To All the Cars I've Loved Before...

....With Torn Up Seats and Banged Up Doors

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Anyone who has followed my life at certain stages will actually vouch for me when they read this article. If you think I'm kidding, I can show you a few junkyards that I have kept in business

When I was just knee-high to a grape, my Dad and I would hang out together while Mom was completing her nursing shift at a local hospital. While she was at work, Dad would put me into his black, four-door 1958 Oldsmobile 88 in the back seat and off we'd go. 

Now, by today's standards, you can tell that there are two things wrong here. For one, there were no seat belts. Yup, you learned very early how to brace yourself if he had to hit that brake real hard. Second, there were no car seats for three-year-olds. Who needs a car seat when you are floating through the air while Daddy hits them brakes? Gravity is your friend. Ha, say THAT while you are flying toward the dashboard.

Fortunately, we never had any accidents. Eventually, old, black Betsy died one day and Dad needed a new set of wheels. He brought home a black 1962 MG Roadster. It was nice, small and a two seater. Now, I was no math genius, but I was able to figure out something very quickly...

"This car has two seats and there are three of us in this family. I wonder which one of us will be running alongside his car while the other two are riding inside of it?" 

Before I could ask the question aloud, Dad solved the equation. Mom sat in the passenger seat with me on her lap. Again, no seat belts. It was a convertible. So, if Mom did not have a good grip on me, I would easily go flying out of the compartment. Gee! I always wanted to see New York by air.

This MG also had another feature that I love to this very day. It had a manual transmission. I watched Dad shift gears. Every time he shifted, this little black buggy went even faster. It was cool. 

In fact, my other friends; dads did not have this feature in their car. Dad even put my hand on the stick and guided me through the gears as he drove. I was just six years old and was getting my first drivers' lesson while in kindergarten. Wow! 

To this very day, I still love to drive a car with a stick shift.

In 1964, Lee Iacocca, then Chairman of Ford, created the Mustang, a nice car designed for the California surfers in mind. It debuted here in New York at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow Park here in New York. 

Dad bought one of the first ones, a metallic green fastback called the Mustang 2+2 Fastback. It was too cool for words. I loved it right away. Unlike the first two cars, however, this one was brand new, straight from the dealer AND it was also a stick shift. Yes!

It had four seats and was very sporty. The interior was tan and comfortable. I asked dad why he bought this car, not that I did not like it. He said that there was a good reason why he bought the car. He said that it is for all of us to get in. 

Again, I am no math genius. 

I figured, "Let's see. There are three of us and four seats. Okay. I can see that." 

That is when Mom and Dad told me that I was going to be a big brother to a little brother and a little sister. My jaw dropped. 

Before my siblings were born, Dad and I used to go to his auto club, car races or just hang out with his friends looking at various areas of cars and stuff. I grew fond of Porsches. To this day, I love Porsches. 

I never owned one, but they are still my favorite of all cars. For now, that Mustang was going to be my friend. I wanted Dad's car. I was hoping that he would give it to me one day.

One day, I had a nightmare and it was bad. The person I blame for it was James Bond — yup, the super spy, 007. It was because of the movie Goldfinger

In that movie, there is a scene in it where Bond, driving an Aston-Martin DB5, intentionally drives in a sideswipe position to a Mustang convertible, flips a switch in his AM and proceeds to have a razor-sharp knock off spinner tear up the tires and sidewall of the Mustang. 

I was horrified!

How could he?!

 I looked outside at our Mustang and actually told our family car, "I love you and I will protect you from that evil James Bond," fearing that Sean Connery was out to rip up all Mustangs on the planet.

A few years later, we were at a family friends' house. Mom, my brother, sister and I walked to their house some three blocks away. Dad was elsewhere and said that he would meet us there which he did. When he showed up, I was stunned. 

His whole driver's side front fender was practically all torn off. It was like Godzilla had taken out his frustrations on my favorite Mustang. I asked Dad what happened. He said that some woman driver had clipped him in a parking lot. 

I looked at the car not even thinking to ask Dad if he was okay. In any case, the Mustang was gone. I don't know how he disposed of it, but I still wanted that car.

As the years went on, Dad had many cars, most of them very large four door gas eaters. Me? I had my faithful bike which I rode until I finished my Bachelor's degree in college. Even though my friends laughed at me, I still rode, practicing rules of the road so that I could take my road test...in a car!

I bought my very first car in 1978, just almost two months after I started teaching. It was a handpainted black 1959 VW Beetle. It even had a leather sunroof and yes....a four-speed transmission! 

It wouldn't run, but for the price of $50, it was worth the deal. All I had to do was get a tow truck and have my baby brought across town and into my driveway. 

