For my father’s love of cars, and for my own, it’s time to introduce Lucille.
But first, some background.
Today would have been my father’s 97th birthday. Yes, I’m typing correctly. My father was 20 years older than my mother, and he was already 54 when I was born. For my whole life, people have mistaken him for my grandfather.
I’m guessing that you could tell from my verb tenses that my father has passed away, and indeed he did in November 2006. I’ve written about him on As a Linguist in two posts: “It’s that old je ne sais what.” and “Portrait of a Polyglot.”
If you’ve seen those posts already, you may remember that my father was a mechanic. I grew up surrounded by cars, both working ones that the family used, and old broken ones littering the back yard and kept for parts or possible repair. My brother was the main recipient of his automotive knowledge – my father was rather old-fashioned in this way – but we sisters also got our share of lessons about cars. Once we got to driving age, he made sure that all of us knew how to handle our cars.
My very first driving lesson, in fact, took place from the passenger seat.
Papa (as he’s driving): So you want to learn how to drive?
Papa: You start today?
Me: Sure, let’s go to the parking lot in the mall.
Papa (taking his hands off the wheel): Why wait? You steer, I shift.
He only made me drive this way for about half a mile, but I stayed on the road. And thus began my career as a driver.
Growing up with such a father was lucky given the car culture that existed all around me. Kids in my town took pride in whatever car they were driving. If it was a nice car, they’d keep it washed and waxed. If it was an old hooptie, they’d brag about their mechanical skills and stressed performance over style. We paraded the cars around the high school’s circular driveway at lunchtime.
The first car I had access to was my parents’ 1979 Volkswagen Rabbit. It was a silver four-door, four-speed diesel. It got 50 miles per gallon and could go 0-60 in about 3.2 minutes. I drove it to my after-school job at the mall. It didn’t have much power but I still once managed to spin out in a quite impressive way in front of some quite popular boys, making quite an impression.
I went off to college in 1989 with a hand-me-down beige four-door, four-speed 1980 Chevrolet Chevette. My ‘Vette had dark blue vinyl seats and no air conditioning. Did I mention that I went to college in Florida? It had a rusted-out hole near the clutch that seemed to come standard with all models. In my freshman year, the exhaust pipe rusted and broke in half one night on my way home from a movie. I believe sparks were seen a mile away. I wired it up with a coat hanger until my father could come and fix it properly. Over the next several years, the electronics slowly started dying until I found myself with no gauges on the dashboard at all. One day, the clutch started its death throes while I was trying to make a left turn across three lanes of traffic. There wasn’t any traffic at that moment, so stopping suddenly in the middle of the road, engine revving but tires not moving, wasn’t as disconcerting as you might think. Until the light turned green on the oncoming traffic. The clutch finally grabbed, I made it home, and I called home to say it was time for a new car.
That next car was my 1990 Volkswagen Fox. She was my pride and joy for six years, though looking back, she might have been cursed. About a year after I got her, I was in heavy stop-and-go traffic in my college town. The truck in front of me started moving forward, so I started moving as well. Then I sneezed. And hit the back of the truck. The man was very understanding – especially since he had no damage to his bumper which had smashed in my grill. She got fixed up more or less and I finished up college with her and her life-saving air conditioning. She made the drive up the coast to New York, where she suffered a second blow after hitting a patch of black ice on a windy road. An interminable split-second later, she was lying on her side in a snow bank on the side of the road and I was upset that my travel cup of coffee had spilled all over the console. Oh yeah, and I had to figure out how to climb out of the car with a broken nail.
Finally, she met her end in Pittsburgh when a woman in a tank-like luxury car hit me when she pulled past some stopped cars to make a left turn as I was approaching a traffic light using a separate passing lane. She had a small dent but my car was totaled. When it was time for me to go to the garage to collect my things from the car, I sat in the driver’s seat and cried for about half an hour. My insurance company fought with the other company to get my deductible, but they tried to claim it was my fault. Years later, I got a letter saying that it wasn’t my fault – which was even in the police report – and some bank somewhere has some money for me. Or something. I still haven’t claimed it.
