The Car That Smelled Like California by
(87 Stories)

Prompted By My First Car

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Photo credit: Accord14. Creative Commons license.

The first car Patti and I owned together was a 1977 Porsche 924 sports car we bought new in Salt Lake City as I settled into my teaching job and Patti into graduate school at the University of Utah. It was a lustrous cream color that Porsche called polar white, which led to its name, Polar Bear or just P-Bear. It had black leather bucket seats; behind that a tiny back seat suitable for groceries but not much else; and in the back a black-carpeted hatch shelf for cargo.

The case of wine slid across the carpet and the bottles fell out. With a crash, one broke.

The first month was a break-in period, when we weren’t supposed to take it over 50. We spent it tooling around empty university parking lots learning how to drive the stick shift. As soon as that was over we took it to the Bay Area, where we had lived before we moved to Salt Lake. The trick, we learned, was to get across the Utah and Nevada deserts and into California as quickly as possible. P-Bear was the perfect car for that trip, sleek, low, and powerful, traversing I-80 West in record time. We’d put Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “Reunion” album into the cassette deck and sing our way across Nevada.

Of course, we had to keep one eye out for the highway patrol. On one trip, we were passed by a speeding car with a gigantic CB rig. We accelerated and fell in behind them, pushing 90, reasoning that they would be alerted to cops along the route. After we passed an intersection, we looked back to see the flashing lights of a cop car entering the highway, closing quickly from behind. He expertly corralled both cars to the side of the road and ticketed us both. Thanks a lot, good buddy.

Our California trips became more frequent as we bristled against Utah’s Mormon patriarchy and repression. On one 1977 trip, we went to the Napa Valley, where we freely sampled the wineries’ ’74 Cabernet Sauvignon. “This is good,” we said to each other. “Much better than we can get in Utah.” That was a low bar; it was impossible to get good wine in Utah back then. We assembled a case from several sources, along with chardonnays and zinfandels, and stowed it in the hatch for the trip back. Our imports were a big hit among our non-Mormon friends.

We went back a year later, by which time the wineries were sampling their ’75 Cabernet. Somehow it just wasn’t as rich or as deep. When we asked about this, our hosts said, “Yeah, we sold out of the ’74. It was the best we’ve had in decades.” It turned out we had imprinted on “the vintage of the century.” We scrounged as much ’74 Cab as we could find in the wine stores and trucked it back to Utah.

Wine Country became a regular stop for us, and we’d invariably pick up a case or two. On one trip, we had just loaded a case into the hatch. I revved P-Bear around a corner and we heard the case slide across the carpet and bang against the siding. The bottles fell out and clattered toward the rear door. With a crash, one broke.

We pulled over to inspect the damage. A full bottle of merlot had spilled over the thick black carpeting. We mopped up as best we could and dried off our suitcases, but there was really nothing to be done. We drove back to Salt Lake with the car smelling like a drunk tank.

We scrubbed it. Shampooed it. Blotted it. We had it professionally washed. Nothing worked. We resigned ourselves to driving a foul-smelling car that stank of brewery.

And then … a miracle happened. The wine-soaked carpet baked dry and stain-free in the summer Utah sun. The aroma mellowed, leaving a bouquet of rich fruit with overtones of cherry, audacious yet subtle. P-Bear became a “vintage” Porsche although it was only two years old. Every time we got in that car, it smelled of verdant grapevines heavy with ripening fruit. It smelled of redwood forests and coastal fog and the Pacific Ocean. It smelled of freedom and liberalism and California.

Two years later, we moved back to the Bay Area.

Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman
John Unger Zussman is a creative and corporate storyteller and a co-founder of Retrospect.

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Love this story, John! Now I understand a little better your affinity for Napa Valley wineries. Must have been a sad day when you eventually got rid of P-Bear.

  2. Jim Willis says:

    John, as an expatriate Californian I found your story of your California wine trips in your vintage Porsche very engaging. I just discovered your Retrospect site earlier today, and have been spending a lot of time reading through the various posts of your contributors. Most of them evidence strong writing and storytelling, and I congratulate you for bringing all this together.

  3. I found your post to double as a car-love story and a gripping tale of survival in the hinterlands in the ’70s. I’ve developed a hearty respect for you forward scouts who infiltrated the land of funny underwear and patriarchy, especially in such an intense period in the culture wars. Funny and fun! Loved how your merlot ‘mellowed’ all over the back of the Porsche.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    John, love this tale of cruising in the sleek Porsche to wine country to escape from the stricture of the Mormons and grab some good vino! But…oh no! Broken bottles all over that beautiful leather! No matter how you and Patti cleaned and scrubbed, you couldn’t get rid of the smell until the sun mellowed it and your lovely car forever had the bouquet of a good merlot! Did you get thirsty while driving?

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