The summer of 1985 was a time of transition for me. For the first time of my life, I was on the verge of real life – which included two things: a real job and an adult level of money. By the time of my May graduation, I had the job offer in my pocket and needed to start study for the bar exam that would be offered in July.
All of my COAL writing to this point was about cars, and certainly not about girls. I liked them and all, and went on the occasional date, but none of those dates flicked any switches, certainly not the kind to pull my mind away from cars. So my time that summer was spent at work, settling into my first solo apartment, studying for the bar exam, and looking at/driving every new car I could think of.
I began that summer with two cars – I still owned the Scamper, and also assumed full ownership of the New Yorker. The Scamper was sold right away but the New Yorker took me on the rounds of car dealers. I was still a Mopar guy in my heart, but Lee Iacocca’s New Chrysler Corporation was not turning out the kind of thing that called my name. I tried to gin up enthusiasm for the Daytona/Laser or the turbocharged sport sedans like the LeBaron GTS/Dodge Lancer. I had a minor crush on the BMW 325 (until I caught sight of the price sticker), then the Mustang GT and even a Saab 900 Turbo. I even looked (briefly) into a Cavalier Type 10. Say what you will, I was open to a lot of things – except my favored big, traditional models. Those were all underpowered and stale and did not tempt me at all.
I was in a quandary about what to choose until one day while driving along a residential street. It was there that the answer came to me in a brilliant, silver flash: Driving towards me from other direction was a car that I had forgotten all about – it was a silver VW Rabbit GTI. Eureka!
I had really liked the Rabbit GTI when it came out. My sister had owned a late 70s gasoline Rabbit that was a hoot to drive, and the GTI seemed to add power and spirit to a basic car that already had plenty of both. I knew the Rabbit had just been replaced, and was happy when research indicated that the new Golf was still offered as a GTI. I liked the car’s simplicity, its Germanic feel, and the crank steel sunroof. I liked that option choices were limited, and that you couldn’t get things like power windows and such. This was important because I knew that once I chose my first new car I would keep it forever.
Up to this point I had been through six cars in eight years, and each of them had involved great efforts to reverse the effects of time, miles and the elements. What most would consider ordinary car ownership seemed to me at the time to be gross neglect that hastened the death of an otherwise perfectly good car. I would be different – I would choose well and then maintain my new ride fastidiously so that it would last indefinitely.
I started to get more serious. Color choice would be easy, as there were only three options: Silver (which I disliked), a really hot orangey-red (which I hated) and black (there ya’ go). The dealer happened to have a black one on the lot and I liked it. A lot. But I held off as I awaited the envelope from the State Board of Law Examiners that would determine which of two fates awaited me: bar passage (and the successful life it would bring with it) or information on when I could re-take the exam (something so horrifying I could scarcely even think about it). By October I had received the much-anticipated envelope – and it contained a congratulations and information on the swearing-in ceremony. It was right about then that the Chrysler looked like it was going on another of its “You never spend money on me” rants, and I got serious and dickered my way to a deal on the black GTI.
My first new car. This, not the start of a legal career, was the summit – the place I had been headed for almost the entirety of my 26 years. The journey was over, because I had reached the promised land, and it had a big Volkswagen sign out front. I met with Wade Brown – I don’t know why I still remember the salesman’s name. He was around my age and we worked together pretty well. But I was not an easy customer. First, I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted the black one that I had test driven. Except for the seats. These cars came with seats in “a handsome grey fabric with a choice of contrasting red or grey striping”, according to the brochure. I liked the gray (or “grey” in VW speak) and disliked the red.
I know, everyone here is going to say that the red-striped seats looked way better. Wade Brown said that everyone loved the red stripes. But I was buying a German car, not an Italian car. German cars (even those built in Pennsylvania) were supposed to be businesslike and not call undue attention to themselves. I knew this, having grown up in heavily German-influenced city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. This car needed the gray stripes. Besides, red seats were more likely to fade in my forever car.
The black car on the lot had the red-striped seats. A red car on the lot had the gray-striped seats. I wanted them switched. Wade said OK. Then he and I entered a marathon bargaining session that lasted until about 45 minutes after their 9 pm closing time. This was what I did for a living, so I actually kind of enjoyed it. We FINALLY got to the number where I was willing to buy the car, but I had at least one moment of weakness where I agreed to the Rusty Jones rustproofing and paint treatments at some point during the heat of battle. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid. But those things might be worthwhile in my forever car.