After that, I was sans car for many years. I couldn’t afford a new one while still in graduate school. When I finished in Pittsburgh, I moved back to New York to be with my family for a little while. My father had been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I wanted to be there when he was still recognizable. I drove their 198..? Cadillac Cimarron, which notably is on Time’s “50 Worst Cars of All Time”. Ours might have been a few years post-1982, and it certainly had problems, but it wasn’t too bad. It had been a surprise gift from my father to my mother one year, and they both loved that car. By the time I was driving it, the electrics were buggy and unreliable, and I hated driving an automatic transmission, but it did at least have some power and a smooth ride.
I went abroad and didn’t drive at all save the occasional vacations for which a car was rented. When I returned, I drove the Cimarron again for a couple of years until Lucille.
She’s a 2005 Chevy Cobalt in cobalt blue.
She’s got the blues, my Lucille. So I named her after B.B. King’s guitar.
She’s the first car I’ve picked out, negotiated for, and paid for all by myself. The Rabbit, the Chevette, and the Cimarron were all borrowed or hand-me-downs. The Fox was new and I picked her out, but I had help paying for and maintaining her. But Lucille is all mine, from soup to nuts. I loved the Fox and mourned her loss, but Lucille will always be remembered as my first car.
She’s bare bones: 5-speed manual transmission, no electric locks or windows, no anti-lock brakes, basic cloth seats, basic radio/CD player, standard engine. I don’t care. What matters to me is that I love driving her. I know where to find her power and which curves will get me some tire squeal. I know how the road feels. I know all her noises and how long it takes to get warmed up on a cold winter morning, or cooled off on a hot summer afternoon. And I know exactly how many bags of books I can get into her trunk (12-14).
I’ll have had her for eight years this June, which also means she’s outlasted any of my previous cars. I’m planning on keeping her at least until she’s ten, and then I’ll see how things go. She’s already needed repairs and her parts are getting creakier (aren’t all of ours as well?) I know that she won’t last forever, and perhaps I’ll be glad to have a few bells or whistles with my next car.
But oh, how I’ll cry when she has to go away.
Especially because I know how much my father would have liked her. He was still alive when I bought her, but he was never able to see her. He was already locked inside.
But I know he would have approved.
Do you have a car first love?
No, I don’t. Several members of my family have truly personal feelings about their cars. They also tend to judge people by the car they drive. Apparently a Toyota Yaris is an ‘old lady’s car’. Well, so be it. It was reliable and cheap to run, and that was all I cared about. Once my daughter and son-in-law start talking about the cars they love, and why, my eyes glaze over and I look for something more interesting to do, like the washing up. Nevertheless, I loved reading this post with its slice of your history.
Okay, I have to admit that I also judge a person a little bit based on their cars. But my pet peeves are about the huge SUVs or the intensely boring mini-vans on the roads around here. I think the Yaris is fine, actually. I love a little hatchback. Just never get a Camry. Especially not a gold one. I’m sorry, but a gold Camry is what you get when you have given up 😉 Thanks for staying with me on this one! I know not everyone loves cars and I didn’t actually intend the post to be as long as it was. I just found that I couldn’t stop writing!
I have no idea what a Camry is, but the way to be dismissive of an SUV (‘4×4’ in English) in the UK is to call it a ‘Chelsea tractor’, i.e. a vehicle for the rich and foolish who rarely get it further into the countryside than the out-of-town superstore
Love it! We don’t have a good nickname for them, maybe because around here at least, people have the excuse that they need it for driving in the snow. I’d still say about 75% of them could be replaced with a 4-wheel drive sedan or wagon and then they could still drive in the snow and have all the space they need (there are rarely more than one or two kids in the backs of these SUVs and nothing bulkier than a few 12-packs of toilet paper!)
