I’ve been driving since I was 16. Despite my parents protests, I got my permit, and my license before I was 17. My first car was a 1992 Plymouth Acclaim that my father had used as a daily driver, and gave to me so he could pick up a 1993 Chrysler Concorde. Since that first car, I have owned 12 others and two motorcycles. That’s a lot of cars.
Growing up, I think over the course of my first 16 years my folks went through 3 each. My mom had a ’79 Rabbit, an ’84 Escort, and a ’90 Acclaim. My dad had a ’78 F100, an ’85 S10, and that ’92 Acclaim. If I ever doubt that my vehicular passions were a little obsessed, I look back at what I’ve driven over the past 24 years.
1992 Plymouth Acclaim
1995 Dodge Intrepid ES
2001 Dodge Neon
1986 Buick Regal T-Type
2000 Dodge Intrepid R/T
2005 Volkswagen GTI
1989 Chevy 1500
2009 Subaru Legacy
2016 Volkswagen Golf R
2017 GMC Sierra 1500
2018 Honda Civic Si
2008 Chevy Silverado 1500
2019 Honda Civic Type R
Over this next series of posts, I’m going to revisit those rides. What I liked, what I disliked, the stupid things I did, and why I chose a new car payment instead of a repair. I don’t really think my father’s sage advice back when I was 18 really hit home until now. Back when I was ready to sell off the Acclaim, he said “repair is always cheaper than payments.” Here’s hoping that my quest for new toys in the driveway has finally been quenched with my latest aquisition:
Before we get there though, we need to start at the beginning…
When I finally got my driver’s license, my father gave me my first car. The only caviat was that I had to pay my own car insurance. I had a decent job working for a local ISP, so the $1200/y for minimum coverage on a ’92 Plymouth with 200k miles wasn’t a huge deal. It was my first car! It’s also the car I learned to drive in. My folks both had Acclaims (my Mother’s 1990 was sold 10 years later with 20k miles on the odometer, and summarily smashed to pieces by its next owner within months).
The Acclaim was the replacement for the veritable K car, the Omni/Reliant/Ares/Caravan platform that bailed Chrysler out from the brink of bankruptcy. I’m honestly not sure what the gas mileage was, but fuel was about $.90 a gallon for regular back then, so I honestly didn’t care. I’d gotten it over 100mph more than once, but it definitely was NOT designed for the wreckless driving on my youth. Keeping the steering wheel straight at those speeds was a better upper body workout than any pair of battle ropes.
Later in this series I refer to my first real car accident. It wasn’t my first fender bender though. I guess the difference between the two is that my first accident, with this car, no cops, other driver was ok, and it was actually my fault. There’s this turn out in Chester, NY with a yield sign (no, I didn’t hit it). Slowly traffic is proceeding through as it’s down to me and a Honda Accord ahead of me. They stop, look, and proceed. I stop, look, and pro… BANG. They stopped again and I wasn’t looking, I just assumed they had pulled out. For a split second I considered making a run for it. That’s not how I was raised. I messed up, and I’ll take responsibility. They were ok, I was ok, both cars were jalopies, so we went our separate ways. Here’s the punchline though. Looking at my car after the collision, something was missing. My front license plate had fallen off and was sitting in the middle of the intersection. Thank God I was raised right, otherwise I would have been really in trouble.
My first experience with beefing up a car stereo was with the Acclaim. I’d quickly replaced the stock Mopar unit with a Pioneer from Wal-Mart. I can’t recall if I swapped the crappy door speakers out, but what I did do was build an insulated speaker box from scratch with high end (for a16 year old making $12 an hour) speakers in it. At full trot they were obnoxiously LOUD as they were meant to be. Quality didn’t really matter, the goal was making sure everyone knew that I had a stereo to be reckoned with.
One night, a couple of buddies decided to mess with me a bit and came running up on me quickly. I didn’t know what was going on at the time, so I took off. Heading back towards my house I made an attempt to spin the car around (note – do not attempt a low speed J turn uphill on light gravel, you will ram into a yield sign). To this day I haven’t lived that one down.
Another valuable lesson I learned in that car – “tires is what wins the race.” (Days of Thunder quote, it’s Top Gun with race cars, you should go watch it). In my case, tires is what’ll get you out of your girlfriend’s driveway without turning it into a mud pit. I can’t even recall what the argument was about, but I was aggravated and decided to leave. I hop into my trusty steed, go to turn around on the lawn that has been rained on for more than a few days, and proceed to spin the tires. I think it took me a good10 minutes to get the car free. I will say whatever teenage angst incited that one man mud race was completely lost as my gf and her mom, and myself, had a good laugh at my idiocy.
