Welcome to my Cars Of A Lifetime! I have quite a list of interesting vehicles of all sorts to tell you about, including some before I was legally allowed to drive. Today we will start with the first car that was officially “mine” and work forward (and backward) from there as the narrative requires.
September 1st, 1993 started off like any other in late summer during high school in Horseheads, New York. I was heading into my Junior year and it was the week before school started and all of the band geeks were spending our last week of freedom stomping around a parking lot learning our marching routine. I was given a pass for the afternoon to go down to Waverly, New York to take my driver’s license road test. Approximately six months earlier in the cold dark days of February, I had taken the 10-question written exam to get my drivers permit and now it was time to take the dreaded road test.
I had spent the majority of my life running around fields on tractors, trucks, and cars, but only a scant six months of actual piloting a car between the painted lines of a road. It had only taken me a week or so to get used to driving a car at road typical road speeds and felt confident behind the wheel. I had also taken drivers education during the summer (mostly so I could drive after 10 PM at the age of 17 instead of 18 per New York State law), so I felt was in pretty good shape.
For those six months, I had exclusively practiced on the road with two cars: my Mom’s 1981 Caprice Classic coupe or my Dad’s 1977 Pontiac Catalina. The Caprice was our main family car and the Catalina was my dad’s winter beater. On that day I was driving the Caprice for my road test, and I managed to pass the test after the driving instructor gave me a re-do on the parallel parking. Today I am known for being fearless when it comes to parallel parking, but at the age of 16, I was nervous as hell.
I triumphantly drove back to Horseheads, but not back to band practice. Instead, I was going to pick up my first car: at 1986 Ford Escort Pony. Four-on-the-floor, eighty-six horses, two doors and it was all mine! The Escort was by no means a slam-dunk for me as my first car. In the summer leading up to my license, I was given the opportunity to pick between three cars as my first car. The first was my grandfather’s ’85 four-door maroon VW Jetta. It was an automatic and I really didn’t like it, and it eventually went to one of my cousins as her first car. The second choice was far more interesting – a 1988 Peugeot 505 turbodiesel wagon. Now, this was a seriously cool ride (even though it was also automatic) with sumptuous leather seats and that turbo motor. I could have picked this car as it was the same price as the Escort, but my father cautioned me that we’d have to go to Ithaca NY to get parts and there wouldn’t be any in the local pick-n-pull. Deciding on the Escort was probably one of my few logical choices when it came to cars, but I’m glad I picked it over the others.
I was one of the fortunate kids in my class to get a car right away. I was a good kid and rarely got into trouble, but I think more than anything my parents wanted to be released from having to cart me around. Between marching band, theater and Boy Scouts my schedule was pretty busy. My dad was also a driver like me, so I think he was excited for what lay ahead of me once I had my own car. To this day I’m not sure he had any inkling what would follow.
By any measure the Escort was slow, but I didn’t really care. It had a tape deck that was soon adapted via a cassette with a line-in cable that converted my Discman to car music (oddly enough I still have to use one of these in my current car to listen to my iPhone). The car had no AC, but both windows rolled down which was fine by me. Summer nights in Upstate New York are wonderful even without AC. The car soon earned the nickname “Walter” for reasons that are lost to time, but it felt apt, as most people named Walter were old and slow.
“Walter” was my car from September 1993 all the way through 1997 and we shared many adventures together, most of which are also lost to time. There are a few that manage to stick out, particularly in the summer of 1995 right after I graduated High School.
My best friend during this time was a classmate that I’ll call K. As she didn’t have a car and we were involved in many of the same school activities I frequently chauffered her around after class and on weekends. I didn’t mind as the company was nice and we enjoyed spending time together. It was during one of these after school jaunts that we decided to take a road trip. I had never really taken a road trip without my parents, so in June of 1995 just before graduation, we decided to head to Rochester New York for the day. We wanted to go someplace we had never been before, and a beach on Lake Ontario seemed like the ideal place. We headed up early in the morning and had a lovely day.
We had a study group that evening for one of the finals for a class so we needed to be back by a specific time. A navigation error occurred that put us on secondary roads on our southward return journey, but the afternoon was lovely, and traffic was light so it didn’t seem like we would be late. On one particularly long stretch one of those thoughts popped into my head that in hindsight was just plain dumb.
Just how fast could my nine-year-old Escort go?
With an 85 mile-an-hour speedometer I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that the speedometer needle was wrapped back around past the first digit of the odometer, and the Sheriff’s Deputy clocked me at 86 mph. When I was at what felt like terminal velocity, I let off the gas and was coasting back down to safe speeds. I hadn’t used the brakes to do this and was coasting to the end of the long stretch, which ended in a downward sweeping “S” curve. Of course, who was heading northbound? A red-and-white Caprice (yes, New York Sherriff’s cars look like fire department vehicles – weird, I know). I pulled over and shut the car off and watched the deputy turn around and rush back towards me. I was in sheer terror at what would befall me not only from the Deputy but my father. In his wisdom to save a few bucks on car insurance, I was not on the family policy “formally”. He figured that I would be covered under the “casual” driver, so of course, a speeding ticket would ruin that forever.
