You Are What You Drive…?

I learned to drive on an ancient grey Fordson tractor that I’d inherited from my grandfather.  It had three-speeds: Slow, Really Slow, and…Is this thing even moving?  But it had four wheels and… it was mine!

With the most recent car I bought, I walked into a posh showroom where the salesmen all looked like senators at a convention.  They saw me come in the door, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt and I was visually dismissed.  Undaunted, I walked up to the counter and asked, “Sooo, what was your first car?  I bet mine was a whole lot crappier than yours.”  There was a truly long moment…but then the owner of the place came over, smiling.  “What was yours?” he asked.  We looked at each other.  “46 Plymouth,  no reverse, no second gear, no back seat, and it was dead-flat chalk grey.  It was a tank.”

He said, “You win,” but it had succeeded in jump-starting  a conversation.  I told him how I sprayed gold glitter on the horn button ( every time you beeped, you got glitter) installed a double-bed mattress in the back, complete with old Playboy magazines and throw-pillows…and then painted the whole car a shiny jet-black with a Rexall sprayer I bought for $8.99..  I had paid $40.00 for the car.  I was 10 years old, no license and I drove it in the farm fields behind our house.  I also explained that I’d learned a new word at age 10.  The word was parlaying.  That summer, I parlayed my $40 Plimmy into  $150 cash, no mean feat for a 10 year old.  You want to know if this guy sold me a car?  Yup, but that story is at the end of this article…and it’s pretty weird.

The question, Are you what you drive? is more complex than you’d think, and I hope some of you write in and tell the truth.  Tell me the crappiest car you’ve owned…OR…the weirdest, or coolest car.  Any of those, the weirder the better.

The next few summers (still sans license) I parlayed my ass off with some nondescript cars: a ’51 Chevy with a huge axe cut in the trunk, a ’55 Dodge. I found that if I combined my lawn-mowing money, with the parlaying money, I could just barely buy an utterly stripped ’65 Chevy Biscayne.  No radio, no A/C , no nothin’, but it was NEW and had that new- car smell.  I was just beginning to seriously date then and discovered that J.C. Whitney sold every piece of crap accessory you could imagine.

First on the list was a radio (am cost the least).  I also bought some wire wheel covers, plus four white rubbery rings which you could put on to make it look like whitewall tires.  This stripper Chevy was a Biscayne and had three holes on each rear fender to install the emblem.  The car looked great, but the Biscayne told the world, “Cheap, cheap, cheap!”

And so I sent away for chrome letters from J.C.W. and a week later had my initials, HRH on the rear fenders.  This was to be a dating car, and so I also sent for a tiny bottle of turquoise-blue paint so I could tone-down my garish interior lights.  Boy, did they work! Last, but not least, I installed an eight-foot whip antenna on the rear fender, only pointing forward.  It looked like a feather on an Indian headdress and I liked the look.  Was it a good dating car?  No…it was a GREAT dating car.  It looked like a million bucks, and cost $2065.00

At college, where you didn’t have to make-out in the back seat anymore, I parlayed that Chevy into a ’67 Pontiac Firebird, light metallic blue, black vinyl top, Rally II wheels…….and Maserati air horns that I ordered from…guess who?  The horns sounded insane or funny depending on which button you pressed.

This was my serious dating car, taking out young up-town women now, not naïve school girls.  I’m a skier and so I put a ski rack on the back, and a Franklin and Marshall decal in my rear window.  Was this a great dating car?  Oh, baby…except for the fact that the back-seat was only suitable for small dogs or double amputees.  

Summer jobs were more profitable now and I parlayed once more from that very sweet Firebird to a thing called a Shelby which I had to do some serious financial  scraping to purchase.  My ’69 Shelby GT-350 cost $5400 back then, about the cost of an XKE Jaguar.  It was very rare and wherever I stopped for gas, it was as if a flying saucer had landed.

