Up until the invention of social media, we kids just absolutely could not wait until we got our driver’s license and a car to drive. Today kids can stay connected via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, you name it. A car today does not hold the same significance as it did in all the past decades. If you didn’t have a car, you didn’t get around town. If you didn’t get around town, you never met other girls and boys and you were never connected to the stories that came in to school on Mondays. For a teenage boy, a car meant the possibility of sex! Now, don’t get me wrong – just because you had a car did not mean you were automatically going to get to have sex. But we didn’t know that – we thought all the boys that had a car were in the club! Why was this so important? Because teenage boys think about sex more than they think about eating! As we approached the age of 16 in Ohio, figuring out a way to get a car and to afford the gasoline was the paramount mission.
The first car I learned to drive was a 3-on-the-tree AMC Rambler that belonged to my mom. I remember having a little difficulty learning to use a clutch and would dread the possibility of ever driving up a hill if there was a stop sign anywhere on the hill. I don’t remember ever getting to drive that car by myself. I don’t think we had it all that long because I remember driving it to LeSourdesville a couple of times before it got replaced.
Oh yeah, LeSourdesville Lake. I had almost forgotten that I worked briefly at LeSourdesville. LeSourdesville Lake was a privately owned amusement park located outside of Hamilton, Ohio. It was fairly successful, clean and well run until the opening of Kings Island in the Mason area. But before the Brady Bunch invaded Kings Island in 1972, LeSourdesville Lake was the place to go. It was complete with a swimming pond, small beach, a picnic area, lots of rides, an arcade and plenty of barker booths.
Working at LeSourdesville didn’t last long. I got the job at the beginning of the summer and thought I was going to make enough summer money to afford to buy a used car, but it was not to be. I got hired on as a barker – you know, those annoying guys that stand behind the knee high walls and yell at you, wanting you to spend $20 tossing a softball that you try to land in a slanted basket and if you win, you get to carry around a crappy Chinese-made stuffed animal that is larger than your car? Yeah, one of those guys. Well, yeah I thought it would be a good summer job but I guess I just didn’t have the right stuff because I was fired on the third day. I was fired because I was told I was flirting when I should have been barking. I wasn’t flirting. I saw Kim Bates and yelled out to her. She came over and we were just laughing and chatting for perhaps 5 minutes. Kim had been one of my girlfriends that had lasted all of 3 weeks, but we always had a good laugh together. An older kid came over to me and told me that the manager wanted to see me. I walked over to the manager and he handed me $35 or so and told me they wouldn’t be needing me to come back. So I didn’t have the right stuff for LeSourdesville – darn!
But back to the cars….If I remember correctly the old brown Rambler got replaced by the green Rambler with the auto transmission. As it was to turn out, the green Rambler didn’t last that long either. I had borrowed it one day and Kim, (Pike, my wife now), was with me and we were driving on Eaton Avenue, close to the high school and on our way back to my house. As we were passing a tiny strip mall, another car shot out of the parking lot and into my path. The car got pretty beat up. As it turned out, the girl that was driving the other vehicle did not yet have her driver’s license. She begged me to wait for her boyfriend to get there before we reported the accident with the police. So we did. He showed up and agreed to admit to everything and we phoned the police to make the report. It happened that this boy was actually a guy named Myron and we attended high school together though we really didn’t know each other. Myron confessed to not seeing my car and the report was made. He then asked if I would phone him after we got the estimate to repair because he wanted to take care of the damages himself. I did and he promised my mom to make 4 payments, one each week. Myron came through, he settled up his debt and that was that.
The next used car we got to replace the wrecked Rambler was an older model, white station wagon. I think it was a Ford Fairlane. The station wagon was a pretty reliable automobile and would remain in the family long enough for my younger brother, Steve to drive for awhile. My brother Steve is one of these guys who could take anything apart, figure out how to fix it and then put it back together. He might have a part or two left over, but whatever he fixed would be working. Steve had made a simple, yet unique modification to the car’s windshield washer system. He had bought additional tubing, attached it to the washer’s pump and then routed the tube through the front grill. This feature was particularly useful in the school parking lot or downtown at stop lights. Anyone walking in front of that car was certain to be doused with a strong shot of water, wiper fluid or maybe even Kool-Aid.
