I was sixteen, I had been saving my money, I had my license, I had been driving the family’s Mercury wagon, I had been lusting for the family’s Mustang, and I had been devouring years’ worth of car magazines in order to help me choose my first car to buy.
As the search went on, there was only one obvious choice. It had to be smaller, powerful, sporty, look nice and attractive, reliable, mainstream, and economical to own and operate. The car magazines all liked it, they were everywhere, and the 11 second zero-to-sixty looked very good on paper, better than almost all its peers. The fact that it was a Ford product (as I, too, was the product of a “Ford family—that almost always bought Fords), and vaguely resembled my lusted-for Mustang in red, if one squinted very hard, then the hunt was to be over before it began. The V-6 Capri, 1972 or 1973, that was it. Enough said.
I had one advantage, going in. I was a bit younger than my friends, so I got to ride in and test drive their cars, to see what I liked and what I didn’t. A Vega, a 510, some VWs, a Camaro, a Mitsubishi Dodge Colt. They all had their pluses and minuses, but what I realized was that, just like the Mercury wagon I had been driving, I needed to drive each car on its own terms. The VW Beetle had its own way of being driven, which was different than the Camaro, and different again from the 510. The foreign cars generally had a better integrated set of controls than the domestic cars did. This meant that while the car may not do everything “well”, there was also the matter of whether it did everything in a “nice” way.
The big wagon didn’t do much well, but it did it all very “nicely”, in the way the controls worked together and everything felt “right”, given the limitations of the vehicle in the first place. Doing things “nicely” mattered in the car I might buy. (The family Mustang had a bit of a deficit there, as it actually felt very archaic in the way it drove and in the way the steering and handling functioned—that’s an important reason why I didn’t simply shop for an old Mustang).
So I looked around (dealers, the classified ads in the newspaper, and the weekly Auto Trader print magazine were the only resources available, other than driving by a car parked along the side of the roads with a “for sale” sign on it). I located a V-6 Capri on a local dealer lot, and got my test drive. Uh-oh. The engine did not “feel” or sound fast, it seemed to sort of peter out at the top end. The steering was very heavy and the “feel” of it was not to my liking (a lot of this is subjective, I know, but I had my definite preferences). The driver’s seat was hard and uncomfortable to me, the shift lever didn’t have a “connected” feel, and the relationship between the seat, the pedals, and the steering wheel felt all “wrong” to me. It simply wouldn’t do, at all. Back to square one.
I took another look at the 510 and the Dodge Colt. There was nothing wrong with either one, but they had nothing particular going for them, aesthetically, even though they were “nice” to drive, if a bit underpowered. I suppose if I were “performance” focused and interested in modifying a car, the 510 may have appealed very much. But I was more interested in buying and driving something “out of the box”, so what I saw was what I would be getting.
I started just showing up at car dealerships, and seeing what they recommended. As I was young, my Dad had to be there for me to get a test drive. He had opinions and preferences. I also think that the dealers perhaps had some oddball cars on their lots, and their knowing up front that I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, they would steer me to the odd thing in the third row that they couldn’t move.
So I tried an Opel GT, an MG Midget, some sort of Renault, a Pinto, another Vega, and so it went. A Plymouth Scamp was actually rather impressive in the midst of all this, with the slant-6, nice torque, reasonable comfort, and controls that didn’t feel too archaic. It also had very low mileage and a fair price. It had obviously been a “grandma car”, and it looked to me like one, and I just couldn’t go there, the aesthetics were off for me. In hindsight, it was the best of a rather motley lot of choices.
Fate finally walked in the door. Visiting another lot, the salesman steered me towards a rotary Mazda. My Dad finally put his foot down, saying “no way in a million years…”, not reliable (after test driving an MG, ha!). The salesman responded with “how about a Toyota”, as those are reliable. Voila, a Celica, a car which I didn’t really know existed. Why not, I am not sure. Most likely, because it was out of my price range. Like a BMW 2002 or a later model Volvo, they were just too expensive and never made the list. The Celica on the dealer lot was in the $2,000’s, but I had a $1,000’s budget.
But the hook had been set. The car, inside and out, was very attractive looking. As long as it drove like the other Japanese cars I had driven, it would check the “nice” boxes, both aesthetically and mechanically. Sign me up! I just had to find one at the right price. I finally did, at $1,800, but it had 85k miles. However, Toyotas are reliable, right? Right?
The car was all original and not monkeyed with (that mattered a lot to me), and it was in red. Instead of a red Capri mini-Mustang, it would be a red Celica mini-Mustang. Done.
A neighbor actually had one of these, in dark blue. It was a very attractive car, but it had wide-set aluminum five-slot wheels. They transformed the look of the car. Next stop was Pep Boys and a set of new aluminum wheels. Along with the nice dashboard, exterior styling, and an overall sporty look, but solid and pedestrian mechanicals, it was the Mustang experience, all over again, in a smaller and newer package.
So I had my first car, and away I went. It was a completely pleasant driving experience, though not anything special. A bit down on power to my liking, and the engine got noisier, in a very agricultural-sounding way, rather than more powerful, when I revved the engine. But, all things considered, it seemed like a fair trade-off all around, given my relatively modest budget.
That’s when reality and 85k miles set in. There was no internet, and, short of major brand-wide identifiable mechanical issues (say, Vega or Mazda), there was no information to be had. But the engine in these early cars did not like unleaded fuel, and would promptly burn the valves and disintegrate the top end of the engine. Many hundreds of dollars after my car suddenly started making awful noises and losing power, I had a new dealer-installed cylinder head and a nice cardboard tag hanging from the dashboard, stating “leaded fuel only”. A few months later, the engine ate the timing chain, and I was stuck along the edge of the freeway. At some point, one says “well, I have all the expensive weak points fixed and paid for, so let’s soldier on”, which is what I did.
I was still good to go with the Toyota, now a year later. But then my eyes were turned by another. Recall the Vega, 510, VWs, and so on of my friends. We would entertain ourselves late at night by going out to the deserted Otay Lakes, and match racing each other. We were all slow, but fairly well matched, and would race up to 50 or 60 mph or so, furiously revving up the engines and dropping the clutches to launch, and then struggling to gain speed from there, as the four-cylinder engines labored…
One night, my buddy with a VW Beetle had broken his car. He brought his sister’s sleeper commuter car. It promptly waxed all of us, one by one. He could chirp the tires hard going into second gear. This mattered a lot to a group of testosterone-fueled car guys. The Toyota went up for sale the next day, and I went shopping for a sleeper commuter car. A guy has to know his priorities…