By Steve Walsh

My first vehicle was a 1989 Ford Festiva, a clown car that Ford came up with to entice the as yet untapped circus demographic, I’m sure.

The car was so small I could reach out the window and open the hood while remaining behind the wheel. If it had duel exhaust pipes, I could have used it as a wheel barrow.

It was dark grey with an orange pin stripe, and even though the pin striped said “chick magnet,” I decided to add a “Steal Your Face” sticker on the back window to seal the deal. (You’re welcome, Grateful Dead, for the additional publicity. Hope it helped.)

I remember the car would regularly stall out if I drove through puddles. Or over a damp sponge. Sea-worthy it was not. Before I got rid of it, I remember hearing a sloshing sound in the back seat every time it rained. Came to find out there was a hole in the baseboard and the floor behind the driver’s seat would fill with water in bad weather. And with water in the back seat comes mold. I could always count on the car smelling like bad cheese every time the clouds rolled in.

When I bought the car, I brought it over to my girlfriend Kendra’s house to show it off. She gasped and said, “I’m going to look so cute in this car.”

In the end, my relationship with the Festiva lasted longer than the one with Kendra. The Festiva was a good car. All these years later, I’ve “friended” Kendra on Facebook. If I could find my Festiva, I’d “friend” it, too.

By Bob McLaren

As soon as I got my driver’s license in August ‘52, I immediately started looking for MY car. To earn the money for my first car, I’d been cutting neighbors’ lawns for years, did some gardening work for them too, but I made most of my money when I was working after school and during the summer at the Essex Fells Country Club Golf Course (EFCCGC) cutting greens, raking sand traps and other misc. tasks. I had saved up a little over $150 for my first car – a large sum in those years.

I found out that one of the policemen in our little town was selling his newly painted, metallic green, and restored Ford Model-A and, he only wanted $150 for it. I really wanted that car, but just to be sure I looked at other cars for sale for about $150. I found a 1940 Chevy convertible with a power glide transmission that also got my attention.

I finally consulted my current girlfriend about which car she preferred, but to her it was a no-brainer as she didn’t like “old” cars and the convertible was practically “new being in its 13th year”. That was enough to sway me into buying the Chevy convertible, and I’ve been heartbroken ever since because I passed up to chance to own a great looking & running Model-A car. I soon found out that my power glide transmission was a real dog – it took almost all my strength to shift it from 1st through 3rd gear and back – I wasn’t into fixing cars yet so I didn’t even try to find out what was wrong with it and so, lived with this dog until I got rid of the car.

My girlfriend really loved the car, so it served me well in high school, getting to work at the EFCCGC and for dates where we drove with the rag top down, even in freezing/snowy weather. Oh, to be young again!

One day someone smashed my driver’s side door, but I found a used one for about $15. The only problem with the new door was its color – it was GREEN! I got the door on and it worked fine – I never got around to having it painted black to match the rest of the car, due to lack of funds. So my car took on a junk-car look at that point.

When I got out of high school, I accepted the offer from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I drove my Chevy to and from Lehigh – about a 3- or 4-hour trip – many times, and the car proved to be fairly trustworthy until the early part of my junior year when I was driving home. I was traveling up a rather steep hill when, without me changing the accelerator position, my car started slowing down. I managed to shift it down to 2nd gear with ALL my strength and soon found that from 2nd gear I was unable shift it up or down anymore. I made it home in 2nd gear and parked the car in our U-shaped driveway. After unloading all my stuff I got Dad to follow me up to our local junk car yard. It was hard getting up to speed in 2nd gear but with some fancy footwork on the clutch, I was on my way. I parked it against the fence surrounding the yard, just so the car knew who was now in charge! Then I gave my car & keys to the yardman and hightailed it out of there with Dad. I was a little sad about it all but such is life in the fast lane!

 

By Dick Williams

It was the winter of 1974, and I was headed to Spain to propose to my bride and spend 6-8 months touring Europe. Having owned a scooter and motorcycle previously, I had my heart set on a motorcycle to tour Europe.  Hitchhiking from Idaho to NYC in December, and attempting to do the same from Luxemburg to Spain, convinced me of the folly of that plan. 

So I was interested in a car on a motorcycle budget. We took one of my fiancée, Linda’s, Basque professors with us on a car-buying tour in Spain.  I can vouch for the fact that used car salesmen are similar all over the world, or at least in Spain. He started showing us the most expensive cars he could, with all the “necessary” extras, such as a radio. A radio was not on the top of my list, especially since my high school Spanish was long gone.

So we kept saying “menos, menos” (less, less) and finally ended up in the dirt-floor basement of the building. The salesman was still doing his best to sell me the most expensive car among the cobwebs, but a little green Seat 600 caught my eye. A Seat is the Spanish version of the Italian Fiat. This little beauty sat covered in dust and grime, and the salesman kept dismissing it with a wave, but I persisted and he finally located a battery to put in it, and voila, coche started right up! The monstrous 600cc motor purred on all four cylinders, the suicide doors opened and closed, and the lights worked.