One of my friends had gotten a line on a 1982 Pontiac Firebird (KITT). It was parked in the next town over, I think he paid maybe $200 for it. Anyhow, he was afraid to drive an uninsured car the 20 minutes or so back to his place, so thats when I volunteered. Who cares if 3 of the 4 wheels brakes didn’t work, or that 2 of the 4 carburetor barrels were clogged. It was KITT. So we’re driving back, he’s ahead in my Plymouth, the previous owner is behind, blocking me in just in case we past an inquisitive local cop. Once we hit the black dirt region, I decided I was going to have some fun. I stand on the gas, and the mighty V8 roars to life as I try to pass my Plymouth. He sees me coming, punches the gas. KITT was annihilated by a family car. The shame. Last I heard, KITT was brought to a family friend for repair and was never seen again.
Same friend, summer time, we get the bright idea to drive deep into PA for fireworks. Everything was illegal in NY at the time. He didn’t want to carry them in his car (are we seeing a pattern here yet) so we took the Plymouth. On the way out of town, I’m smoking one of my wonderful plastic tipped cigars and toss it out the window. Behind me? State trooper in a Camaro. My friend got nervous, I got nervous, after getting a good talking to about the dangers of littering, the officer let me go with a warning. What a way to start out! So we decide to stay over across the border and head out in the morning. I think I bought sparklers. My friend? Trunk completely packed. We were safe though, because we draped a beach towel over the contraband (my teenage brilliance never failed to shine). Did I mention my cigars? We’re heading back, and I decide to light one up. “SAMMMMMMMMMM!!!” The look on his face was priceless.
Oh! The bees! So after I’d owned the car for a couple years, I decided to start fixing it up. Part of this involved removing the rust and rot from below the doors, using some body filler to smooth it out, then paint it and make it look all nice. I had absolutely NO clue what I was doing. So I decide to take a break from painting and have a seat in the car. Apparently the fumes from the paint had angered bees, who were now swarming around the car. I jump out of the car and swat at the bees. They left me oddly enough, but then I hear the sound of gravel crunching behind me. I turn to see my Plymouth rolling out of the driveway. I had no chance of catching it, so I stood helpless as it left my driveway, crossed the street, took out a rotten split-rail fence, and smashed into a tree. I guess technically that was my first car accident? I got the car out of the woods, spoke to the neighbor, and fixed the fence. It turned out in my flailing to escape, I smacked the car into Neutral. Whoops. I did manage to pull the bumper back out by tying it to a tree and backing up. Eventually I replaced the bent white hood with the black hood from a Dodge Spirit. I was ahead of my time!
A couple other valuable lessons – do not neutral drop a car. Especially do not neutral drop a car with over 200k miles on the original transmission. Neutral dropping involves flooring the accelerator on a car while in neutral, and shifting into drive. If the transmission doesn’t immediately grenade itself, you will create an exceptional cloud of tire smoke. Pretty sure I dropped $2000 at AAMCO for that mistake. There are plenty of less destructive ways to accomplish wheelspin.
Last but not least, the time I set the car on fire while driving. I was on a foglight kick. Wal-Mart sold some nice ones, I’d mount them below my front bumper, and enjoy them for a month or so before I drove into, or slid into, something that snapped them right off. Eventually I had a half dozen of these things. With zero electrical knowledge, I mounted them to a pine plank and bolted that blank to the top of my front bumper. I can’t recall how I wired them up, but the end result was a switch mounted to the dash that brought my 18 year old mind’s equivalent of daylight streaming from the front of the car. I quickly learned that it was too bright to use while driving, but still used it on occasion. One night I’m driving up into Jersey with them on, and go to turn them off for oncoming traffic. I hit the switch, and nothing happens. I flip it rapidly and the lights start flashing. Oncoming flashes in response. Then from under the dash right up over the top of the wheel, the insulation started to smoke. As I’m swatting the smoldering mess I went right into a ditch. that’s the last time I ever put accessory lights on a car.
I kept the car for a short time longer before trading up for my next ride. TBH besides it being a beater, I can’t recall why I decided to sell it. I had the aforementioned experiences, and many, many more in that car. The last time I saw it, it was up on blocks at the local pick and pull junk yard. I’m not afraid to say I ugly cried when I saw that. It was like seeing an old friend die… but one thing was sure, I had a near supernatural bond with whatever I was driving, and that old Plymouth will always hold a special place in my heart. Up next? A land-yacht on rails… my ’95 Dodge Intrepid ES.