My First Car

December 15, 1991|By Peter Carlin

I think I killed my first car. I might be wrong about this. After all, there is a lot about cars that remains mysterious to me. Like the way their engines can all of a sudden have no oil in them. A car's engine needs oil. I know this now. If it doesn't have oil to lubricate itself, the engine will tear itself apart and you will need a new car. This can happen very quickly on a dark winter afternoon.

You will be driving north on the interstate. You will be listening to Robert Cray performing "Smoking Gun" on the radio. Then a tremendous racket will commence. The explosive Whackwhackwhackwhackwhack!! of metal slamming against

metal. When you pull into the next gas station -- an agonizing half-mile away -- the attendant will open the hood and lean in to see what's wrong. A few seconds later, he'll stand upright, with the dipstick in one hand and a quizzical expression on his face. "Hey, mister," he'll cry. "You got no oil in here!"

Maybe it wasn't my fault. The car had obviously been developing a strong dependence on 10/40, even in the earliest days of our relationship. Perhaps it was self-destructive, and there was nothing I could have done to save it from itself. I wonder, because for all its faults, I did like that car. We deserved each other. I didn't know much about cars, and that was fine, because it wasn't much of a car.

It was a '77 Honda Civic, metallic blue, with a black leatherette interior. Short and thick in a particularly '70s way, the Honda didn't cut much of a figure in the late '80s. The nicest parts were the gray and red seat covers and black leather steering wheel cover -- both installed by a previous owner.

Just which previous owner, I never knew. The Honda had already traveled more than 80,000 miles before I put my foot on its gas pedal. Whoever had bought it first had picked it up from a dealer in Kansas, this much made obvious by a chrome plate screwed onto the back. The fellow I bought it from spoke vaguely about cross-country trips he'd enjoyed in the car. "She's real dependable," he said, patting her air intakes. I walked in circles around the Honda, pretending to look for something. I actually kicked a tire or two, for effect, then offered a few hundred dollars less than the advertised price. He counter-offered a hundred dollars higher than that, and like gentlemen, we met halfway, at something-and-50. The next day after work I came by with a cashier's check. He gave me two sets of keys and the registration, and I drove home in my car.

My car. Two lovely words, back then. Sure, it was just a little get-around. But it was my car, and I liked seeing it there, waiting for me right where I had left it. When I got inside and turned the key, the engine would start, after a fashion, and I could shift it into gear and go. Anywhere. Any time. And that was enough.

Internal combustion freedom. That first summer I tasted it every time I turned the key. To pick up the beer for the Fourth of July party. To go into the mountains for a weeklong hiking trip with a college buddy. To set out to meet an old girlfriend and a bunch of her friends for a picnic, but then have a change of heart and head in the opposite direction.

But there was a dark side, too. The finger-wagging part of the Dad lecture on freedom and responsibility, where things could go wrong, and you have to make damn sure to find a good mechanic, young man. The first time it happened that autumn, it wasn't too bad. Maybe a few hundred bucks for a new clutch. Then a routine tuneup turned into another $300 in parts and labor. But late that winter, when I first noticed the disappearing oil problem, disaster struck.

"We'll have to pull the head," my mechanic said, before lapsing into mechanic's tongues for a few minutes. When he came out of that, he said, "So it'll cost, oh, I dunno, $1,100. Parts and labor." Gee, just about exactly what I paid for the car in the first place. And I hadn't had that kind of money since . . . well, since I bought the car.

"Get a second opinion," a friend suggested. Yeah, I thought. That mechanic always made me feel like I was jousting with him, anyway. He knew I was helpless. I'd come in equipped with a few key words -- "I think it's the winklepicker, but could ya check the bearings in the katzenjammer?" -- and he'd smirk at me. "Sure thing, bub." Then he'd replace something else and charge me $300.

So the next morning I limped over to see Ken at Boulevard Imports. "I think I'm losing oil out of the hitzengoober," I explained. "Do you think I can get by with a new set of Q-rings?"

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