!

  4. 1950 Chevy, inherited from my father. The car of my heart. A bulletproof straight-six engine, but the transmission was about done. In the end, first and reverse did not work. Drove the car in second or third only.

    Then, 1959 Nash Rambler, purchased for $50. Six cylinder, stick shift. Ramblers were so unpopular you could buy used Ramblers for next to free. The starter on this one failed, and for at least one semester of college I started it only by jump start. It could jump start in second gear or reverse if I got it barely rolling. Didn’t require a hill, just a slight incline. I think I even started it on flat ground once or twice by pushing it with the driver’s door open and jumping in soon as it began to roll. If my memory is correct, the right front wheel fell off.

    Finally, 1961 Rambler, purchased for $75. It had a powerful V-8 and a push-button !!! automatic trans that actually worked. But it was hell trying to jump-start a Rambler with automatic transmission. I was able to do it only once. Had to pay a guy in a tow truck $5 to push me until it was going 35 mph, then waved him off and popped it into drive. It worked, but that was an act of desperation that I would never recommend. Talk about hazardous! Had to add a quart of transmission fluid nearly every time I drove it.

    You can only live like that when you’re young, poor, and brainless.

  5. Reminds me of my second car, a fiat 850 sedan. The thing was a rust bucket, to the point when I traded it in you could see through the floor in spots and couldn’t jack it up via the frame slot anymore. But it ran great and started easy until one fateful December night when I killed the starter trying to wake it up in -30F temperatures. Replacement starters never seemed to live long after that. The good news was it was so small I could open the driver’s door and push it fast enough to pop start it – I only needed about 20 feet. Still, it was enough car to get me from Minnesota to Oregon.

  6. As usual, you managed to write at several different levels all at once, and very well at that. When my husband and I were young, he had several beloved, yet needy, cars and each of them had a name. (We started cars by popping the clutch more times than I can count.) But after we had to sell “Flo” to my brother-in-law, who promptly turned her over to his ne’er do well nephew, we stopped naming our cars. It broke our heart to see how badly he treated Flo, especially after we learned that he had left her registered to us. Odd how our relationship with cars can mirror our relationships with people…

    1. Odd how our relationship with cars can mirror our relationships with people…

      Not odd at all. If one mistreats cars, houses and pets, how can one be expected not to mistreat people?

  7. This story seems to stretch beyond a car love story. Or am I only imagining that?

    The husband, even though he hasn’t read your post, thanks you for the NAPA plug. He works as the automotive machinist at the NAPA store in Northfield.

    1. Every good story reaches deeper than just the story. It’s what makes them good (not saying that this story is particularly good, though it might be after another ten rewrites).

      Tell him I am a huge fan of NAPA stores and especially the guys who work in them. My line: ““That’s a AMX DX1858-B, we’re out of stock but the Coon Rapids store has two, should I call ’em?” is an homage to everyone who works in an auto-parts shop.

      1. What a nice compliment. Randy goes above and beyond in the NAPA machine shop. Not many of him left anymore who do the type of work he does. He has a wide customer base and I have no idea what they will do when he retires. I have told him, “You cannot drive the delivery truck for NAPA when you retire.” He may or may not listen.

  8. I’ve been fond of my prior cars, but I’m coming to love the one I have now. My little Corolla has the heart of a four-wheel drive behemoth, and went places on my recent trip that I really shouldn’t have asked her to go. Her name is Princess, but she’s a tough one. I balanced and rotated once I got home, and have some new air filters and an oil change scheduled. Then, a nice wash and wax, and we’ll start planning the next foray.

    I do need to be good to her. Your post really was touching. I’d hate to go through that.

    1. When we ride a bicycle, drive a car or even use a punch press, we gain an intimate knowledge of its manners. Over time, we form subtle muscle memories. patterned to it and it alone. In turn, as the object wears to the manner of our use, it molds itself to us. It is like a marriage.

      1. Exactly. That’s why I navigate around the boats I work on with ease: until I get a new one. On a new boat, I’m bruised and cut up for a few weeks, until I start developing that relationship. It’s a remarkable thing, really.

    1. Oooooh, a ’68 mini. Here in the frozen north, we used to run them around a quarter-mile track on frozen lakes. Nothing holds the road better than front-wheel drive.

      1. They were beautiful little cars weren’t they. The iconic brainchild of Alec Isigonis (sp?). I used to rebuild them after they had been written off in car wrecks and race them in demolition derbies. I have many happy memories of lying upside down in the footwell, replacing a brake slave cylinder. In fact, it’s making my damn back ache just thinking about it 😀

    1. It works the other way around too. When you buy a used car and find little things that belonged to the previous owner, you feel like you are trespassing.

  9. A kindred or dirt poor comrade. I thought I was the only one to park on a hill coast and pop that clutch to get it started.
    I needed that job, I wouldn’t have the guts to do that today but back then seemed very clever of me.

    1. I parked on hills at home and at the U. A couple of times, someone parked in front of me (I always tried to crowd the NO PARKING sign) and when that happened, I took the bus or hitched a ride until they moved.

  10. That’s a great love story. My dad had three Ramblers. All station wagons. Two passed quietly but my mom smashed the third one. These are hard things for a young man to see. I understand how this made you a better person. I think cars want to go out with s bit of a show. Think of the stories she’s telling the other 65’s. Or, maybe, don’t. She might not be being as kind.

  11. Nice job. I can imagine the pain of separation. I hope you are comforted by the fact that some nice tow truck took her gently to her final resting place and is now cavorting with other ’65 vehicles of all makes and models.

      1. Those Farmal tractors are classy. I saw one on my recent trip, and for just a second I was tempted. Never mind that I don’t have a farm, or a garden, or even any money. A thing of beauty, and all that.

    1. [Blush] If they ever make it into a movie and I receive an oscar, I’ll have to say that I owe it all to American Motors. 🙂

      But there is something to the love of things, especially things that we rely on every day.

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