My parents bought the car in the fall of 1965. It was a 1966 model, and they custom-ordered it with all the features they (and I) wanted. I was 14 years old, a sophomore in high school, and the age to get a driver’s license in New Jersey was 17, so I clearly wasn’t going to be driving it for a while, but it was understood from the beginning that it was MY car. I got to pick the color (bronze), and I chose to have a convertible, although it also had air conditioning because my father wanted to be comfortable in the summer. The salesman thought it was crazy to get air conditioning in a convertible, but my father insisted. He knew what he wanted. He would even run the air conditioner when the top was down.
I didn’t actually take possession of the car until the summer of 1972, after I graduated from college. My parents had taken great care of it for those first seven years though, and it was still in pristine condition. I loved that car! It was beautiful, and also very powerful because we had ordered a V-8 engine instead of the slant 6 it usually came with. I drove it around Cambridge for the next two years while working for the US Department of Transportation. I even took an auto mechanics course for women at the Cambridge Y, where we learned how to work on our own cars. I knew how to gap the sparkplugs and change the oil and do a bunch of other things I have since forgotten. I washed it and waxed it and kept it looking great. I also had my first accident in that car coming back from a ski trip to Vermont, when I skidded on a patch of ice and went off the road. I went into deep snow which slowed me down, and then into a telephone pole. I remember it seemed like it was all happening in slow motion. My sunglasses flew slowly off my head, and then there was the thunk of hitting the pole and stopping. The people whose lawn I ended up on helped us push the car back onto the road. It was still driveable, luckily, and I made it back to Cambridge okay, although I think the radiator was leaking.
In 1974 I drove my beloved Valiant from Cambridge to California for law school, with all my possessions packed into the back seat and the trunk. Alas, I had my second accident on that trip, at a tollbooth in Indiana. I was wearing the clogs which were so popular in the ’70s, with enormous platform soles, and they were making it hard to drive, so I decided to kick them off while I was stopped in line, waiting to pay the toll. Foolishly, I took my foot off the brake and the car started rolling forward. I went to tromp down on the brake and accidentally hit the accelerator instead, so the car lurched forward and rammed into the Cadillac in front of me. A tall black man in fancy clothes and diamond rings jumped out of the Cadillac and came over to me, yelling. The main thing I remember him saying was “Lady, what’d you wanna go and hit a $50,000 car for?” We somehow moved our cars over to the side of the highway and waited for the cops to come. When they did come, they were very nice to me, and didn’t give me a ticket or even a warning. They told me they had had their eye on this guy for a while. I gathered they thought he had drugs or other contraband in the trunk. I don’t know what happened to him. My car got towed to a shop in Gary, Indiana, where I spent the night in a motel and waited for the car to be fixed.
I happily drove that car for the three years of law school. It was a perfect car for California, even though I had no idea when I chose it that I would end up living here. It was especially good during those drought years of the mid-70s, because I could ride with the top down all year round. However, the headlights were sort of pointing in different directions, which made it a little hard to drive at night. The body shop in Indiana hadn’t done the greatest job of straightening out the front end, and I had never bothered to have it fixed.
When I graduated from law school, my parents bought me a new car for a graduation present. I wanted another convertible, and in 1977 almost no car manufacturers were making them. So I ended up getting an Alfa Romeo Spider which only came with a manual transmission. I had never driven a stick shift before, but I learned on the way home from the dealership. I didn’t trade in the Valiant though, because they only offered me $100, which was an insult. I later sold it to a man who loved old cars and promised to take good care of it and restore it to its former glory. He paid me $500 for it. It was hard to say good-bye, but I knew it was going to a good home. And I spent the $500 on a really dynamite sound system for the Alfa.
Suzy, not only do we have NMC in common, but also a Valiant as our first car, as you will soon read! But you followed up with an Alfa…very cool!
You are a quick study if you learned how to drive a stick in one trip! I love the way your Valiant is a character in this story—a trusty sidekick who accompanied you on all your adventures.
I love this story. It just underscores so well how much we associate with our cars, our journeys (literal and metaphorical) and, yes, even our accidents. And I loved that you made sure the Valiant had such a happy ending, both for the car itself and for your new sound system.
That car sure served you well for a long time. I must say I’m impressed (though not surprised) that you learned auto mechanics along the way–always walking the walk! Loved the story.
I felt like a privileged passenger in the back seat, watching your [mis]adventures unfold first-hand! Even when you’re not talking cars, you drive us along your life in these wonderful tales you recount, action and reflection humorously entwined. Thanks for another great and graceful life story.
Suzy, you are my hero! I LOVE this story, and you have great taste in cars! Love that you learned the basics of car care, that you mastered the stick shift, and that you had a dynamite sound system…all priorities for me as well at that age! Your Alfa is a beauty!! I had a similar experience as a new driver, with my mom in the passenger seat, when in a parking lot I THOUGHT I had shifted into reverse (but was actually in drive), then mistakenly pressed the accelerator all the way down instead of the brake as you do before you start to back up which resulted in a great deal of screeching rubber and smoke and everyone came running out to see what was going on. Luckily, we hadn’t moved an inch, just burned rubber. Otherwise we would have crashed at full speed into the brick wall in front of us.