So my sixteenth year on the planet, 1974, was spent without a regular car to drive. I began seeing my girlfriend Kim at the beginning of my junior year in 1974. Kim had a car so things in the dating department were a little easier at first, but as time wore on so did the embarrassment of being a teenage boy without a car. Even worse, I was a teenage boy without a car, but with a girlfriend who had a car, (not a bad thing today, but not a great thing back then). The thing I realize today but did not know then was that not having a car was “self-induced embarrassment”, no one else really cares but you. This self-induced embarrassment was to help create a strain in the relationship, but more focus on our dating experience will be written about at a different time. My junior year in high school came and went without a car. I got around just fine though I guess. Hamilton was a small town and we could walk, ride our bikes or get a friend to drive ourselves anywhere we wanted to go. Dating was pretty much out though.
My parents had divorced when I was 12 years old and my dad was driving a very large tank in 1975. It was a white Pontiac Bonneville, weighed over 4,000 pounds and seated about 30 people comfortably.
Ok, so perhaps that is an exaggeration, but with front and rear extra wide bench seats, you could easily fit in 8 skinny people (aka teenagers). He had the Bonneville for several years but in ’75 it broke down and the diagnosis was that it needed a new timing chain. He decided it was time to replace his car so in Dad’s usual magnanimous style, (sarcasm inserted here), he offered to give me the car, but I would have to fix it. So he had it towed over to our back yard and my parents allowed it to sit there.
The car sat there perhaps a month over the summer. Working odd jobs just wasn’t cutting it. The estimate to buy a new timing chain, gaskets and other supplies was going to be almost a hundred dollars. A hundred dollars in 1975 for a boy without a job and parents with 8 other kids – it might as well could have been a million dollars. It’s confession time as I did something I knew I would regret. I would regret it immediately and forever. I knew it was a stupid move, but I was a desperate teenager. I had my mom drive me down to Frederick’s Coin Shop to sell my coin collection. I’ll talk about this in more depth in a separate story.
After allowing myself to be financially raped by good ‘ole Mr. Frederick, I now had a whopping $120 in my pocket – time to go buy a timing chain! The next stop was the auto parts store. Hamilton had a great local auto parts store called Savage Auto Parts and my girlfriend’s brother was to work there for several years in a later time frame. I purchased a timing chain, necessary gaskets, rented a gear puller and bought a repair manual. I recall it taking me several days to get the front of the engine taken apart as I had to remove the radiator even to be able to get to the engine (which happened to be a huge 400 cubic inches with power steering and air conditioning). I seem to recall that I had to remove all the pulleys that the belts ran over and then after that came the cover for the timing chain. Sure enough, the chain was broken but at least the gears seemed to be in good shape. My step father Joe came out to help me align the chain and gears in proper alignment but once they were aligned, it was just a matter of putting everything back together. I got it back together and it did start up!
The Bonneville had about 60,000 miles on it when I got it. That was a lot of miles on an American made 60’s or 70’s vehicle because back then if a car had a hundred thousand miles on it, the authorities would automatically come to collect the vehicle and place it in either the Smithsonian or Roswell, (we wanted people to keep spending their money on cars). The inside was relatively clean. It had blue vinyl bench seats and roll up windows, but it did have a great heater and air conditioner. The outside was supposed to be white however it was fairly filthy from sitting in the yard. It was particularly dirty though from the grease and grime from having all the neighborhood boys putting their hands all over it after having them on the engine, mine included. So, what did we have that would clean grease off of the paint? The dish soap didn’t seem to be cutting it. This is the point where my superior genius intellect was required. I know – an SOS pad!