It was during the Vietnam years and I put on both an American Flag and a Peace Sign of equal size.  It summed up how I felt.  I was dating Pamela by then and had purchased one of the first Gates Lear-jet eight tracks.  On our first date, I picked Pam up in the Shelby.  She was a ballet dancer and I put on Swan Lake as she sat down in the shotgun seat.  I later learned that I’d acquired some big points for the music.

The Shelby was famous wherever it went, so famous that I got a ticket the first minute I arrived at F&M.  The cop explained the ticket was “just on general principle.”  The Shelby was a high-water mark for me.  It was very fast, came equipped with a roll-bar and shoulder harnesses, sequential tail lights…AND…a fold-down rear seat so that you could sleep two in a sleeping bag.

Our first trip to the Formula One Grand Prix  Races at Watkins Glenn, Pam and I slept in the back while people would come by and tap on the window…wave.  In Japan, the Shelby (tricked-up by my sergeants) won some drag races against the Japanese, right on the runway, which had been cordoned off.  Those were good times!

Finally back stateside with a new squirming, screaming baby, it came time to sell the Shelby.  Sad times.  We sold it to McClusky Racing where they rebuilt the whole thing, so I didn’t feel too bad.  We had some in-between cars then, a Fiat 124 Sport Coupe (sweet) a decked-out, tarted up Grand Prix (think of an aircraft carrier with stereo and red velour upholstery) and a white stretch Dodge Max-Van for the business (yuck).

One day, the Pontiac dealership in Tucson had a super special, a brand new black Smoky and the Bandit Trans Am.  Yeah, we bought it and it was great, only I was used to stick shifting and this was an automatic.  It quickly became Pam’s car.  And we were financially liquid enough that I could sniff around for something else.  Didn’t take long!  A spanking new RED Mazda RX-7 with black interior.  A true sports car.

It was at this point that Pam and I learned a new and different kind of life-lesson.  Though all of our friends had at least two cars, sometimes three, we learned that having a Trans-Am was…okay, but having a Trans-Am and an RX-7 was too much and in some cases a crime punishable by death… of the relationship.  Really?  Okay, I guess.   The lesson stuck in my mind, however, and never left.  You don’t make friends by driving an expensive car…but you can lose a few.

And we’ve had all kinds of cars, since…a very froggy-looking Saab 900 Turbo, that looked and sounded like The Enterprise in Star Trek when it hits warp.   LOTS of fun, and a truly weird car.  We even grew to love its looks.

A Volvo Turbo station wagon, surprisingly fast till the turbo blew one winter morning.  You could tell something was wrong because in the frosty morning air there was a dense low grey (and smelly) fog at about waist height, everywhere.  It was oil-smoke from the turbo.

Which brings us to the present.  It also brings me full-circle back to my childhood.  I had been in a funk for awhile for personal reasons and for my birthday, Pam surprised me with a great big, screaming-ass ORANGE, Kubota Tractor.  The guy who sold it to her drove it to the house, with 50 orange balloons waving in the air.  I just about fainted.  And to be honest, I instantly fell in love, a rare thing for me.  He showed me everything and I duplicated everything he did only in ultra-slow motion lest I knock over a tree or squash my car.

Over the years, I’d come to realize that cars were not my ne plus ultra anymore, they just weren’t.  A good friend and customer, “The Birdman,” explained the situation to me.  He said, “Frankly, I don’t give a flying foo-foo what you drive.  I really don’t.  I like the sculptures you make.  Anybody can buy a car.  It’s just money.”  It made sense.

The Kubota, however, was a great big wonderful toy as well as an amazing tool!  I could dig ponds, make trails, bail people out in a snow storm, make a stream and erect a weird tree house, just with one vehicle.  My Kubota (its name is Luke, by the way) became my bestest friend and best vehicle since my love affair with the Shelby.  And, to date, it’s the best thing you can drive!  My first vehicle was a tractor and a tractor turns out to be my favorite vehicle.

