First cars, like first loves, find our naïve childhood fantasies crashing headlong into the realities of our present. Pinups are out of the question. If you came of age around 2000 (as I did), you would as likely score a new Carrera as take Jennifer Love Hewitt to the prom. Still for many, even a late-model Civic might be as unattainable as the winsome soccer forward in biology class. Yet somewhere along the way, you find something real to call your own, a first that makes an indelible mark in your memory.
As I approached driving age, the reality of my automotive present was bleak indeed. My thrifty father always paid cash for cars, typically at a price point under a month’s salary. Our family hauler at the time was a third-hand 1991 Plymouth Voyager, just old and worn enough to be perceptibly plebeian at my well-to-do suburban high school. But even as classmates got 2000 New Beetles and XTerras for their 16th birthdays, the stigma of being seen in the Voyager couldn’t entirely erase my joy over finally having a driver’s license.
Still, the minivan was my mom’s vehicle, and my use of it was limited to the occasional evening spin to the mall or Saturday daybreak drive.
In the icy early spring of 2001, my dad’s daily commuter, a battered and rusty ’83 Sentra wagon, finally gave up the ghost. The Sentra had been his “winter car”; he also had an ’86 200SX that was virtually undrivable in central Pennsylvania snow. By May, he found a potential replacement for next winter, but it wasn’t a poverty-spec beater as the Sentra had been.
Early one Saturday, my dad drove me to a reseller of “fine pre-owned imported autos” a dozen or so miles from home. There, I first laid eyes on the car, a 1990 Subaru Legacy LS. Its deep pewter color, Misty Dawn Metallic in Subaru parlance, struck me as looking rather opulent. The car was loaded with nearly every option offered on the Legacy in its first year: power windows and locks, moonroof, air suspension, ABS. The car lacked a CD player, but its factory stereo had a killer feature that would become commonplace 20 years later—a ⅛” aux jack. Perhaps my perception had been distorted by daily exposure to the beat-up Sentra and our increasingly shabby Voyager, but the Legacy looked virtually showroom new to me.
As I quickly discovered, my dad had already made up his mind to purchase this Legacy and was signing the paperwork soon after we arrived. My job was to drive the car home for him.
And what a drive that was! With the Voyager being my only point of motoring reference, the Legacy was a revelation. It took off like a rocket, and its low center of gravity and all-wheel drive let the car corner like it were on rails—a world apart from the Voyager’s wheezing acceleration and tippy insecurity. Moreover, the Legacy was simply a joy to drive. Going back to the first love metaphor, that 20-minute drive home was a passionate first kiss and a lost night lying beneath a starlit sky.
Throughout the summer of 2001, I wrested the Legacy keys from my dad at every possible opportunity. I could see him becoming leery over my growing attachment to his winter car, but I was undaunted. I impishly pushed boundaries, driving the Subaru hours away from home and taking it to a week-long student leadership conference at a nearby university. And more than just being entertaining and less dowdy than the family minivan, the Legacy endeared itself to me as a reflection of my idealized self: intentionally out of the mainstream, quirky, intelligent, and yet oddly attractive in its own way.
Mere months after that magical first drive, though, the Legacy met an untimely end. My older brother, still on summer break from college and driving around our hometown, got sandwiched between a skittish driver in front and an uninsured motorist in a hulking beater behind.
Shortly thereafter, my dad bought a virtual clone of the first Legacy at a local Subaru specialist garage. The only major difference was color—Majestic Blue Metallic. As if to preempt my overtures toward the replacement Legacy, my dad foisted a diversionary vehicle on me: a well-worn 1990 Dodge Spirit bought from a co-worker for $750. Ungratefully, I subjected that Dodge to every childish abuse I could think of that wouldn’t leave marks or cause lasting damage. The Spirit shuttled me to school and my mall clothing store job, but I still finagled the Legacy any chance I could—particularly if I had a date.
As I prepared to leave for college in the summer of 2003, my dad ultimately handed over the Legacy to be my full-time vehicle. And like a junior Irv Gordon, I jumped at any excuse to drive anywhere at any hour—particularly late at night. Spontaneous road trips were my specialty, and I spent countless wee hours driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike with Art Bell emanating from the radio and moonlight shining through the open roof.
It was on such a frivolous late-night excursion in the spring of 2004 that I learned an important lesson about the dangers of drowsy driving. I nodded off for mere moments on a rural Interstate only to be jolted awake by the sound of my Legacy’s right rear quarter glancing off a guardrail. Luckily, neither I nor anyone else was hurt. I put some of my summer job earnings that year into getting the damage repaired and the entire vehicle repainted—though this time, in the slightly darker blue used on second-generation Legacies. Determined to bring my car back into service better than ever, I also installed an original Subaru accessory CD player and an upgraded set of speakers in time for the fall semester
Throughout my undergraduate years—through an academic suspension, a hard-fought return to the dean’s list, a blossoming romance, and a painful breakup—the Legacy was my constant companion. Careful attention to mechanicals rewarded me with hundreds of thousands of miles of faithful service, and the odometer passed 300K by the spring of 2007.
As I approached graduation that summer, the Legacy faced what seemed to be existential engine trouble. The previously bulletproof EJ22 engine suddenly developed an intense grinding noise—as if I had dropped a handful of nuts and bolts into the crankcase. Under other circumstances, I would have probed further. But at the time, my dad—approaching 60 years of age and an Army Reservist for nearly half his life—had just been deployed to active duty in Kuwait. Distracted by our respective lives, we decided it best to move on, and we sold the Legacy back to the garage from which we purchased it six years earlier.
In an email to my dad 6,000 miles away, I eulogized my automotive first love:
That car and I traveled to many new places and had many first experiences together. As much as it is an inanimate object without any feelings or consciousness, I will miss it greatly.
And I do.