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Essay: Remembering a First Car

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This isn't Jim Spangler's 1955 Buick, but it looks a lot like the one he owned.

Do you remember your first car?  Of course you do.  It’s been a while since Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler bought his first car, but it’s an event - and a car that still occupies an important place in his memory:

With the car show season in full swing, what could possibly upstage this admitted old car fan from attending the best car show in Milwaukee you ask? Tickets to the same Sunday’s matinee performance of Hamilton in Chicago, my wife answered.

There’s always next year’s car show, and when I go I’ll spend most of my time with cars from the '50s. What’s so special about cars from that era, you ask again? Let me explain.

Ahh, the 1950s. Eisenhower was in the White House and Elvis was in the army. And me? In that glorious fall of 1958, Dad and I were car shopping for his first ever new car. What more could any 16-year-old boy want, visiting the dealerships, slamming doors, kicking tires and looking under the hoods of Fords, Plymouths and Chevys, all the while pretending to know what I was doing.

I was sorry it had to end but finally Dad settled on a two-door, three-tone blue Ford. I’d have to wait three long years before I car shopped again, but this time it would be for my car, my very own car with the money from my newspaper truck route. Another difference. I started driving company newspaper trucks two weeks after my 16th birthday what would the company lawyers say about that today!

Given the three-year anticipation before buying my first car, can you imagine the excitement when in the fall of 1961 it was actually time to buy my own, my very own, first car. There may be a person of my vintage somewhere who has forgotten about their first car. But I doubt it.

Now, let me tell you about mine. It was a 1955 Buick Special blue and white two-door with a thundering V-8 engine coupled to a slower than molasses Dynaflow automatic transmission. I paid the staggering sum of $800 for the car. I thought it was a steal, Dad thought I’d been had and, as it turned out, we were both about half right.

Every used car of that era had some idiosyncrasies and my Buick was no exception. Pushing in the cigarette lighter blew a fuse, all the dash lights went out and the radio died. Not that the radio was much by today’s standards. My SUV, a black box SUV that looks like everybody else’s black box SUV, has speakers all over the place. This Buick had one tiny speaker in the middle of the dashboard. But who cared about dash lights and radios. I had my own car, my own set of wheels to take me anywhere I wanted to go, providing I had a buck for four gallons of gas.

Years pass, things change, even those things that we don’t want to change. I can’t remember the last time I saw a ’55 Buick on the road. But for those of my general age bracket, somewhere in the corners of our imagination, and the hollows of our memory, we can still drive our own first car.

I can see that blue and white Buick sitting in the driveway, freshly washed. It’s calling me to go somewhere with its full tank of gas, a rarity in those days. Do I drive around the block, pick up Tom and head to Rastrellis for a taste of the best pizza in town? (The spicy sausage and mushrooms please, along with a Coke, a real Coke made with syrup and sparkling water?) Or can I find the courage to ask her out, this girl I just ran into just the other day. She seemed kind of interested, but a guy, well a guy never knows for sure.

Thank you Detroit for giving me my ’55 Buick Special, blue and white two-door. For what started out as just a car, now, for this old man, has become a time machine, a time machine with four wheels, a dead radio and no dash lights.

And did the girl say yes? I was going to tell you, but a guy should have some secrets!

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Jim Spangler comments on the life experiences we all share, drawing on a 40-year newspaper career in Human Resources and labor relations, following a business degree from the University of Iowa and a stint in the Marines.