The Deputy was nice enough to write me up for a 69 in a 55, not knowing that I had been going warp speed just a few seconds before. On the advice of a family friend I wrote to the county judge and pleaded my case and managed to get it reduced further to a 65 in a 55. I don’t know the outcome with the insurance, but after some stern verbal warnings, I was allowed to continue driving.
All through the summer of 1995 “Walter” and I would pick up K. after Auntie Anne’s closed at the mall and head out into the rolling hills of Upstate New York to just drive. We spent countless gallons of gas wandering among the Finger Lakes talking about anything and everything as teenagers do. My summer job was working for a county park (7 Am to 3:30 PM) and today I have no idea how I managed such early hours at that manual labor job and such late nights roaming around. As the summer wound down and my friends prepared to go off to college, I was left with a sinking feeling of foreboding. I hadn’t made any plans for college, so I was going to Corning Community College for the foreseeable future. Before life changed forever, however, I had a month-long trip to Europe with my father as a graduation gift. We were due to depart in early August to Germany and we were going to take the Escort to NYC for our flight.
Just a handful of days prior to this trip, I was driving on a hot summer day in the city of Elmira, NY. I was traveling along a busy street with the flow of traffic, probably 30 mph at most. The neighborhood was busy with kids playing on lawns and people on sidewalks, and it was one of those kids that let out a distracting blood-curdling yell. I glanced to my left out my window to see who was yelling, and in those few fractions of a second, a Dodge Omni in front of me had come to a complete stop for someone making a turn. I locked up the brakes and slid underneath the rear bumper with a sickening crunch. I remember looking to my right as this was happening and observing things in my car flying forward, all in slow motion.
Once the dust had settled there was almost no damage to the Omni but plenty of carnage to the front of my Escort. The passenger side headlight and turn signal were crunched beyond repair and the grille was in pieces on the ground as well, but the driver’s side had managed to escape unharmed. The hood was bent slightly but still managed to close and stay latched. The telescoping rams on the left side bumper had done only part of their job – they did not telescope back out. The older gentleman driving the Omni took my information and said he would call me since the damage was minimal to his car, and he departed the scene. As this was my first accident and I was scared shitless I didn’t think to get his information until much later. After collecting as much of the wreckage as I could I was about to leave myself when one of the kids standing by informed me that I couldn’t leave as the city police were on the way.
Fresh images of the wrath of my father started forming in my head as I stood in the sun waiting for the officer. He finally arrived and observed the scene and said little to me. He took copious notes and after a few unbearable moments of silence, I asked him if I was going to get a ticket. He paused and slowly looked over at me.
“Do you want a ticket?”
“Well then, let me finish writing”.
True to form my father was livid at my stupidity and carelessness. He threatened that we would no longer be able to go to Germany as the car was damaged and undrivable and because of the untold problems with the insurance company. The Omni driver eventually called and spoke to my father and they agreed upon a small cash payment for the wrinkled under-bumper valance. An afternoon with a come-along and a tree straightened out the mangled metal on the Escort and another afternoon in the local Pick-n-Pull scored me a replacement headlamp, turn signal and grille. (Astute readers will notice that all the photos prior to this event show a white grille and after show a back grille). My father calmed down after realizing he was young and dumb once and we ended up having a wonderful month in Germany. I even had the chance to drive a VW Polo on the autobahn – tearing along at 90 mph flat out!
One interesting side note to this story happened in the summer of 1986. My parents and I were on vacation in Italy when we got into a car accident. It was relatively minor, but oddly enough we were driving a 1986 Ford Escort and damaged the same place on that rental car as I had on my own Escort years later.
It was around this same time that my first girlfriend, M., needed a new car. My father had put her ’81 Catalina four-door up on his car lift to do an oil change only to immediately lower it back to the ground in horror. Fifteen years of upstate New York road salt and mortally wounded the frame, brake lines and most alarmingly the fuel lines and gas tank.
He wouldn’t even let her drive it home that night. Being the proud owner of an Escort myself, I set about finding her one of her own. Before I could convince her of just how great Escorts were, however, she took a very short test drive in a dark blue ’88 New Yorker Turbo Sedan. Even at that young age, I knew that this car was not a good bet, and after talking it over with her for some time she finally decided on a powder blue ’88 Ford Escort wagon (five-speed no less!)
We had quite a few adventures in “Heidi”, including a road trip to Virginia and Washington D.C. and this Escort served her well for several years. I was quite pleased at the time to have his-and-hers Escorts.
There would be a few more small adventures along the way in “Walter” (and one large one) before he was retired. Those stories (and more!) in part two.