Every time I came home from teaching in the South Bronx, I came home, changed my clothes and worked on some part of my first car. I would take the radio out and put it back in. I'd look at some other easy to do stuff and try to put it back together. I got ahold of a mechanic manual for it so that I could prepare for the complicated work. The former owner said that it needed a clutch. I was ready for the job.

By that summer, I replaced the clutch and did other things with it. Sometimes, at early evening, I would go to the driveway and eat my dinner in my own car. I would play with the shifter and pretend that I was driving to work. 

One day, I was able to find a very rare six-volt battery in a market where only twelve-volt batteries were available. I turned it on. Yes, it sounded like a 1959 Volkswagen should sound. Then, I ran out of gas. Oooops.

In 1980, I got my driver's license, but after looking at city driving, I knew that my VW would only be a collector's item. I needed a daily car.

My neighbor across the street also had a car in his driveway. It was a 1972 Chevy Vega. Why not? He drove it out so that I could look it over. Okay. It was running. That was good enough for me. 

I soon learned why it was up in his driveway. The engine was bad and the car smoked more than a burning Iraqi oil field. I was a hazard to the environment just driving around the block. 

The car was garbage, but it was caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. It was a lesson hard learned. 

One day, I filled that car up with oil just before going to work. When I came out at lunch time to walk to the corner store to get my lunch, a voice in my head told me to check under the hood of my Vega. Good thing I did. The dipstick showed only a drop of oil. How could that be? I just filled it up this very morning. 

Well, I walked to the corner. Instead of turning right for the deli, I turned left for the auto supply store. I needed three cans of 10W-40 motor oil or the engine would seize. At the end of my work day, I drove this clunker home. A buddy of mine called so that we could hang out that same night. Of course, I accepted the invite. 

As I got close to the time to catch up with him, guess what. That's right. I checked under the hood again. ONE DROP. At this point, I was wondering if the stupid thing was leaking. I got on my knees and checked under the engine. Nope, oil spot. Maybe the dipstick was not placed back in correctly. I pulled it out again, wiped it and pushed it back into its tunnel. When I pulled it out again, I got the same reading. 

I was so furious that I wanted to slam the hood shut and walk over to the neighbor to demand my hard earned money back, but the dude and his family had already moved out of the neighborhood. I was stuck with a car that smoked more than anyone I knew!

I speak some Spanish, not enough to visit a Spanish country though. I do have a new Spanish word with a new meaning, too. To me, the word "Vega" is Spanish for "junk."

I returned to a blue 1968 Beetle. It was okay until the steering frame broke. I ended up buying a 1976 Junk.....er.....I mean Vega. I guess that I was a glutton for punishment. The engine was much better, but it also had a problem. It was a low rider. 

If you are not familiar with a low rider, it is basically a Chevy Impala around 1965, possibly earlier and the body only comes down to almost 2 inches away from the ground. Thus, the term low rider. 

The owner has it hooked up to all sorts of hydraulics that allows the car to rise to a foot or more depending on the brand of hydraulics and so forth. It is quite amusing to see. This car, however, was not that kind of car. I took it to a mechanic to get a tire change. I asked about the low stance. He said that the reason why my car is so close to the ground is that it has air conditioning. 

Great! So, now when this 200+ pound owner gets in to drive it, he has to worry about hitting an anthill and totaling his ride. Just great.

I have owned enough cars in my life to fill up a used car lot. They are after the second Chevy Junk a 1971 Beetle, 1968 VW Bus, 1973 Mercury Capri, 1976 Mercury Capri, 1984 Toyota Van, 1983 Toyota Corolla, and a 1987 Toyota Celica. 

To be quite honest, I am not even sure about the order anymore. Some were even overlapped because I had two running vehicles at the same time. 

I would use just the car for one thing and the vans for another. Sometimes, I would use my Toyota Van just for cruising because the middle seats folded into a bed-like platform suitable for sleeping on. It also had air conditioning, but I never maintained it. In fact, I wish I still had it because it had everything I always wanted except that it was an automatic. Considering all of the other amenities, I was willing to make that tradeoff.

My last Japanese vehicle was a red 1987 Toyota Celica Hatchback. This and the 1976 Capri were as close to a sports car as I was going to get. It also had a manual tranny and a four cylinder engine whereas the 1976 Capri had a six cylinder engine, my first non-four cylinder engine at the time. It almost reminded me of Dad's Mustang with the folding back seats. It was also close to the ground, but it was not like my unintentional Vega low rider. 

That Celica was extremely fast, too. I often dared highway patrols and speed cameras to find me, but they never did. It felt smooth as I shifted through all five forward speeds. There was no air conditioning, thank goodness because the two windows rolled down. The heat was nice in the winter. The handling was awesome thanks to its front wheel drive. Going into the corners gave the car a European feel because the back wheels just followed the front wheels so nicely. I was happy.