It was not, by the way, an inexpensive car. For some perspective, my mother bought a very nicely equipped Crown Victoria two or three months prior and it’s sticker price was around $14k. A figure I considered obscene for a Ford, by the way. My decadently equipped New Yorker had barely stickered over $10k eight years earlier, so yes – sticker shock was a thing. The GTI’s sticker (also nicely equipped, but without things like power windows and seats) was over $12k. A similarly equipped Cavalier Type 10 would have been around $7 or 8k. Yes, I somehow found myself transformed into a yuppie. Or maybe Yuppie-Lite. I was not
buying leasing the BMW but was in a VW showroom instead. But close enough.
This was the car that turned me into an adult (kind of). For the first time in my life, I had sought and picked out a brand new car that was EXACTLY what I wanted, and now I had it. I had a warranty and no worry about old things breaking or having to fix them myself. Rust was now a thing to laugh at on other people’s cars. I recall how I loved the Eagle GT tires that gripped the road like nothing I had experienced. On dry roads, I mean, because with a touch of rain or a dusting of snow they turned into something with all the traction of curling stones on ice. And that were soft enough that they required replacement about a year in. I loved the torquey engine with the 5 speed stick, and remembered how much I had missed shifting my own gears. One thing I did not love was the obnoxious orange “upshift light”. Another thing I didn’t love was that my car suddenly became a magnet for ne’er-do-wells. Like the evening a neighbor pounded on my door to inform me that someone had broken into it in my building’s garage. The would-be thieves smashed the driver side window and did their best to get the radio out, but only managed to make a real mess of the dash. I loved how my GTI was so much more fun to drive than the Golf loaner I got during repairs.
The highs were glorious. My sister lived about two hours northwest from me, in a rural area with some freshly paved highways that just begged me to unleash all 100 of the wild horses. Every young guy wants to know how fast his car will go, especially if it is a car crammed full of Fahrvergnugen. The answer, in my case, was 114 mph. The GTI felt fabulous at that speed – every bit as sure as the New Yorker had felt at triple digit velocity, but in a different way. Fortunately there was no law enforcement nearby. Or tractors, for that matter. Want to know something really amazing? I have never been pulled over for speeding. Not once. Just watch though, having now published this fact, I will spend ten hours in the next year stopped along the side of roads while officers of the law run my plates and issue tickets.
This car actually made me a little aggressive with the cops. Like the time one whizzed by me at over 80 mph on the (still) 55 mph interstate highway. I sped up and followed him. I knew how this worked. I knew that police departments kept dispatch logs. I knew that he had no lights or sirens going, and it appeared that he had a wife and kids in the car, so the chance that he was on an actual police run was about zero. So I knew that if he was going to stop me, two of us were going to get tickets, or at least I was going to do everything in my power to to make sure that any ticket he might write me would be costly for him. The combination of youth and litigation experience can embolden a young man. When he moved to the other lane, slowed down and wagged his finger as he stared at me, my innate conservatism returned and I broke it off so that nobody got a ticket that day.
The GTI took me on my first solo road trip to the east coast to visit some relatives in Philadelphia and New Jersey and a law school roommate in Connecticut. It was a great road car, with supportive and comfortable seats – though it could have used a 6th gear on the highway. It also taught me why people on congested, rush-hour freeways tend to avoid manual transmissions.
This car also saw my dating life pick up. (Imagine that!) I spent part of that time with the GTI driving to and from the west side of Indianapolis to see the girl I had met. I guess that turned out to be a good “test relationship” because after several months things seemed to stagnate and both of us decided that there should have been more there. So my car offered me some solace on some long drives after we broke up. And it also made me thankful that I was not driving the yellow 79 Cutlass aeroback sedan she was stuck with every day. Another result of the breakup was a future COAL, the first time I bought a vehicle purely for fun and not to drive every day.