Bringing this essay full-circle, that posh dealership I walked into?  I have always heavily researched every car I’ve ever bought.  This one I researched more than any other, looking for the absolute best bang-for-the-buck.  This car was in the same category as Lexus, when it was first born, a great car, but hugely under priced because it was a new kid on the block. In every You Tube, every car mag, they said, this is a TERRIFIC car, except for one thing.  Care to guess???

The badge.  It could beat a Lexus…easy, it was as quiet as a Mercedes, handled and accelerated like my Trans Am, but that name plate.  It had a pedestrian history.  No one wanted to drive…….a KIA.  It is all about STATUS.  In the dealership where we were swapping first-car stories, I told the guys that in the military, KIA stands for Killed in Action and I didn’t like that.  The owner smiled and slid out of his chair.  “Yup,” he agreed, “and I have a solution.”  I learned that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the name.  In the mother country (South Korea) the emblem looks almost identical to the Lexus emblem, and so I had those original emblems put on my car.

The only other thing I didn’t like was the actual name of the car, Cadenza, which sounded to me like a sofa, a credenza.  Soooo, I renamed it KRONOS, who was the king of the gods…and apparently ate his children. I soon installed  those chrome letters next to the license plate.

The car does everything superlatively and looks like it cost $80,000 more than it does.  A cop pulled me over in PA, not because I’d done anything wrong…he just wanted to know what the car was.  Then, Pamela came up with the idea for the coup de grace.  She found car badges in a Road & Track Magazine.  They’re super high quality, in heavy chrome with enameled colors.  We picked three for each rocker panel:  USA,  England’s Union Jack, and The US Air Force.  Now, years later, people drive up beside us and we have to explain.  Lots of thumbs-up.  And it kind of hearkens back to my old Chevy with the initials on it.

I’ve had some fun here but I’d REALLY, REALLY like to hear an anecdote about YOUR experience.  Did you lose your virginity in the back of a 57 Chevy?  Did you ever own a car whose running boards were so rusty you could see the gravel racing by under you.  Tell me about it.


P.S.  Well, you can see kind of an arc to this essay.  You go from truly humble beginnings, stick more and more peacock feathers up your ass, and slowly begin to come around the track.  I love my Kubota, really like my Kronos, and what you see on your right is what I’m looking for at this point in my life.  It closely resembles an old truck we’d use to take milk cans down to the dairy. Life is Good!




14 Responses to "You Are What You Drive…?"

  1. Deborah Bellini says:

    I loved the Fiat Spider that my husband gave to me as a birthday present, the was until the after market wheels came flying off as I took a turn onto a major road. Not fun seeing your car wheels rolling in front of you. My present car is a 2006 Toyota Camry XLE with all the bells and whistles. It also has 217,000 miles on it. I love it dearly. It’s the closest I have ever come to a truly luxurious car. There have been many cars inbetween but I think one of my fondest/hilarious car memories involve a 64 VW with a bad syncho in second gear, a very young couple in love, and a drive in theater. I’ll leave it there.

  2. Henry Harvey says:

    Wow! gettin’ it on in the back of a VW? You must have been a contortionist. The Spyder’s were really terrific little cars…except for the occasional wheel falling off. On a dare, we took my Fiat 124 Sport Coupe up the backside of Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. 11,000 ft mountain and the back side was basically a mud trail. We made it, though for the last two miles I had to hang onto the trunk to get more traction, while Pam drove.

  3. Henry Harvey says:

    Worse car – GTO gas hog that liked the repair shop more than the driveway. & the only car I had that was not blue. Should have known better black is just not my color.

    Drive now – and have for a long time a 2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee. I like it because it’s comfortable except when the weather gets below freezing & then the AC comes on.The only way you can get heat on again is to stop & turn off the car. Not handy on I95. It gets me anywhere I want to go though.

    Old Chevy van we turned into a camper & drove cross country with a 2 year old & 2 german shepherds was fun.

    Had a Chrysler Grand Voyager for 20 years. Held 8 but if there were more people they sat on the floor. Lots of camping trips, ski trips, great for hauling all the remodeling materials for 3 houses. Always started dependable. Maybe my favorite car.

