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.
This wasn’t mine, but it’s close enough.
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.
My father fixed that dent for me himself.
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?