Fire Engine Red by (2 Stories)

Prompted By My First Car

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Covered with ash from the California wildfires of 1975

A 1971 Chevy Belair.   Fire Engine Red.   That was my first car.  My wife and I married at the end of junior year in college.   We moved my things from my dorm room to the married student housing using the big basket on my bicycle.  My parents told us they would buy us a car as a wedding present, but they insisted that it had to be a full size car, and it had to have air conditioning.   My only requirement was what I considered the ultimate luxury–an FM radio.   Before coming to college, the only place I heard FM radio was in the dentist’s office, playing classical music.  But in college I became a fan of Boston’s WBCN 104.1 FM.

My family had always owned Chevys–I grew up next door to a Chevy dealer in Brooklyn where as a kid I would get a sneak peak at the new models every fall as they were delivered.   The new cars were clad in canvas, but of course they had to remove the canvas to get them off the truck carrier.   The new models would be parked safely inside the garage, but my friends and I could peek in through the mail slot.   That’s where I got my first look at the famous “Teardrop” tail lights on the ’59 models.

1971 was a recession year.   Auto sales were in the tank, and there were plenty of “leftovers” that fall when the ’72 models came out.   My wife and I went to Seymour Chevrolet on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge to see what they had to offer.   There we saw it.   The Fire Engine Red Belair sedan.  It had air conditioning, it had an FM radio, and they took $1000 off the price.   Such a deal!  Living in Massachusetts, we also bought a pair of studded snow tires for the winter.   Don’t see those around anymore.

That car served us well for nearly six years, all through our moves to Arlington and Brookline.   And then, in 1975, we drove cross-country as I did my interviews for Internship after medical school.   The photo is from Los Angeles where we arrived in the middle of the fire season.   From there, we headed east along the southern tier–Las Vegas, Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast heading toward Miami.   As we passed Pensacola, the car began to vibrate, but I found if I kept it at a steady 63 mph, the vibration would cease.   We drove a further 500 miles to Miami, where I decided to bring it into a repair shop.   The mechanic put it on the lift, and found that the universal joint on the drive shaft was about to shatter.   While he was removing it, I checked the tire treads.   One of the rear tires was so thin I was able to indent my finger as though it was a balloon.   Imaging dodging not one but two bullets on the same trip.

We wound up moving to New Haven.   There we traded in the “Fire Engine” for something much classier–a 1976 Plymouth Volare with a vinyl top.  We had arrived in the suburbs.

Profile photo of Carl I Carl I

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    Your story brings back the excitement of being young in those years—the eager anticipation of each year’s new models, the thrill of closing the deal on your first car, the adventure of a cross-country trip. And I love the ending, as you transition into the classier yet more sedate world of the suburbs. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Susan says:

    I’m stuck on your very first paragraph, where your parents insisted your first car have AC. Huh? Fun story. Glad you survived the road trip. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Can’t believe you had the good fortune to make it cross-country with two impending disasters hanging over the car. You were lucky, but sure sounds like you enjoyed that car!

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Carl. I must have read it last year when you posted it, but for some reason I didn’t comment then. Sounds like a wonderful car, and it even got you across the country without giving in to the potential disasters that were looming. Hope you come back and write some more stories for Retrospect!

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