    My siblings (8 of them) would most likely say my first car. It was a blue sedan 3 speed Ford I think. I had never driven a standard before so when my Dad took me out to teach me they would all run into the middle of the street yelling “Lets go watch Carol buck around the corner.

    Cars are things to me & I don’t LOVE them but I do appreciate them.
    Hope I didn’t put you to sleep reading this.

    • Henry Harvey says:

      Hated your GTO???
      Bite your tongue and go sit in the corner. Seriously, any car can turnout to be a lemon. My mom bought one in 65, 4sp and tri-power. She used to pick me up from track practice after school. I’s waggle my index finger and she’d burn rubber in support of the team.
      Thanks for writing!

  4. Henry Harvey says:

    First car 1965 VW Beetle; favorite 1968 MGB Roadster; midlife crisis 2004 Mini Cooper S 6 speed-Gary (as in Cooper) was killed in hail storm of 2014
    Vicki Roller

  5. Henry Harvey says:

    Good choices! Didya ever see the VW ad at the time where they put some tape on the VW’s doors and float around in a river? And there were no bad MG-Bs…good solid sports cars. The newer Coopers actually do pretty good justice to the spirit of what a sports car is really s’posed to be. Our Trans Am was seriously wounded in a Tucson sandstorm that came outta nowhere. The whole car looked like it had been sand-blasted. …Well, in a way, I guess it was.

  6. Charlie Davenport says:

    First car that was mine was a 1966 Triumph Spitfire (bought in 68), Tiel (blue/green). My father had to pick it up from wherever we bought it and it was totally hilarious seeing him try to get out of it (6′ and 210 lbs at the time I think) was just a bit too big for the car. Swore he would never get in it again, since it felt like he could have put it in the back of his International Travel-All that was our family car. Had it for my Junior/Senior year of college (along with my 1949 Harley Hog) but had to sell it when I took a Sales job after graduation. Loved that car.. gave me the feeling I could hang my arm out the window and tough the ground, which I almost could. It was the first of 2 Spitfires I owned…
    Charlie Davenport

  7. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Charlie!
    That Spitfire was gorgeous and I lusted after that baby for years. At the time, however, I was still living under Dad’s roof and he declared it to be too damned small. Nice choice. I guessing it was British Racing Green?

  8. Henry Harvey says:

    I truly enjoyed your automotive biography. It was so male of you. I remember dates and times by what I was driving at that time. As it happens, I was not as resourceful as you and had to wait many years ; buying what I could “qualify” for at the bank continuing to dream about what I might want, not need.

    During my Junior year at NCSU, the first car I bought was a ’59 Ford sedan, faded out blue for $60.00.  The transmission failed within months. The only thing I really remember about it was having to use a floor pedal to pump water to wash the windshield. I gave the car away after removing the radio. I sold the radio for $60.00. After graduation, I over extended myself (already married with one child) and purchased an 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, a real beauty to me, with bucket seats, and console and vinyl roof. After that, everything was very utilitarian, a Pontiac Tempest station wagon and various American made four door sedans. I had many company cars after that for 10 years, most of which were pretty nice and well equipped and no payment for me. 

    When company cars were no longer an option, I got a ’78 silver Datsun 280ZX 2+2  with manual transmission. It was fun to drive, sporty, and totally impractical for a father of four. My wife drove the four door sedan family cars we had. I had to give up the 280ZX after our divorce, I got the Buick LeSabre sedan. The fun driving was over for awhile.  I still travelled a lot in my sales job, but was itching for a toy. I happened upon a dark blue 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible. It had a 134,000 miles, needed new convertible top, paint, upholstery and carpet replaced, etc. After spending as much on the car to make it presentable as I paid for it, I had a toy (except for manual transmission). I drove it for nine years added 80,000 miles to it. It had a 389 cu in V8 that got over 20 mpg on a trip and would easily top 120 mph. During that time I had a Ford F150 pick up truck, a 1990 Mazda Miata, 1988 blue Chevrolet Corvette roadster. It scared me plenty, I spun out, hit a sapling and learned it was not like the 1987 Honda Accord I had been driving. Realizing that I my reflexes weren’t as keen as I thought, about a year later, I traded the Corvette for an Acura Legend Coupe. It was a six cylinder sleeper, very quick, a great car.