Ok, so you figured out where this is going. I went into the house, retrieved an SOS pad and began to scrub the hood. The grease was coming right off! Hey, wait a minute….why is the paint turning yellow? “Hey Joe, do you know why the paint is turning yellow?” To which Joe comes out, sees what is in my hand and asks me – is that an SOS pad? Me – yeah…why? Joe – you know that has steel in it, right? You’re rubbing all the paint off and going all the way down to the primer. Oh, so I was. Everyone cracked up at that and my friends didn’t let me forget about that for quite a long time (my kids still like to mention it occasionally). Hey, it got the grease off, didn’t it?
Mentioned earlier, the Bonneville was a real tank. It ran on premium leaded gasoline and got perhaps 10 miles per gallon on a good day. It was a very reliable car in the summer. It also had some cool features. One of the original features had to do with a special place on the floor. Remember the old push button high beam switches located on the floor? It was located in the left upper corner of the floor by where your left foot would sit. Just off to the left of that switch, if I placed my foot there at night, I could make the lights go out. Kim didn’t care too much for that feature, but it did come in handy for scaring night time passengers. The car was so wide that I could almost lay in a flat out prone position across the front seat (not that I ever did that of course, wink wink).
In the winter, the trick was getting her started. It was a huge engine, it was old and if it was cold, it took a lot of cranking power from the battery just to get it to turn over. If I could get it to turn over a few times, I had a good chance at getting it started. There were plenty of days that the car didn’t get started until the afternoon sun warmed the engine. In the winter I had a pair of studded tires for the rear. The tires were tires in the sense that they were made of rubber and they were round and they had once served as tires on some other nicer car. Other than that if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought they were racing slicks that had been driven over a bunch of tacks on the road. However, let me tell you, a 4,000 pound vehicle with racing slicks that had tacks in them? It was one of the few monsters able to navigate through the blizzard snows we had in the mid 70’s. In the winter, if I could get her started, I was very popular in the neighborhood.
But it was my senior year and I had a car. It was to somewhat get me through my senior year (when I had money for gas that is). It’s funny what memories get emblazoned into our brains as I can still recall precisely the sound the engine made as it was turning over and then the sound as it was idling. I remember replacing the starter and the alternator, but otherwise it did not cost me too much mechanically speaking. What it did cost was quite a few missed classes at Miami in the winter of 1976. I was a commuting freshman, driving back and forth to Oxford from Hamilton, but the winter of ’76 was rough for large engines that required a lot of battery cranking power. I was late getting to school on several days and on others, it would be so cold that it would freeze up during the course of the day in Oxford. Classes don’t get cancelled for weather there as commuters make up probably less than 1% of the population. It didn’t do too much for my grades that year.
In 1976 I was to get my first regular-paying real job at Taco Bell. After struggling through the winter of ’76 I decided I could afford a better car and so it was time to let the Bonneville go. I did find a good home for her though as my next door neighbor’s husband was in need and he was a decent mechanic and felt he could get a lot out of the car. I heard they drove it all the way down to Florida on vacation and eventually got more than 100,000 miles out of her. I was glad to hear that.
I don’t care if your first car was the biggest piece of crap on the planet or if it was a Ferrari that was willed to you by a rich grandpa. We all can recall with great clarity every detail of our first car. For boys especially, it represents a ritual, one of the most important rites of manhood. I think what is the most important part of the symbolism though is really the memories that we make while we own our first car. Mine was a 4,000 pound tank that looked a bit ragged, but it allowed me to fit in with the other kids at school who were a little more fortunate than I. It had a bench seat which allowed my girlfriend to snuggle up against me while we headed up north to places like Hueston Woods and Jolly’s Root Beer Stand and it was so heavy and sturdy that our parents didn’t have to worry too much if we got in an accident – the other car was going to come out on the short end. Also, my Bonneville was to play a role in one of my most embarrassing moments of ‘teenagehood’ and today is a fond private memory. Sorry to leave you, the reader, hanging as that is a story that will likely never get written about. 😉