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!