We made a deal on the spot, with the professor’s help, and bought the little car for $800 US, leaving the poor salesman in shock and disbelief over all he had probably heard about rich American tourists.

There was one immediate hitch, however. It was illegal for a foreigner to own a Spanish-registered car in Spain, but Linda had a fix for that. One of her fellow students was dating a nice Basque kid, Jesus, who was 18. We asked Jesus if we could put our car in his name, and he said of course and was VERY proud to tell all his friends in the small town of Onati that he was the owner of an automobile!

For a shakedown cruise, we headed out on a two-week cruise through Spain and Portugal. Coche burned no oil and only had one glitch on the trip — the starter failed. This was not a big deal, however, as the car was very light and had a manual transmission (although first gear was not synchromesh). One simply had to park on a downhill slope or have the passenger give a little push, have it in second, the key on, and pop the clutch.  Started every time.  Every time, that is, that we remembered to turn the key. One afternoon, after a lunch of wine, cheese and bread (one had only to roll the windows down going through a village and sniff for the aroma of fresh bread), the driver (me) forgot to turn the key. The passenger (Linda) was exhausted by the time I realized my error and sneakily turned the key and begged for “just one more” little push.

Traveling on the mini-ferry to Portugal, we had to use this technique on the short down ramp off the ferry to start up, amidst all the foot traffic. The officer in charge saw us push into position and inquired, “no motor”  The other challenge, of course, was with the suicide (backward opening) doors, the “pusher” had to run around in front of the door to get in.  Luckily, El Coche was never interested in accelerating quickly.

Upon our return to Onati, the astonished car salesman installed a rebuilt starter for nothing. He couldn’t believe we had taken it all over Spain and Portugal, but we were just getting started. It was not his last astonishment over El Coche.

El Coche had the pleasure of serving several visiting family members during his tenure.  First were Uncle Bob and Aunt Minna. They packed lightly and endured the cramped quarters with smiles and light-heartedness. Then were Linda’s parents, Joe and Marilyn.  Likewise, no real issues. The only scary times were when Franco’s Guardia Civil, anti-Basque military police with machine guns, would stop us at roadblocks. Linda could not understand their guttural illiterate Spanish, but we would always get the third degree because the owner of the car was Basque, and Linda had a Basque name on her passport. One time an officer was trying to tell me to fasten my shoulder harness, and when we couldn’t understand him he took the barrel of his loaded machine gun and drew it across my chest. I got the idea pretty quickly.

The more interesting times came when my folks, Ed and Phyllis, came to visit.  I had told mom to pack light (El Coche was about 2/3 the size of a VW Beetle), but when we drove to Madrid to pick them up, there was more baggage than the poor little beast of burden could carry. We repacked and ended up leaving a suitcase in Madrid, and tying another on the roof.

 

Later, as we travelled through France in the rain, we stopped at a hardware store to buy some plastic to protect the roof luggage. The folks tried their limited French, and Linda tried her Spanish, all in vain, so I, with my tremendous drawing skills, drew a picture of the car with a suitcase on top and raindrops falling. A look of “Eureka!” overcame the Frenchman as he exclaimed, “Ah, plastique!”

Another time, in the desert outside of Barcelona on a Saturday morning, the steering became wobbly, then looser and looser. It appeared the entire front axle was failing. We were limping along slowly wondering what in the world to do, when suddenly around the corner loomed a huge Seat factory! As we turned into the parking lot the front end collapsed and we were done. As we waited for the quick repair (it was 11 and they closed at noon) the 4 of us wondered at El Coche’s wonderful timing and his ability to come through in the clinch. Thus El Coche became DON Coche, giving him the title of respect he deserved.

One time, as Linda and I were traveling alone through the Italian/Swiss Alps, Don Coche became desperate with the high altitude and his 600ccs were probably putting out about 200.  It was raining, and a tour bus pulled up on our tail as we lost power and slowed to a crawl. The problem was, if I came to a stop I wasn’t sure we could get going again, due to a burr or warp on the clutch plate. With no synchromesh in first gear, you had to come to a complete stop to put it in first, and then with the steep incline and the clutch problem the car would buck and pitch and just refuse to go.

There was only one thing to do.  Linda would have to get out and push to help Don Coche get going in first gear. I’m surprised she married me after this episode (not to mention some others), but she somehow managed to get out the suicide door, respond to my urgent “push, Linda, push” commands, get Don Coche going in first, and then again respond to my command “run, Linda, run” to get around the suicide door and back inside. Well, it all worked out. We got some strange looks from the tourists as the bus eventually passed, and I do remember a look or two from Linda with her rain-drenched hair, but hey, we made it over the Alps.

