I have often wondered if our first car sets the pattern for the types of cars we buy over the course of our lives. Or are the choices we make merely the result of circumstances, needs and lifestyle? In compiling a list of the vehicles I have owned in my 48 years of driving, I discovered some definite patterns in my choices. Let’s start by looking at my first car, a tan 1965 Opel Kadett. I think almost every one of these early Kadetts was tan. Sadly, all of the images in this article are from the internet, no images survive of my first car.
I grew up in the tiny town of Painted Post, NY just west of Corning. You may know Corning as the home of Corning Inc, purveyor of Gorilla Glass, Pyrex labware and fiber optic cable. Painted Post was home to Ingersoll Rand, known for air compressors. We lived adjacent to an Ingersoll Rand loading dock. And when I say adjacent, I mean you would reach your hand out the kitchen window and touch the fence surrounding the plant. Union jobs meant lots of new American cars in the parking lots surrounding the plants. But Watkins Glen was only 20 miles away. Races would draw wealthy spectators from the NYC area, arriving in Ferrari, Porches, Lotus and the like. Corning engineers were attracted to exotics like Citroen, Volvo and BMW. So my childhood circumstances exposed me to a wide variety of automobiles and I loved looking at all them.
In 1972, the summer before my 16th birthday, the Corning area was hit with the remnants of Hurricane Agnes. Corning was built at the confluence of three rivers and those rivers were fed by hundreds of small streams. Agnes parked over the southern tier of New York in late June dumping 10 inches of rain over three days. Army Corps of Engineers flood control dikes failed on the morning of the fourth day, flooding most of Painted Post and Corning. Our house was hit with a 10’ wall of water, destroying most of our possessions. We moved to a new home about 10 miles out of town, up in the hills this time. Like many families back then, we had just one car. But I had joined a band as a drummer the previous winter and needed to get into town for rehearsals. My mother, unbeknownst to me, started looking for a car for me to use when I turned 16. As it happened, a friend’s son was selling his 1965 Kadett.
I can’t say I was thrilled owning a 7 year old Kadett. This was not the model everyone remembers. The Kadett B is the one that allowed Opel to quickly rise to the number 2 import brand in the US. No, this was the Kadett A, a funky looking little two door with vestigial fins. Opels of this period had a strong resemblance to GM’s US products and if you squinted, mine looked a bit like a shrunken Chevy II.
My mother paid $250 for this car which was about $150 too much. The front fenders were shot through with rust and it barely ran. Fortunately the bass player in our band knew a mechanic and took my carburetor for a rebuild. In the meantime, I started working with Bondo, a gallon at a time. My new neighbor worked maintenance for the local school district and knew how to paint cars. He offered to paint my car for the cost of the paint. I went down to the local auto parts stored and picked out a beautiful shade of deep metallic green. We got the carburetor installed in early fall.
I had learned to drive using my mom’s 1967 Rebel, automatic of course, so I set about teaching myself how to shift a manual. The Opel had a long whip of a shifter and as a result, you really had to stir that thing to find the right gear. Our new house was sitting on a newly graded lot, so I practiced driving by doing laps around what would become the yard, turning it into an oval dirt track for a time. Always counter clockwise, I never got going fast enough to get out of 2nd but I did learn the intricacies of clutching and braking.
I didn’t get my license until the following summer so the Opel mostly sat in the driveway that winter. Once I started driving, I really grew to appreciate that car. The little 993cc pushrod engine making 46 HP in US trim was considered to be bulletproof. It must have been; I don’t remember ever changing the oil in it.
I became popular with car-less friends in high school and ran what amounted to a free ride share service my senior year, getting to know the back roads that ran through the hills surrounding the Corning area. The car wasn’t particularly fast; top speed observed was about 70 MPH downhill. But handling on the retreaded tires was just fine. I removed the cracked dash pad, but that was about it for interior modifications.
I can’t say that I learned a lot about car repair with the Kadett, I was too busy with the band. This was when garage bands were still somewhat of a novelty. Being under 18 meant that we couldn’t play bars, but there were enough high schools in the area to keep us busy. The car was fairly reliable except for the occasional refusal to start. If that happened at home, I just pointed it down the driveway and got it rolling fast enough to start it by popping the clutch. In town that would require 2 or 3 friends to give me a push.
Somewhere along the way I sourced a 1964 Kadett, tan of course, as a parts car. It was then that I realized I had a fairly rare model. My front clip resembled the Kadett B with squared off headlights while my parts car had the older style round headlight bezels as used on the base Kadett A sedan, which was by far the most common version sold in the US.
Based on pics from the internet, I appears mine was the rather rare L version of the Kadett. The L sedan and the Opel coupe had that upscale front end. In the fall of 1974 I headed off to SUNY Delhi in the Catskills. Freshman could have a car on campus but it was discouraged, in part by the location of the freshman parking lot far removed from campus. The car mostly stayed parked except for trips home. I kept the Opel through my first year of college but decided in the spring it was time for something a little more road worthy. I sold both of the Opels for $200 to a guy with a young family. I often saw them cruising around, all smiles. I’m glad it found a happy home.