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My First Car (1992)

My First Car (1992)

©1992, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1992). My first car: A memoir. Unpublished essay.

I was stimulated to write this by a contest offer in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.





My First Automobile

A Memoir

By Dallas Denny


Some people are given their cars by their parents upon graduation from high school. Some save their money for years and buy shining new ones still smelling of Detroit or Tokyo. Some people have bad credit and buy leaking smoking dented behemoths from grassgrown second—hand lots. Some people are just plain poor and take whatever they can get. My first car was purchased for thirty dollars American. It was a 1950 Dodge Coronet four-door sedan with a fluid drive transmission; it looked like a cross between a Dempster dumpster and the chicken pox. It was just old enough to be worthless; now it would be an antique and rare at any price. I bought the alleged vehicle from the husband of a tiny brunette waitress named Betty, a girl I would have had a crush on had I dared.

On the appointed day my mother drove me to Nashville, where I parted with the agreed sum in return for a title which came complete with the explanation, “It’s not actually the title to this car, but it’s the title to one just like it.” I didn’t kick. I mean, who would care? The car was six inches higher on the driver’s side than on the passenger’s side, and, in addition to being a mass of faded grey paint and rust from the headlamps to the trunk, looked as if an army of blacksmiths had worked it over with ball peen hammers. I didn’t tell my mother about the difficulty with the title, or she would never have driven me to the county courthouse where I proceeded to spend more for license plates than I had paid for the car.

Dad's 1950 Dodge Pickup

If my father had given me THIS 1950 Dodge, I would have been delighted. I rode in it with him for three-and-a-half years, five days a week, twenty miles each way, so I could go to high school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

My new car was what is sometimes diplomatically called “Previously Owned.” It was very previously owned. The seats showed their springs, the driver’s door wouldn’t open and its glass was replaced by a sheet of cardboard which was less than transparent, and the blacksmiths had gotten to the interior. The car looked vaguely menacing and definitely Paleolithic as I got into it, its only key in my hand. I started it, drove to the end of the street, and stopped at a traffic light on a steep upgrade with one foot on the clutch and the other on the brake. A glimpse in the rear view mirror showed a shiny new car stopped very close behind me. Then the funnies thing happened. The brake pedal began sinking slowly but inexorable towards the floorboard. I frantically tore the cardboard from the window and motioned the driver behind me to back up and give me some room. He wasn’t playing that game, even when the pedal was all the way to the floor and I started drifting backward. New driver that I was, I didn’t think of using the clutch to stop my backwards momentum; I didn’t have that sort of skill with the clutch yet, anyway. Instead, in a panic I let the brake pedal up and mashed it again, and it held me, mere inches from the bumper of the car behind. By the time the pedal was getting close to the floor again the light changed and I roared— well, puttered— away.

Well. The brakes need checking. I hoped I could get home without any further difficulties, like flat tires. I knew better than to assume, even at my tender age, that a thirty-dollar car would have a spare and jack. As long as I owned that car, I had neither. When I had a flat or blowout, as often happened, I just limped along on the rim until I came to a filling station. If the station was close to the point of blowout I bought the oldest tire they had and had it mounted to my rim. If it was a long ways to the station the rim would be banged into a square shape and I would buy a new used rim and have the baldest tire they had mounted on it. I eventually took to carrying spare rims in the trunk. Tires wear fast on a car that is uphill-downhill from left to right.

I drove that car for more than a year. I of course had to buy a battery the next time I tried to start it after taking it home. I lost the only key and had to buy a universal-type ignition switch. I wired that wrong, and the car only started after I released the key and the switch sprang back from the starter position. The fuel pump went bad and I cruised the countryside until I found a junked 1950 Dodge with a working fuel pump; the first two I found had no motors. The mechanic who replaced the pump for me told me the whole car was held together with rubber bands, baling wire, and a prayer. I asked him to replace the old rubber bands with new ones and to update the prayer.

One time I jumped the curb and blew out both tires on the uphill side. I couldn’t drive on both flats, and had to catch the bus home. But that’s not a lot of things to go wrong with a thirty-dollar car in nearly a year of daily driving. Yet I knew I was pressing my luck, and sold the car for fifteen dollars to a cook who was an incipient alcoholic. He was incipient only because he lacked transportation to the bars and liquor stores. It took only his new job and new ride to make him a real alcoholic. He soon totalled the car while going the wrong way on a one—way street. Somehow he was convinced that the occupants of the other car were at fault.

The cook had bought a new jack for the car, and I took him in my second car (another story) to the junkyard to pick it up. The manager let us have the jack, but got a little nervous when he saw us eyeballing the battery.

I guess the flathead six-cylinder engine and the rest of that grey monstrosity were long ago melted down and recycled to become nails, parts of barbecue grills, and lawnmower blades, or even cars bought new with graduation money and which may have later been sold again at used-car dealerships. And that old Dodge itself might have had molecules from old Studebakers or Willys, or Model T Fords in it. It’s kind of like star-stuff. As the theory goes, all elements other than hydrogen were formed by fusion in the pizza-oven-hot interior of stars and then belched into space by novae and superenovae, only to condense into new stars and their planets. We are third and fourth generation star matter, cycled and recycled in the assembly lines of the universe. And so are our vehicles.

Now I drive a faster, quieter, more economical car. It’s safe, sleek, reliable, and fun to drive. I wouldn’t take a thirty=dollar car if you gave it to me. Yet if I had it all to do over again, I would buy that thirty-dollar Dodge again.