Everyone remembers his or her first car. It’s practically a rite of passage for American teenagers, whether your parents have decided to trust you with the old family minivan, or you scrape together enough cash from your summer job to pay for a used pickup truck or SUV that can carry your camping equipment, your ski gear, your bike or all your friends.
When you get behind the wheel of your own car for the very first time, you taste a powerful, intoxicating potion: freedom. I was 17, a student at South Knox High School near Vincennes, Ind., when I got my first car. I’ll never forget it: It was a 1973 Ford Mustang with a light blue body and a dark blue roof, and it cost $3,300. My dad brought it home and gave me the keys. I was so excited!
I couldn’t believe I had my own car! Of course, two weeks later, my mom handed me the payment book, and that wasn’t so nice. Then a week after that, I found out about the insurance payments, and that really wasn’t so nice. But they were part of the deal.
It was all worth it, because that Mustang was a fun little car. It was six-cylinder, and I thought it had no power because everything else back then had eight. The shift was on the steering wheel, and man, I would grind through those gears. One time, I jumped a levee going 50 mph…and I didn’t land on the tires as much as I landed on the oil pan. Oops. That’s a mistake even a knucklehead like me only needed to make once. Another time, a bolt fell out somewhere, and I used bailing wire for a quick fix. Hey, I was raised on a farm in southern Indiana — kids learned to be resourceful.
I drove that car to my job at a big discount retailer, where I worked in the lumber department and consistently sold crooked boards because I wouldn’t go anywhere near the big saw to remove the imperfections. I once drove it from rural Indiana to Daytona Beach for spring break, which was like going to another planet. I also often drove it to the Frost Pot in Vincennes, which is where the kids would park, eat, hang out and be seen.
There was this really cute girl who worked as a carhop. She had the most beautiful smile. One day she came out to put my food in the car window, and I asked if I could schedule a time to pick her up from work and take her home. She said ‘yes’ and I said to myself, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
Marilyn and I have been together for 38 years now. And it all started with that Ford Mustang. I put 100,000 miles on that car, and I kept it for many years. I think at one point I did wish, like lots of kids do, that I had a different car. A cooler car. But at the end of the day, it was mine and I loved it. I still look back on it fondly.
Believe it or not, I also have fond memories of my dad’s insurance agent. His name was Pete Donie, and he always smoked a cigar. He and my dad had a great relationship, and when I got the car, he really talked to me all about it. It was cool.
So, when I think about kids and their first cars, I don’t think it should be any different today than it was four decades ago. Parents need to talk to their teens about what it means to own a car — driving responsibly, obeying traffic laws and budgeting enough money each month for fuel, car payments, routine maintenance and repairs, and yes, car insurance. It’ll protect you if you need it.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Foskett via Wikimedia