Another time, on the Italian Riviera, a $40 repair for a wheel bearing caused us to go panhandling and penniless for several days, but it wasn’t Coche’s fault. Once again he pulled through and got us to a safe place. The ensuing survival story is a tale in and of its own, but Coche’s good gas mileage enabled us to travel to and from town until we could obtain funds (this was before the days of credit cards, kids).

Driving Don Coche in Great Britain was a real thrill, because the steering wheel was on the left, as in the U.S. So when the driver wanted to pull out to pass, the passenger had to clear the way. It kept Linda awake and alert the entire trip. At one point, though, she complained that her seat seemed to be tilting. I ignored the comment until it was my turn to ride shotgun, and realized immediately that she was right. Suddenly, with me in the seat, it seemed to matter.  I lifted the rubber floor mat and saw the highway going rapidly by between the large rust holes in the floor. Don Coche had a uni-chassis, where the frame and chassis were more or less one.  As the floorboards rusted through, the seat (which was attached to them) sank closer and closer to the pavement.

Once again, it was an easy and miraculous fix. We stopped at a little machine shop where the mechanic welded a bar across the frame under the seat for about $10. Good as new, just as long as you didn’t lift the mat and see the space between you and the road.

We drove Don Coche 17000 miles in 8 months. He went to Great Britain 3 times. He saved us at customs once when Linda was coming over to visit (with no money) and told the agent her fiancé was working (illegally!) but owned a car. We were put in separate rooms to test our stories, and I was lectured not to work anymore, but Don Coche saved the day.

We went through France numerous times, as you had to in order to go anywhere from Spain. He took us along the coasts, to southern Italy and back up, through the Alps, and into Germany, as well as through Spain a couple of times.

He never let us down, and gave us some tremendous memories, both with our families and alone as young lovers.

When it was time to leave Spain, I thought, what the hell. I’m taking him back to the car dealer. When we drove in the salesman could not believe his eyes. He was rattling away in Spanish or Basque to his cohorts in amazement. We told him what a great car it was and he bought it back from us for $600, and that was after they had put the new starter in it! I just hope they gave him a place of honor after we left, instead of his lonely dusty home in the basement.

We’ve owned some wonderful vehicles, but Don Coche has a special place in our hearts. It was a wonderful time in our lives, and he was the center of it in many ways.

As an interesting addendum to the story, Jesus married that girlfriend and moved to Boise. He was here many years owning and operating a variety of restaurants before going back to Spain. After a few more years he returned to Boise where he currently resides as a Basque chef. We still laugh and tell stories about Don Coche.

 

By Alicia Poole

It was a matchbox car, really, but its simplicity of structure made it all the more miraculous.

Pink. Sparkly. Small. It was Tonia.

Her father, a used car salesman, gave it to her for her 16th birthday. The slightly iridescent paint job was the only new thing about it, but what else matters to a 16-year-old girl? Old, comfortable, worn black bucket seats and a backseat big enough for our backpacks was all we needed.

Being three months younger, I was the appointed co-pilot, right-hand man, partner in crime. I know, you are thinking I would’ve been far more useful as a direction finder, map folder or sign reader, but what fun is that? We were 16, after all – the age of all-knowing, never worrying fun. Every moment in that car was magical fun only two innocent girls could have.

To make it hers, Tonia placed a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy on the black dashboard: a pink Snagglepuss on a wheeled surfboard. Whenever we would go around corners, he would sail hopelessly off the edge, tipping into my lap with his constant grinning face and outstretched arms. No matter how old the joke, it was funny every time as we coined the phrase “taking the turn.”

The car rode low, too low for most intelligent folks, but again, we were young and cared only about our freedom in this pink wonderwagon! Over speed bumps and roads we’d fly, pushing the pedal to the floor only to reach 60 mph. Feeling every bump and divot was a joy, reminding us that life is not for the faint of heart. You have to learn to laugh at the bumps.

So many mixed tapes we listened to in that car. The quality of the music mattered not, just the beat and the way it made us feel alive. Nothing mattered when we were in the car, just being together. I ditched my first high school class in that car. A quick getaway, you ask? Hardly. We drove out of the Righetti High School parking lot, tears of laughter rolling down our cheeks as we watched my notebook fly off the roof and across the blacktop. Four years of hard work, studious concentration, complete compliance to authority gone in one heart-pounding moment in the car.

Then came the night Tonia decided I was to learn to drive. She would give me lessons, of course. It was dark in the K-Mart parking lot, but what better time to cruise a large deserted area of asphalt? I will never forget the look on Tonia’s face as I bottomed out through the drainage areas of the lot. She grasped the dashboard, but never a word of discouragement or fear. Her eyes, round in shock, made me laugh and laugh, wanting the night to never end. It wasn’t a car. It was THE car.