But, alas, my Celica came with a fatal flaw. The engine had a tendency to overheat. Because I grew up with cars and worked on cars from time to time, this really bothered me. I could not find the cause. I am one who faithfully follows maintenance schedules for every vehicle I have ever owned. I changed fluids more than I've changed my underwear. 

One summer, out of frustration, I had to get the engine swapped for another, but the problem still persisted. Perhaps, it was a wiring problem. I didn't know. I eventually brought it to another mechanic. I explained the problem. He looked under the hood and clipped a wire or two. I don't know what he clipped or why. He never told me even when I pressed him for an answer. I guess that I was supposed to accept his action without question. 

On the last day of the month in September of 2008, I needed to get to work extra early in order to get some other stuff done. I was just a quarter of a mile away from my job when I was at a stoplight. I noticed something. I saw smoke coming from underneath my hood. I could not pull over because I was blocking traffic. "Maybe," I thought, "I busted a hose." 

It looked too thick to be coolant smoke. So, I drove further. Suddenly, the smoke turned into fire. MY CAR WAS ON FIRE! (WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW, GENIUS?)

I got to work, but I needed to get to a clear area so that the flames couldn't ignite anything nearby. I also had to stay away from the dry autumn leaves and anything else. I found a corner that seemed to be a bit isolated. It was a half a block away from my job. 

I quickly grabbed my briefcase and got out of the car without my radar detector and something else. My car was now in flames. All I needed to do is wait for an explosion. Thank goodness it didn't. It already had a full tank of gas. There was nothing I could do except to walk to work and go about my day as if nothing happened.

Why did this happen to my Celica? If it had happened to the Vegas, I would have been okay, but the Celica? At lunch time, I called a local junkyard to pick it up before I got a ticket. I made arrangements with Dad to pick me up.once home, I went to the junk yard to retrieve my plates and then walk back home. 

Before I left the junkyard, I saw what was once my car. It looked so sad with the other cars piled on top of it. I felt like I failed it. Its life was gone and it was just waiting to be scrapped for a much greater good. All I could think of was the good times we had. For the first time since I bought my first car, I was car-less.

When I got home, my niece stopped for a visit. I asked her about the Jeep that she left in the driveway. I explained my situation and the fact that I needed something now. We agreed that I would take the Jeep because she wanted, against my desire for fear of her safety, a small car. Ironically, she was driving a Corolla at the time. We shook hands and the Jeep was mine.

It is still my present car. It is a 1992 Cherokee Laredo. It is an automatic with an inline 6 cylinder engine. it also has air conditioning which is appropriate with a six cylinder engine. I only wish that it was a two door with reclining seats. Still, it is a great vehicle. 

A year after acquiring it in September 2008, I had to swap out the engine for a brand new engine. I keep it on schedule and it 10W-40 synthetic oil, a decision I have never regretted. It has taken me everywhere I wanted to go without hesitation. The ride is so smooth. It is also my first car to be equipped with four wheel drive. Now, when it looks like I am stuck in the snow, I stop, take a deep breath and then activate my FWD mechanism. Once out, I go back to rear wheel drive and enjoy. We were meant for each other.  

With the Jeep, something else had happened. Something happened when my Mom and Dad rode with me. With Dad, for example, he always wanted to ride with me to the store or something. I could never get him to wear his seat belt, but that was Dad. When he got in, he all of a sudden became a little boy. He was older and very frail. Driving was out of the question because of his age and much slower reflexes. Now, he was the passenger and I was the driver. I was watching what we did earlier with role reversal. Now, I was his protector and happy about it. With Mom, we used to go to McDonalds and get breakfast for ourselves. Then, we’d park in their lot and dine. I would set out her napkin, fix her orange juice and give her the breakfast sandwich. We would sometimes chat or just sit quietly eating our meal just to enjoy the morning. It was a magical moment for my parents and me. At the time, though, I could not tell why. All I knew is that I loved them so much.

It is now 2017. A lot has happened since then. For one thing, Dad was called home in 2012 and Mom followed him in 2015. I am alone now. 

Correct that! We, my Jeep and me, are alone now. From time to time, I will hop in and just ride, nowhere in particular, and think of them and all of the great times we had. I think of the places I've been and the people I met. And to think that it all started with that Oldsmobile way back then.I miss it and all of those cars Those were some nice times. 

Thanks, Dad for all of those great memories of you and Mom, too. You are the greatest ever! I love you.

Maurice Bernier
Maurice Bernier

I am a diehard New Yorker! I was born, raised and love my NYC. My blood bleeds orange & blue for my New York Mets. I hope that you like my work. I am cranking them out as fast as I can. Please enjoy & share with your friends.

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