What do you consider to be your first car?
For me, three vehicles could potentially lay claim to the title. My vote goes to a 1990 Subaru Legacy LS wagon. Though purchased in May 2001 to be my dad’s winter car, the Legacy captured my heart immediately, and I commandeered it through the following summer. Another contender is a 1990 Dodge Spirit ES, bought for me by my dad in August 2001 to keep me away from the Legacy. Candidate three has its own unique angle, being the first vehicle that I actually selected and purchased with my own earnings.
By the summer of 2002, I was in a bind. The Dodge—already an embarrassment when I first received it—had been rendered “date proof” in a senseless backing accident. The passenger’s side front door had been hyperextended, and my dad’s DIY solution to keep it closed was to drive a drop-forged center punch through the B-pillar and door, effectively deadbolting it for life. With my dad driving his fair-weather 200SX throughout the summer, I had a reasonably easy time stealing the Legacy, but I knew the law would be laid down as temperatures dropped.
I’d worked full-time at an office job that summer and amassed decent savings. With autumn looming, I frantically looked for an alternative car, something affordable that would be fun to drive and allow me to pick up dates with some degree of dignity. Several cars caught my eye, but none worked out. Finally at a small-time used car lot a half hour from home, I saw something intriguing: a 1991 Mazda Protegé DX.
Right out of the gate, the Protegé satisfied one prerequisite: It was a tidy Japanese subcompact. And although it was a decade old and lacked the style of a mid-’90s Civic or the quiet competence of a Clinton-era Corolla, this Mazda promised a few unique advantages. Most noticeably, the car’s Blaze Red paint beamed off the dealer’s lot as I approached. To someone whose car color tastes tended toward neutral tones, the notion of showing a little brash cheek was irresistible to my inner extrovert. This Protegé also sported a glass sunroof, a feature I always appreciated. Though aftermarket and of the manual flip-up type, the sunroof seemed well suited to the car. And though I’d never been behind the wheel of a Mazda, I always assumed them to excel in the driving fun department.
Walking around the car for a closer look, the Protegé appeared to be in fine shape and, with the exception of the aftermarket sunroof and a set of cheap pseudo-wire wheel covers sourced from some small Chevrolet, quite original, too. Aside from some slight fading on the plastic facia, the paint shone brilliantly. In all, outward appearances were quite respectable.
After the proprietor came out and glad-handed me briefly, he opened up the car. The gray and black interior was tasteful and in nice condition, and everything was just as original inside, including the Mazda stereo. But the interior emphasized the DX’s base status much more emphatically than the exterior. Windows, locks, and mirrors were manual; cruise and air conditioning were absent, and the car lacked countless small features (map lights, a driver’s visor mirror…even intermittent wipers) that I had come to expect on almost any vehicle. The dashboard was replete with plastic delete plugs. Excepting the automatic transmission, which I did not prefer but had come to accept as a practicality, the car was nearly as basic as you could buy in 1991.
The dealer handed me the keys for a test drive. “You can take it out by yourself; take your time,” he smiled. I guess I looked honest. Or like a sucker.
As a DX model, the car had the less-potent SOHC version of the Protegé’s 1.8L engine, further hobbled by a four-speed automatic. Take-offs were leisurely. But what the car lacked in straight-line acceleration, it made up for in curve-carving prowess. The Protegé’s lightweight, precise steering, and four-wheel independent suspension (with a surprisingly sophisticated twin-trapezoidal link design in the rear), made it certifiably tossable and an absolute joy to drive, even if the car lacked the substantial feel I admired in the Subaru. By the time I pulled back into the dealer’s lot, the Mazda’s spunky personality and simple honesty had won me over. I decided to purchase it.
A few months into my ownership of the Mazda, it had proven itself to be exactly the enjoyable, basic runabout it seemed in the test drive. But had I been less impatient and scrutinized the car properly, I’d have passed on it. Despite the Protegé’s neat outward appearance and lack of corrosion on visible body panels, the underbody was covered in an incredible quantity of coarse rust. Perhaps this was simply typical road salt rot (the car was originally sold by a Mazda dealer in Jamestown, New York), but considering the corrosion I found in such odd places as the seat tracks and underneath the floor-mounted trunk release lever, I wondered if the car might have been sitting in shallow water for a time.
The extensive underbody rust meant that the Protegé would not last many years into the future. But like the adolescent I was at the time, I focused on enjoying the car in the present. And truthfully, the Protegé did exactly what I had intended it to do: save face in my last year of high school. Had I then the longer and more pragmatic outlook I have now, I’d have endlessly chided myself for making a bad decision. And I would have completely missed the genuine joy the Mazda brought to me.
As I prepared to depart home for my first year of college in 2003, my dad decided to give me the Legacy. I’m not sure why; perhaps he thought that neither the Spirit nor the Protegé were reliable enough to take so far from home. The Mazda sat idle for most of the following two years, although I enjoyed taking it out occasionally on visits home. Then one day, I said goodbye, and the car was scrapped.
Twenty years later, I can still picture that red Protegé and remember the simple enjoyment of driving it.
I don’t regret that bad decision.