Few stories so well epitomize my childhood than that of my first car, a rusted out 1968 Ford Fairlane. To be fair, it wasn’t truly my first car as my parents retained ownership of it. But it was the car I spent my entire childhood in, the car in which I learned to drive.
This was the first brand-new car my father ever bought. Everything else was a used car. It was metallic blue with a vinyl top, a “California edition” of the car, similar in appearance to the photo above except the color. Like pretty much all cars of the day it had a powerful V8, no air conditioning, Philco AM radio.
I remember that this car got scorching hot in the summer, back in the days before those cardboard foldable sun shades. (Thinking about it, I remember that the first time I ever saw those sun shades was in 1987 in the parking lot of Disneyland.) We would get in the car and the vinyl seats would be so hot we had to put beach towels on them, towels we kept in the car all summer long just for that purpose. Of course the metal seat belts were much too hot to wear at first so we had to wait a few minutes with the vents blowing before we could buckle up without branding ourselves!
Back in those days, metallic paint wasn’t terribly stable and a black vinyl roof wasn’t ideal for sunny California. Despite my father’s meticulous care and weekly hand-washing, the paint began to chip and the roof started to crack. By the time I learned to drive in it around 1985, large splotches of undercoat were showing through. A minor rear-ending after I got my license resulted in a missing high-beam light. A few years later a piece of the metallic side trim broke off.
Inside, the blue vinyl ceiling’s glue came undone and hung, canopy-like, from beam to beam. As the stitching came undone, my father used chopsticks to help hold up the ceiling, leading friends to call it the Chopstick Car.
My sister posing on her graduation day with the Chopstick Car.
Something about the transmission was fiddly and by the time I learned to drive, you had to reach over the wheel with your left hand, holding the gear lever just to the left of “Park” and turn the ignition key with your right hand, all the while gently pumping the gas with your foot. If you pumped too much, you would flood the engine and had to wait a few minutes before trying again.
The car was symbolic of several things: my father’s thrift – he liked the car because unlike the “new fangled” cars that had computerized components, he could get under the hood and do most repair work himself – as well as my parent’s lessons to me and my sister on sufficiency. The car wasn’t pretty. It was actually the ugliest car in our high school’s parking lot by far. But it was good enough to get us where we were going and we didn’t have to pay for anything other than the fuel for the tank.
In 1994, when the car was 26 years old, my parents were in the process of selling their house and packing for their move back to my father’s new job in Indianapolis. Just a few days before moving, by complete coincidence, a man driving through the neighborhood stopped and asked if they were interested in selling the car. This solved the problem of what they should do about moving it to Indy. If I recall, the agreed-upon price was something like 50 dollars, cash.