The Camry must be an American-market only model. You’re not missing anything. As for European-market only cars, I’ve driven a 2000-or-so Renault Megane hatch and I can honestly say that the most memorable part about it was its ugliness and the fact that the fancy electronic key kept malfunctioning. So, Megane? Don’t do it! 😉
I’ve never cared much for cars (except for an inexplicable red vintage Mustang lust) until I got a Mini Cooper 3 years ago. I got it in red and all stripped down like your Lucille except for automatic transmission. And it’s hands down my favorite car. Driving it is a blast. Parking is sweet. But alas I can only get 4 bags of books in the trunk. Thanks for sharing this bit of your life and about your dad…he sounds like he was a character 🙂
He was definitely a character. I linked to the posts about him that I wrote for my other blog, which make it even easier to see how definite a personality he had!
I’m had my eye on a Mini Cooper for years! It’s definitely one the the possible replacements for Lucille, whenever that time comes. I haven’t driven one yet, but I live in an area with small, twisty roads and I know that the Minis have great handling, so I just know that it will be fun. Thanks for confirming this! 🙂
I’m willing to give up the trunk space (the Cobalt’s is remarkably large for a small car). The transmission has to be a manual for me, though. I definitely prefer it for a lot of reasons, but I’d also hate to be without it for winter driving. I can drive for 20 miles without every touching my brakes, controlling my speed just with engine braking and shifting. It makes me feel so much more secure in bad weather.
I’ve seen Lucille in person! She photographs well.
My first car ($500) was a 1979 brown Chevy Impala. Her name? “Brown Sugar”. I bought it from my Dad, who bought it from his job, when they gave him a different company car. I had hoped the car would come with the installed mega phone (in the grill) and CB. Alas, my Dad removed those items before he sold it to me. “Aw Dad!”
The newest car I bought is my current Subaru Forester. He’s a 2001 model, which we purchased in 2003. So, we are celebrating our 10th year with the car, while it is celebrating it’s 12th yr. Forest had some transmission issues recently, but Rob was able to diagnose and fix him. Yay!
I hope we have many years ahead of us with Forest, as I love being free of car payments.
Now I have the Rolling Stones stuck in my head!
I love no car payments, too! I paid off Lucille 3 years ago and I still can’t stomach the idea of another car payment yet. When I was looking for a car, I was actually seriously considering a Subaru, though I prefer smaller cars and don’t have kids, so the Forester was a bit bigger than I needed. There’s a little Impreza hatchback that I quite like, but I really have to drive it to know for sure. I do look forward to doing some test-driving 🙂 Congrats on 10 years with Forest! (He looks really good for 10 years old.) It’s good to know that some people still keep their cars for a good long time.
One day, I hope to get myself a second car – a play car. Okay, if I’m in fantasy land, I’ll say that ideally, I’d have three cars: a daily driver, an 4-wheel drive beater for winter storms, and a little convertible MG or Miata for playing in the summer. A girl can dream, right?
My first (and only) new car purchase is my current 2001 Jeep Cherokee (Jessie). Thirteen years old, and my baby. We’ve been through a lot together. I no longer need 4 wheel drive to get out of my driveway (we moved to Florida), but a sport utility vehicle comes in very handy for hauling around a huge dog, or kayaks.
Thirteen years is a long time to have a vehicle these days, but I’m hoping for a few more car-payment-free years.
Jeeps are no joke! I’m sure Jessie will last you a few more years, especially since you’re in Florida and you don’t have salt rusting out the undercarriage every winter! And you are actually using your sport utility vehicle, which doesn’t bother me at all. My father drove pick up trucks exclusively (when he wasn’t driving my mother to church in the Caddy) and they were big trucks, but they were also working trucks. He put those things through hell and there was almost always heavy equipment in the back.
It’s the soccer moms with one kid and a few groceries in the back of a full-sized Lincoln Navigator that trigger the enraged eye-twitching. A luxury SUV. Luxury? I just can’t wrap my head around a luxury sport utility vehicle. Maybe they should just rename them to something more accurate, like “big ass truck that I want because I can’t drive but want to impress my neighbors” vehicle.
Okay, sorry, I’ll end my rant now 🙂
[…] the blues. I’m a big fan of the blues and have been for a while. I even named my car Lucille after B.B. King’s guitar. The blues have inspired musicians across the world, feeding […]