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First Wheels

Your first automobile may not have been much, but at least you didn't have to build it yourself. Henry Ford did, starting with the two-cylinder gasoline engine. One hundred years ago this past June, he successfully completed his "Quadricycle," a light horse-drawn carriage without the horse. Three years later, he quit his day job at the electric company and organized the Detroit Automobile Company. To honor Ford's achievement, The Home Forum asked Monitor staffers to write about their first cars. The automobile has profoundly changed lives around the world, and it continues to do so - one life at a time. Here are some examples:

My Deer Car

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By Gail Russell Chaddock

A woman's first car is not the first car she drives, but the first car she buys on her own. Mine was a Ford Escort, circa 1981.

The salesmen at the Ford dealership were just plunging into the first doughnuts of the day, and seemed surprised to see a customer walk in at 9:03 on a Monday morning. It took a while to convince them that I was a customer. I think it was the, "I want to buy a car today," that prompted one to set down his doughnut and walk me out to the lot.

I rejected his first suggestion - wrong color blue. Reject No. 2 had mustard-yellow seats. "All right, lady, what color do you like?" he said. I liked one at the far end of the lot. "Not that one. I don't have the keys," he said. I would wait. He was glum through the test drive, glum through the paperwork, and glum right up to the minute when he shook my hand at the door for buying the car.

Then he asked: "How did you know?" I'd known nothing. "I liked the color," I said. "It reminded me of a deer." (The color was "metallic fawn," I found out.)

"A deer!" he called back to his colleagues. "She picked it because it looked like a deer!"

Turns out my fawn-colored Ford was that week's "bait" car - advertised in all the local papers for $5,900. If you read the small print, though, the price applied only to one car - now mine.

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1950s California Cool

By David Holmstrom

When my brother joined the Army in the late 1950s, he bequeathed his car to me. It was a streamlined 1941 Ford Coupe with a stick shift. To fit in with the southern California craze, he had lowered the rear end so that it hovered eight inches off the pavement. To me and countless other males of the era, this was cool.

It had a gray-primer paint job, white steering wheel, moon-shaped hubcaps, and a purple headlining. I threw a black-and-white checked blanket over the front seat to hide the holes.

With money from my weekend busboy job at the Hamburg Heaven, I added dual pipes for a throaty roar I can still hear. I drove all over the San Gabriel Valley, radio blasting, believing I was on the threshold of personal greatness.

Driving was slightly precarious, as the rear end had a tendency to drift or slosh when turning corners. High winds called for diagonal driving: I had to aim a little left to stay straight.

I tinkered with the engine, added chrome parts, and winced whenever I went over bumps. The rear end would whoop down like a trash can being dropped.

Six months into ownership, I stopped at a light and noticed smoke curling up from the dashboard. At the side of the road, I lifted the hood, releasing a plume of acid smoke. Strands of wire were burning like fuses. My beautiful car was about to explode! I ran around, jabbing and pulling wires. A passing motorist stopped and assessed the situation. He reached in and yanked out a handful of wires like linguine from a pot. "Kid," he said, "my advice is to junk this car."

The next day I learned from a mechanic that it would cost twice what the car was worth to have it rewired. I cried when I junked the car.

English Minimalism

By Pamela Jorgenson

Ah yes, I remember it well! An (English) Austin 7, vintage 1936, the original "soapbox on wheels." Top speed, 40 miles per hour, downhill. With a following wind.

Bought in my student days for a song, this was a simple car. The bare bones of a car. The absolute minimum you'd need in order to say that you owned a car. No starter motor - just a crank. No turn signals or brake lights - hand signals worked fine. It demanded nothing fancy of me. Might freeze overnight? No problem! Just drain the radiator and bring a gallon jug of water in the morning. It might rain? All it asked was the comfort of a tarpaulin to protect its

leaky roof.

Dear, dear old car! I owned it in its mature years. If its power was limited downhill, it was even more so uphill. Carrying me alone, it performed bravely. But if I had a passenger, I knew the exact moment I must ask him or her to get out and walk alongside. Or, if it was really steep, to please ... would you mind ... a little push?

Volvo in a Corvette World

By Brad Knickerbocker

My first car marked me right away as an oddball.

It was Pensacola, Fla., 1965. I was a newly minted ensign, chasing the elusive Right Stuff with hundreds of other young naval aviators-in-training. They all drove Corvettes, Porsches, Austin Healeys, and Pontiac GTOs - aerodynamic numbers that looked to be going 100 miles an hour standing still.