  9. Henry Harvey says:

    And I enjoyed your auto-bio!  I remember that 280 ZX well.  A looker and nice handling.

    Had a similar experience when my RX-7 spun out.  It was the day I was window shopping other cars and at the time, I thought it was jealous.  Traded it in for a 3 series BMW.  That was the beginning of my maturation. 
    An A-8 is about as sweet as it gets.  And you learn that tacking on another 50K doesn’t make it sweeter…you just worry about it more.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Visiting my Grandpa in rural Valley Mills, Tx. he had 2 side by side Edsel’s in the driveway that were DOA. I must have been 12. Sitting high and proud shifting with confidence grinning freckle to freckle.
    At 18 while stationed at Pearl Harbor, I bought a ’69 Dodge Dart 340, Hurst trans, only problem is it was on Oahu. Going 100 in the sugar cane fields was thrilling at 2am! Oh yes, chick magnet! 
    I had 3 things going for me.
    1) Submarine Sailor
    2) Damned good looking
    3) ’69 Baby Blue Dart

    I did drive an old tractor back from bailing hay once. Took 3 tries up that hill before I discovered it had gears. Man, there was oil all over the place.

  11. Henry Harvey says:

    Never saw two Edsels side-by-side.  That’d be a special sight!

    ’69 was a good year for cars.  My Shelby was a ’69 and I had a Hurst tranny, too.  I learned a little trick with the Shelby.  It had a bizarre cast-aluminum exhaust system.  You could fill it with a hose when you were washing it and it sounded like a lion…gargling.  Hit the gas and it spat a gallon out the back.

    Now, I look at a generation of kids who only care how big the infotainment screen is.  Anything under 10″ and two  USB ports…and it ain’t a good car. 

    Thanks for remembering!

  12. Henry Harvey says:

    ( you’ll never get old, Henry; you never grew up!  )

    Nothing so racy in my past, though…my fave  vehicle was my Buick Wildcat – I loved the name!  My dad worked for GM all his life, and I got discounts on the cars I bought.

    My favorite showroom encounter was buying that car….
    For an hour or so, the salesman and I schmoozed while I patiently  worked the price down….( Dad had carefully schooled me on the art of negotiation.)
    My last offer had to be “cleared with his manager”, of course.
     I waited…and waited…

    Finally, the salesman returned, with a s— ass grin on his face to inform me I had won out! The car was mine!   “Do we have a deal?”   He asked, too pleasantly.
    “Almost!”, I replied.
    He looked at me quizzically.

    Then I pulled out my official GM letter, , instructing any GM dealer to accept the letter as a 15% down payment on an (already) negotiated price.
    I carefully opened it, offered it to the salesman, trying to maintain a proper sense of composure while I watched his face turn killer-red. 

    With hate in his eyes, he flapped the letter on his open palm, and took it to the back office.
    (I can only imagine the conversation in the back room as I waited patiently and unassuming in the showroom, gazing out the window as the sun settled low and lower into the horizon ….)

    Eventually, the (not so polished now) salesman returned, threw some paperwork in front of me to sign, tossed the keys at me – and wished me a good day and offering the perfunctory “thank you for your business” handshake.

    I drove off to the radio blaring the music of  a new musical group, The Beatles.
    ” The WHAT?? “, I wondered…
    What kind of a stupid name is that?, I thought to myself, bouncing in time to the music…”It’ll never fly in the U.S! 

    Boy, did I enjoy that car! 
    Mary Lou

  13. Henry Harvey says:

    Boy I would love to have one of those magic letters!  That’s about as good an anecdote as it gets as far as haggling goes!
    Good show!


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