Tales from the Garage
"You're the one that I want"
In this Tales From The Garage we visit first love. Not the girl next door who snatched your heart in a prepubescent game of “Capture The Flag.” No, this is much more serious, your first new car. We all “dated” used cars before that first new car came into our lives. A rite of passage and the first sign of actually being an adult. Scary and exciting at the same time, and a little bit like that girl next door.
In June of 1978, “You’re The One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was the the number one song on the radio. I had just finished graduate school, had no job, and a pile of student loans to re-pay. This was, of course, the perfect time to buy my first new car. What I could not have known that muggy June day was that 40 years later, I would still have that car. We have all read stories of guys, (mostly guys it seems, women just don’t seem to have love affairs with their first cars) who spend silly money chasing down that “first car” and restoring it to a condition beyond reason. My story: I just never got rid of that “first car.”
The road to my first car was littered with various used cars, but I needed a reliable car to drive into adulthood. I had a number of cars at the time, rotating through them depending on which one had broken down last. It was an imperfect system but it worked. One car would die on the road, I would tow it home and jump start the next one. At 20-something it seemed a practical and economic solution. Of course, it happens: one day not one of the three cars is running and you have no car. The trifecta of unreliable used cars. You then win the enlightenment of knowing you are ready for a “new car.” One that you will hold and cradle from birth.
In the 1970s the Japanese cars were dominating the market, cheap, reliable and terrific gas mileage. What was not to like? My girlfriend, now my wife, had a used Honda Civic. A tiny bright orange box that always started and never left us at the side of the road. At that time if you went Japanese you picked your team – Honda, Toyota or Datsun. The Honda Accord had been out since 1976 and offered clean lines and a large hatchback for hauling your meager life around. I began flirting with Accords on the road and began to see myself as, “The Accord Guy.” But, I was having trouble with color, just could not get behind pale blue, red, or, God forbid, gold. Then one day on the highway I saw it. A deep burgundy (“Maroon Metallic”) colored Accord sped past me and my heart stopped. That was it – rich, elegant, and most importantly, not gold.
Immediately I was on the phone with the dealer asking about the color and how do I find one. A sobering call as two pieces of bad news were presented: one, that lush color was only available in the new-for-1978 LX model (read the most expensive Honda on the market); and two, that demand far exceeded supply, so good luck finding one. I was disappointed to say the least. The Accord LX had some fancy extras for a Honda: factory air conditioning, digital clock, velour seats, solid cargo area cover, and chrome beauty rings on the steel wheels. There were no other options available from the factory.
By now the Maroon Metallic color was the only one that was acceptable to me, but there was another small problem. No money, no job, and a pile of student loans.
First things first, the down payment. Still buried in my dog-eared Accord file are pages and pages of yellow tablet paper with columns of numbers trying to figure out the “correct” down payment and monthly payments to make all of this work. There was a magic formula, and I was determined to find it.
It was now clear to me that the more I could put down the better my chances were to get the car, but that depended on my getting all three of my “beaters” cleaned up and running at the same time. Something that up to this point, had never happened. I became a fulltime mechanic and detailer.
After weeks of pop riveting sheet metal over rust holes and then smearing the boilerplate repairs with tar-like undercoating, I was ready to sell my “fleet.” Just for the record, in order of best condition first, here are the cars: a 1964 Mercury Colony Park nine passenger station wagon in deep gloss black with full wood side trim. A rather stunning vehicle. A 1965 Dodge Polara four-door sedan in (surprise!) metallic Burgundy; and, the runt of the litter, a 1961 190 Mercedes-Benz sedan in battleship grey. The worst of the bunch, but my secret favorite.
I lined them up on the diagonal in front of my little rental house like an ersatz used car lot, just short of strings of colored pendants flapping in the breeze. One by one all three found new homes and my Accord down payment fund had become a reality.
Now the hard part, getting a loan for the balance. Here is where my education finally came into play. I had been a Theatre Major. See where this is going? I made the needed appointments and began rehearsing my roles. One, at a large serious bank that held my student loans, think marble columns and huge bronze doors and you get the idea. Next was the modest credit union office where my father had helped me open an account. For my two appointments I took two “costumes.” For the big bank, I had my student outfit – t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, nothing clean or pressed. For the credit union I had my only three-piece suit, starched white shirt, tie, and polished shoes. There may even have been an empty briefcase just to push it over the top.
First stop, the bank. I pleaded my case as the poor student, just out of grad school, and what I really needed was a postponement of my payments for a while until I began work. I played the “student role” perfectly, and left the bank, not with an Oscar, but with a temporary “no current active debt” on my file.
I then headed to the parking lot and changed into my “Young Man With A Future Outfit” and headed off to the Credit Union. Somehow this was an easier role to play. I had carefully crafted my application to appear that I was a person with “assets.” The two Mercedes that I listed were, in fact, my cars, but probably at that time had a combined value of less than $500, and one, the 1951 220 Sedan, was not even drivable. On paper, I was a young man who already owned two Mercedes. This was all set decoration, but it worked. I left that office with my first new car loan and a new respect for the value of education. Thanks, Theatre Arts!
Loan in hand, down payment in hand, I went home, and waited. My Honda salesman and I were on a first name basis, and he knew I was a serious buyer. He just had nothing to sell. Hondas were in short supply, and if you could buy one for “sticker” you were lucky.
One morning the salesman called saying a car carrier was due to arrive at the dealership. In those days, pre-computer, pre-cellphones, a dealer was unsure exactly which cars he was going to get, and if I wanted my “first choice” (you have to love the language of car salesmen) I’d better be at the dealership when the truck arrived. Being 20-something I was there in a heartbeat and waited. And waited and waited. By mid-afternoon the transport pulled into the dealer’s lot. I looked up and sitting on the top rack over the cab was a Metallic Maroon 1978 Honda Accord LX. That one, I pointed out to the salesman, like picking a puppy from a litter. The easiest sale of his day, my first new car, and the beginning of a long and lasting car relationship.
Luck does play a part in this story. I seem to have missed being totaled out by various trucks and guided missiles over the years and most recently, so far, have survived the onslaught of SUV’s which, pound for pound, could eat my Accord for lunch and never hit the brakes. So yes, luck is involved as is years of careful parking, car covers, replacing obscure parts, and a good mechanic who believed that Honda made cars worth saving.
Hard to document a 40-year relationship with a car as comfortable to drive as an old pair of jeans. You become one with the car. Long ago it stopped being a daily driver and has become a weekend driver and regular Cars and Coffee participant.
Today the car sits quietly enjoying its “retirement” and when it does go out, I smile at all the “thumbs up” that flash down the road, knowing we both have survived, and she is still, “…The One That I Want.” | GSM
- Rodney Kemerer