“It’s a creampuff.”
My father’s famous last words, whenever he looked at used cars, rang in my ears as we stood on a used car lot one scorching summer in the late 1980s. Yeah, a creampuff on life support that came with a living will. To this day, his used-car-salesman side emerges every time his feet hit the blacktop at a dealership. Break out the polyester suit and a bottle of Vitalis. Dad's gonna buy his baby girl her first car. With coupons and pocket change. I was such a lucky girl.
I stared at the red, two-door, 1978 Chevrolet Chevette and tried to picture myself behind the wheel of an oversized roller skate sporting a Twinkie-sized gas pedal. Must have been part of the options package for elves or clowns when the car was new. Back when I was seven years old. I appreciated my father, but I just wasn’t feeling the love. The car should have been put of its misery before it ever hit the lot. I thought I heard a death rattle the first time I started it. Little did I know that I would soon possess enough Chevette repair knowledge to co-author a Chilton’s manual.
The passenger side door looked like an elephant backed into it, but what did you expect for $450? The AM radio was an easy fix, and a lovely set of faux sheepskin covers concealed the torn red plastic upholstery. Seatbelts were optional, since the acceleration rate topped out at 0 to 50 in like five minutes, going downhill with a strong tailwind. That said, gas was $ .79 per gallon, I was young, employed, and I had my own wheels. Yeah, I had the guys lined up. Trying to get away from me so they could get to the girls with the cool cars.
Each night, the transmission’s life force bled into a puddle on the driveway. No problem. I never left home without at least one quart of transmission fluid. And a funnel, of course. After replacing both the starter and alternator, the choke stuck on almost every startup. A stick about the size of a ruler, had a notch cut out at one end, and served to prop open the choke so I could start the engine. I ignored the horrified looks on the faces of the office workers who stood at the window, watching me work on my car one day. I suppose they thought it odd to see a young woman dressed for a job interview under the hood of a junker in the parking lot of their law firm. For some reason, I never heard back from that office after my interview for a secretarial position. Snobs.
At least the hood opened without a problem, unlike the back hatch. The back lock had to be finessed a certain way by the key, along with a group of evangelists laying hands on the car and lifting it up to Jesus in prayer. After the key broke off in the lock, we just yanked off the lock and left a gaping hole in its place. A flathead screwdriver became my new key and, because it was too large to carry in my purse, joined the transmission fluid and the magic starter stick that resided behind the driver‘s seat.
Other miscellaneous ailments plagued my little red roller skate. The reverse lights only came on if I pushed the shift handle slightly forward once I had the car in gear. One night, as I crossed the railroad tracks, I flicked on the high-beams and the stick just snapped right off the steering column and fell at my feet. Awesome. Until it got fixed, my driving was limited to daylight hours, since I involuntarily blinded other drivers at night. At least you can't see someone flip you the bird in the dark.
My old car deserves its due when I think back on how it kept me alive on a few occasions. There was a flash flood, hurricane Jerry in Galveston, and the time I drove into a ditch to avoid hitting a rogue cow near the oilfields in Houston. Maybe my old Dad did know a thing or two about used cars. My daughter will be driving in a couple of years. I may have to give him a call.