I’m sure plenty of teenagers daydream about browsing a car dealer’s showroom with their parents and selecting the perfect car for high school, summer jobs and first dates. They imagine the shiny paint job, the untouched wheel, the new-car smell. And they can almost feel the thrill of taking the keys in hand and roaring off on their first drive, flush with the feelings of limitless freedom and possibility that only a first car can provide.
But for some teens (like me, way back when), the first-car experience may not be quite that dreamlike. That first car may not look quite like a brand-new Audi, BMW or Volvo. In fact, it may not even look like a hand-me-down family sedan.
In 1967, I was a 17-year-old boy growing up in Leon, Iowa, with three brothers and a sister. I was the oldest, and when it came time for me to have my first car, my parents passed along an International pickup truck (that’s an old truck manufacturer). I think it was a 1959 or 1960; it was a loud, old thing, and just wouldn’t die.
My family owned a livestock auction, so we used the truck to run along the alleys to feed the cattle. With all the cattle, all the tight corners, and having to change tires with a full load just about every time we picked up a nail — which was usually two to three times a month — that truck got really beat up.
But it was my set of wheels for everything and that was great. We were living in a little southern Iowa town, and everyone was hard up by today’s standards. We all drove old cars and trucks. It was a different time. Although I was going to school, I also was working 40 to 60 hours per week at the auction. It was seasonal, so from mid-fall until February, I’d be in school Mondays through Thursdays, with work afterward. And I’d work all day on Fridays.
I drove to school, I drove to work, I drove home, and then I’d do it all again. I was a pretty shy kid, so I didn’t mind not having a social life!
My brother got the truck after me. We were always hauling a lot of junk; one time, I remember we slid sideways and rolled off the road. We just pushed the truck back up and went home. My mom heard us, came outside, walked around the car twice, and I think she realized something was different…but the truck was so dirty and beat up, she couldn’t tell. We didn’t ‘fess up to her, not for many years!
There was a time that I felt frustrated that the old truck just kept going and going. Looking back on it now, though, it was a pretty great vehicle; it worked hard, we worked hard, and we made a lot of memories. I’ll never forget it.
That’s probably true for everyone. You never forget your first car. There can only be one “first,” and it’ll be forever special to you, whether it was a sporty little European number, an American classic, the aging family van… or even a beat-up workhorse, that had seen much better days — like mine. You took care of it, you were proud of it, and in a way, it was part of you.