I’ve had a long, unconditionally loving history with clunkers. The first was a tank-like maroon number named Red Baby. A station wagon that resembled an oversized Tonka truck with a thyroid problem, she seemed more like a sturdy grandmother than a car. My family drove her everywhere. To Simi Valley, where we’d view model homes we’d never move into, to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Magic Mountain, to Lake Arrowhead where she never complained about getting covered in mud and snow and to the beach, of course, where she traversed the canyon from our house to the ocean like a Clydesdale, only to be left, totally content, roasting in the Malibu sun.
When I daydream about childhood events, they invariably include Red Baby, flying along, carrying her cargo: my mom, my sister and me. Other kids had stuffed animals or blankets they clung to everywhere they went. I had Red Baby.
Then came the Pintos. The first, a bright yellow specimen, started out fine but as time wore on became unusually rusty at her corners. This was around the time that Pintos were known for exploding upon rear impact, so I drove especially fast and far ahead of other drivers when I was in her. Ironically, my mother ended up rear-ending a Gremlin while driving her and, although she was totaled, there was no explosive ball of fire involved in the crash.
The second Pinto was a step up from her yellow cousin, in that she was shiny and white, with snazzy red piping and bright red interior. She was my first automatic and driving her felt like a luxury when she wasn’t suddenly stalling for no apparent reason. At least she looked sharp, I told myself.
My first official car was given to me by my father the night I graduated from high school. My new love was a 1977 hunter green Chevrolet Monza with a tan vinyl top. She was a real looker — however, not long into our relationship, her stick shift began to act up. It didn’t like to go in reverse one hundred percent of the time so driving her (“The Green Machine”) was a bit of a crapshoot. Would this be the time in the Sav-On parking lot that I would get trapped in a parking spot, waiting for the car I was nose-to-nose with to move so I could make my forward escape?
Eventually, the Green Machine starting leaking oil and finally, she just wouldn’t — what is it called? — go. Her life ended on a street in Studio City when she was towed away at the request of some angry neighbors who had the nerve to call her an eyesore. To me, she would always be beautiful. My first true love.
After the Green Machine, I hooked up with my niece’s discarded dull-red Toyota Celica hatchback that had a rear window reminiscent of a fun house mirror, due to the warped plastic window coating. My relationship with this car was short and sweet, but we bonded quickly since I had to open her hood and pour water in her radiator every time we drove somewhere, thereby making driving one of her weakest traits. Idling was not her strong point, either. In bumper-to-bumper traffic or at red lights, steam would escape out of her hood not unlike the smoke that curled onto the stages of every dramatic finale in a Las Vegas show. Getting stuck at a red light was a lesson in humility.
Then came back-to-back Volkswagens, both bugs. The first, “Orangey,” was a persimmon-colored wreck that wouldn’t go in reverse (ever). She also lacked a passenger side window and her front left bumper was buckled so that it looked as if someone had just punched her in the face. During my time with her, I felt grateful to live in sunny Southern California but, as luck would have it, there was a year when a weather phenomenon called El Niño occurred so I spent the better part of my time finding material to tape over her right window, praying they would hold against the torrential wind and rains. Poor Orangey.
The other powder blue VW bug was my most challenging relationship because she had a sunroof that leaked so that every time it rained I would have to pull away from the curb as slowly as possible to avoid a bucket of water dumping on my head from her leaky roof.
Such fond memories I have, looking back on my long line of clunkers. Although they each had their challenges and dangers, they got me where I needed to go, even if that meant getting drenched with dirty rain water and going strictly forward, regardless of whether I wanted to or not.