The years have passed, almost 20, to be exact. I now drive a safe, family car and Tonia drives a Jeep. We both use our cars for functionality and work, no longer needing them to prove our independence or freedom. We rarely drive together, but I guarantee, when you get in Tonia’s Jeep, you will find a pink Snagglepuss on a wheeled surfboard grinning at you from the dashboard.

 

By Evelyn Dykema

I’m not going to tell about John’s first car, a 47 Ford,  which he bought in college in 1955 for $25 and shared with another guy.  It was called Old Smokey for all of the reasons implied in that name.  It had no heater, but we had our love to keep us warm through that Michigan winter, and, actually, we drove Old Smokey pulling a one-wheel trailer from Michigan to California when we moved there the following June (1956) right after we were married. 

Our first family “car” was a red 1954 VW Westphalia camper.  It was a “doozy”  with running water, a table, and places to sleep six with a bit of finagling. What it didn’t have was enough horses in that back engine compartment to get us up even the smallest of the hills. All 36 horses pulling with all their might made us a traffic hazard and so we would tell the kids to start pedaling to help the engine. Of course, that didn’t work, but we could get down the other side of the hill in fine fashion. That vehicle took us across country many, many times.

 

 

 

By E.K. Williams

Henry Ford Flivver, vintage 1926(?). Open black touring car, canvas top, isinglass side attachments.

What I remember:

  • Wooden spoke wheels, tube-tires about 3-1/2” tube diameter, inside wheel diameter maybe 26 inches
  • Driver controls: three-position ignition switch – “off,” “on,” “mag” [nito]
  • Three foot-control pedals: “low,” “reverse,” and “brake” (also a hand brake)
  • No clutch or gearshift lever
  • Two small levers on the steering column; on the left, “spark-advance/retreat”; on the right, “throttle”
  • Instrument panel: a needle gauge to indicate “charge/discharge”
  • Headlight on/off switch mounted (I think) on the dashboard

Purchasing the car was a huge family decision – even a 7-year-old could tell.  Preceded by unusually quiet, thoughtful conversations often requiring scrutiny of penciled calculations – I hadn’t the foggiest notion what the big people were considering, but couldn’t help knowing something IMPORTANT had their undivided attention. And the outcome… one bright morning, proved to be astonishing. There we all were, piled into (maybe) our new car with Mom driving, breathtakingly fast, (probably about 15-18 MPH). Then – bang! – we all had to pile out again, because Mom had mishandled a turn, struck a curbing and broken a wheelspoke.

But the newly broken-in car had become family property; a day or so later the repaired vehicle was delivered to our house.

At that time Dad worked in the Texaco refinery a few miles east of town (Casper, WY).  Sometimes Mom had to drive out to meet him, with me as passenger. She used to relish describing another mishap while performing that “distasteful” duty. She hated driving, loved riding.  In parking, she’d come at a curb roughly, bumped it, and in the backlash hit her mouth against the steering wheel, was bleeding, not inconsiderably. So what about her rider, her backseat driver? Mom loved to report that he (I) was jumping with worry and excitement:  “Did we hurt the car, Mommy?  Did we hurt the car?”

But believe it or not, back in those “pioneering” months I had an experience of “time travel.” Our tin lizzie’s 35-30 MPH pace was so much faster than I’d ever before traveled, I was given moments of “frozen delight.”  It took me weeks to realize that our trips to town were not instantaneous, and actually required some specified quantity of time!

 

 

The Flea carrying Phil, Laura and Amy.

By Laura Little

My first car was a 1964 VW bug, no frills but in good condition.  We named it “The Flea.” My brother Phil, shown in the driver’s seat, and I (shotgun) paid $600 for it in my senior year of high school. That’s our sister Amy in the back seat with a bag of groceries – off to picnic somewhere.

The Flea took us everywhere we wanted to go… there are many happy memories buzzing down the 134 Ventura Freeway to the Santa Monica 10 and on to that sweet beach or to Will Rogers State Beach, Malibu or even Zuma Beach, as the weather and waves dictated.  We were always looking for good sun and big waves.  We drove it all over Southern California to concerts, ice cream parlors, dance halls, cheerleading events, theme parks… many, many road trips!

The Flea was once packed with a record 13 people during a stunt for a church youth outing.  We discovered it could be picked up and moved… or at least our friends did. It made it difficult to find one or two times as I recall.

We pimped it out with a huge set of Pioneer speakers that took up the space under the window behind the back seat.  For the longest time we were perplexed as to why the stereo stopped working, until one day when we went to put some beach stuff back there we discovered that the wires had been cut and the speakers were gone!

We could go for miles on a tank of gas, and it was a bumpy ride at any speed. One night someone pushed it down our driveway, hotwired it and got away. A few days later we got a call; the police recovered the license plates near the Mexican border. We never really got over that little Bug.