First Car


09 Aug

            My wife and I recently bought a "demo" from our local car dealership. Just before we took our first trip, I thought it would be a good idea to check under the hood first, just in case it needed oil, anti-freeze, or windshield wiper fluid.

            When I opened the hood, I stood there for a few minutes looking down on the maze of wires, hoses, belts, and brackets that had been crammed into a space no bigger than a backpack. I wondered where the engine was. The jet propulsion system of the space shuttle couldn't be more confusing. I managed to check all of the fluid levels, which had probably been topped off by the dealer anyway, and got into the car with the feeling that even though I started working on cars when I was 15, I was way over my head with this one. I expected to at least be able to see things I had become familiar with, like sparkplugs and distributor wires, but since half of the parts I used to work on were gone, I began to wonder whether or not the latest cars even had sparkplugs.

            My grandparents on my mother's side were florists. They had three huge greenhouses, and grew corn and other vegetables for their own use in a big field behind their house. My uncle George lived with my grandparents, and worked in the greenhouses along with my grandfather, and had converted an old Model A into a pick-up truck by cutting off the entire top and rear of the car, leaving nothing but the dashboard, steering wheel, and two seats. He added a wooden bed to the back to carry in the vegetables, and to transport "flats" of newly planted flowers between the greenhouses.

            When my sisters and I would visit my grandparents, we would beg my uncle to give us a ride on the truck. He allowed us to stand on the running boards with one hand on the dash, and the other gripping the side of the wooden bed, while he drove out to the field over a bumpy dirt road. Sometimes, it was to pick vegetables, but most of the time, it was just for fun.

            When I became a teenager, I worked in the greenhouses too, helping to weed the flower beds and water the plants, but my grandparents no longer grew vegetables in the field, and the old Model A had not been running for years. I asked if I could “work on it,” and for a couple of weeks in the summer of '59, my friends and I would ride over to the greenhouses on our bikes with dreams of getting it running again. We took off the carburetor and cleaned it, replaced the points and the rotor, and had my uncle charge up the battery, and although we never got it going, it got me hooked on cars.

            From that point on, I became the official flashlight holder for my father whenever he worked on our own car. He usually didn't get home from work until 6, so sometimes we would be out in the driveway late at night doing a tune-up, replacing a belt, or just changing the oil, and I got to see firsthand what it took to maintain a car. I couldn't wait to get one of my own. My father had given me my own toolbox, which I was slowly stocking with wrenches, screwdrivers, and assorted hand-me-down tools that he no longer needed, and occasionally, he would send me out to the driveway to replace a part, or adjust the carburetor or the points, and he would hold the flashlight for me.

            One day, in my junior year of high school, I came home to find a pale green '52 Chevy parked in front of our house. It belonged to my aunt's brother, who had offered to sell it to me for $25, so I could use it to go back and forth to school. I didn't even have my driver's license yet, but I did have a permit.

            When my father and I went out to take our first look under the hood, I could see that there was enough room around the engine to actually climb in over the fender to work on it. All of the parts were clearly visible; the distributor, carburetor, spark plugs, and alternator were all bolted to a simple 6-cylinder engine, and it only took me a few minutes to check the oil, air filter, and hoses before I took it out for my first drive. Sitting behind the wheel, I imagined myself taking all of my friends to school and going out just for fun, and never having to ride my bike again.

            The "hatchback," as we came to call it, proved to be a mechanic's dream, especially since I went through transmissions about every other month. I learned how to change a transmission the first time after I went down a steep hill and tried to downshift from third to second, doing about 40 miles an hour, and ended up permanently stuck in second gear. Changing the transmission was easy. It was held on by four bolts at the rear of the engine, and connected to the driveshaft by a universal joint. The hardest part was riding my bike to the junkyard, and balancing the new transmission on the handlebars on my way back. If I remember right, I made that trip at least 4 times, since none of the replacement transmissions lasted very long either.

            Sometime in August, my wife and I are planning to take the family up to Lake George for a week. I'm sure the new car will need a few adjustments I could probably do myself, and maybe an oil change, but I think I'll take it up to the garage instead, and if it has sparkplugs, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to have them changed too.

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