I had never owned a car, but on the way to a movie one night I stopped off at one of the dozens of used-car lots that line the main road to any military base and bought my first one. It was bright red. It had a floor shift. It was a one-year-old Volvo - the one that looks like a VW Beetle that's bulked up a little (or maybe a slightly deflated '41 Ford). All roundness and stolidity.

My car (its nickname, bestowed by my fellow pilots, cannot be printed in a family newspaper) couldn't do 100 m.p.h. floored and pointed downhill. It looked about as racy as a Barcalounger. But I loved the Volvo. And it returned the loyalty, taking me all over the country then waiting patiently (with everything else I owned stored inside) when I went overseas.

I left the Navy in 1970 and sold the Volvo to a chaplain who was en route to hard duty in Alaska. I'm sure it's still out there somewhere. Sturdy, dependable, and beautiful in an oddball way.

Elation in the Depression

By Mari Murray

It was the midst of the Great Depression. Dad was trying unsuccessfully to find work. Our family had not owned an automobile since I could remember. But Dad would always say, "Someday we will have a car."

Among the bad times there were good times. My parents got four tickets to a Sunday-afternoon baseball game and took a neighbor couple as their guests. Dad presented the tickets to the ballpark attendant, who dropped the stubs into a box for a drawing later. Dad randomly redistributed the tickets to his foursome.

Can you guess? The neighbors won a car in the drawing! Shiny, brand-new, impressive!

"Fight those feelings!" we told ourselves. We needed to be glad for our neighbors, although strangely they did not acknowledge much gratitude.

Time went by, and still no car. My sister, seven years my senior, left college to use her earnings to help our family. Dad had found intermittent work. The two conspired in a secret scheme.

On an auspicious day, a car drove up to our house, and father and daughter emerged. They had pooled their earnings to buy a secondhand Plymouth for $400. It was ours!

This circa-1936 vision in creamy tan evinced no extremes of design, no hard corners, but embodied the beginnings of the soft contours of models to come. It had a stick shift, no radio (although its very presence made a melody for me), no heater. Two could sit in the (unadjustable) bench front seat. Three easily fit in the back. The trunk accommodated a spare tire and the perennial picnic basket.

Our life changed. Now we had an extra room on our house, and it was called "car." I spent hours just sitting in it. There, Sis and I would read the Sunday paper, talk, relax. We'd take family drives through the park. Our car was a means of transportation, a key to independence, a companion, a blessing.

The car was with us for many years. I learned to drive in it, and it was given to me after I married and had children of my own.


By Marshall Ingwerson

It was a used, 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle convertible, and I can still remember staring at the details of the gauges on the dashboard and the round VW medallion on the hood in wonder. VW bugs carried the feel of hardy, no-nonsense, practical equipment - like bush airplanes or Army jeeps. It had running boards and an oversize black steering wheel.

The older it got, the more real skill and engine-feel it took to drive the car. You could not just press the accelerator and go. You actively pumped gas into the engine with oscillations of the foot.

And when you had your toe on the brake, you kept the car running with your heel working the accelerator. I could do this while steering with my knees and eating Mexican food with both hands, which I did once or twice - a day. (This is not recommended.)

With the top down, my surfboard slid sideways between the two front seats and up over the back. I felt like a character in a Gidget beach movie driving down Newport Boulevard.

When I was a little older, I drove to work over the Santa Monica Mountains and through the narrow, winding canyons of Beverly Hills. The morning sun shimmered across my head and shoulders through the live oaks that spanned the road.

I had driven the car 11 years, minus a few when my sister had possession, when I flew into Los Angeles airport one Monday morning. I took the shuttle to the long-term parking lot and walked aisle after aisle before suspicion jelled into certainty. It was gone.

Uncle Sam Wanted Me - to Drive

By Roderick Nordell

I was a teenage automotive virgin when Italy surrendered on the same day I got my World War II draft notice. We were a carless family. I learned the M-1 rifle and radar before I could drive.

Naturally, during dark nights on muddy, hilly, twisted Pacific island roads, it was driving that the Marine Corps wanted me to do. Everybody knows how to drive. The sergeant of the guard has to drive around and check all the guard posts. Since I was briefly sergeant of the guard, my first car was owned by the United States government. It was a Jeep, probably a '43, with gears that proclaimed they wanted double-clutching or at least single-clutching.

Driving lessons came years later. That's when I learned how to start on a slope and several other procedures that might have been handy out there where my jeep and I were defending America.

What About Your First Car?

Please send us up to 250 words on your first car by Jan. 14, 1997. Type it, include your address, and enclose a stamped envelope if you want it returned.

Please mail (or e-mail) your submissions to:

The Christian Science Monitor

The Home Forum, First Wheels

One Norway Street

Boston, MA 02115-3195, USA


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