I really liked the car. Unlike the New Yorker, everything was right most of the time and the car was a driving pleasure that made me feel successful. But my time with the GTI would not be the trouble-free experience I had imagined, with quite a few more warranty repairs than I had expected. Some of that was my own fault – my apartment building was a block and a half of city thoroughfare from my office, and because I drove frequently during my days (and billed for my time) a walk to get the car was a waste – so I drove that 1.5 blocks twice a day. I had not expected to get a new muffler under VW’s 2 year unlimited mile warranty, but, yeah.
The dash light came on couple of times which resulted in warranty repairs to the fuel injection system. I didn’t ask more questions – I had a warranty and didn’t need to know the details. It was a new car, so I shouldn’t have to think about those things, right? The biggest problem came about a year into ownership, a nagging water leak in the body that the dealer could not seem to find and fix. After the garage break-in I had taken to parking outside, and after every rain the carpet in the rear floor on the drivers side would be soaked. I was reminded of the advice I had heard from my mother after her hard-learned experience with the 1961 Oldsmobile – “Never buy a new car in its first year.” Apparently that still applied.
I had also reminded myself that owning a black car was no picnic. 10 minutes after a wash it showed every single water spot. An hour after a wash it was getting dusty. Unless it rained, and then it showed the remains of road spray. And remember that Rusty Jones paint sealant? Wade Brown’s statement that “You’ll never need to wax it” proved untrue because I noticed that the GTI had built up a nice little case of road film, or whatever that stuff is that builds up on the paint despite regular washing. There is nothing more beautiful than a black car – for about 1% of its life.
In September of 1987 I was approaching the end of my warranty. But I was only halfway through the coupons in my payment book (remember those?) and far, far short of “forever”. Now my $271.31/month (I have no idea why I remember that number) would be supplemented by whatever additional costs I would run up at the VW dealer or other “foreign car mechanic” of my choice. I had amassed a quarter-inch thick manila folder of service receipts in the first two years and saw no reason why that trend should change as time and miles continued to add up. This issue was made bigger now that I had become a homeowner with a second, much larger payment book.
I had also been drawn back to my old-car roots. The words of a classic car auctioneer I had once heard kept ringing in my ears. When a really nice old car had only drawn a very modest bid, he tried to pump up interest by shouting “At that price you can drive it for a year and throw it out!” I fired up my calculator and figured out that between the 2 years of depreciation and the interest I had paid on my car loan, the GTI had cost me $6,000 for the privilege of ownership over two years – not including any operating costs at all. Surely I could do better, I thought to myself. Besides, I had proved to myself that owning a new car was not that different from owning an older car. Perfection and car ownership are two circles that don’t intersect on a Venn diagram. And yes, I took way too long to learn this truth.
The GTI seemed to represent a distinct but short period of my life when I was in the phase of trying to make an impression. I had spent my youth as a very un-athletic kid and my four years as an undergrad eating and drinking as much of everything as I pleased. My roommate Dan had a motto – anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. It was a motto that would not serve him well as the years passed, and they hadn’t served me all that well either. My first year of law school saw me lose 50 pounds (from 195 to 145) and a new circle of friends had me paying more attention to my appearance. By 1987 I had had settled into a healthy weight and had mastered the “dress to impress” lifestyle in my wardrobe, my house and my car. But I had come to conclude that a lot of those life-changes had been about other people and not about me. I loved the house and was happy with the wardrobe, but wondered why there couldn’t be more with the car.
I had also grown more comfortable in my own skin as I settled into adult life, so that the only person I felt the need to please with my cars was me. I came to recognize that, as much as I liked and enjoyed the GTI, I lacked the emotional attachment I had experienced with all of my prior cars. Part of that was probably simple maturity and a life with more to fill it than just cars. But part of it was that I wanted more of a connection with my car than the GTI had given me. This breakup was kind of like the one with my girlfriend – it wasn’t anybody’s fault, we just weren’t right for each other.
Now I had a mission. I was out to find an interesting old car that I could turn into a fun and unique (but thrifty) daily driver. I found one and then put the GTI up for sale. A young guy who appeared to be on the verge of starting a professional life was ready to graduate from a really rusty beater of a 76-ish Cutlass loved it and a deal was struck. He was preparing to enter the yuppie life just as I was preparing to leave it. So after just two years, my first new car (and my last for another two decades) would join the previous 7 in life’s rear view mirror.