By Adam Granger
In 1967, when I was 18, my family’s 1961 Chrysler Newport gave us two weeks’ notice before it went kaput.
The Newport was Chrysler’s answer to the Ford Edsel, replete with nightmare-inducing fins, a push-button gearshift, a square steering wheel(?!) and a host of other “innovations” dreamed up by experts who didn’t like people very much. It was never a good car, even on the showroom floor.
My dad was blind and deaf to the Newport’s flaws and exhibited a naive loyalty toward it. But the Newport’s imminent departure was, for me, a cause for celebration.
As we began our search for new transportation, I lobbied hard for the Ford Mustang, which was in its fourth year of production and had—literally—an excellent track record. It was reliable and practical (its sporty name and design notwithstanding) and, with its stock 200-cubic-inch straight-six engine, it got good gas mileage.
It was also, as far as the paterfamilias was concerned, out of the question. Now, the old man and I had some history here: In his judgment, I was a profligate spender, a reputation I earned as an 8-year-old when I threw away a bar of soap, which had reached translucency but not transparency. So, by simply suggesting the Mustang, I was dooming its chances. It was as though I had suggested buying a $25,000 Lamborghini instead of a $2,500 pony car.
“We’re not getting a sports car! We’re getting a family car,” he said, overlooking the fact that our at-home family consisted of exactly three people, soon to be two. “Let’s see what Chrysler has to offer.”
And off we trekked to the Schmidt-Tullius dealership, in Norman, Okla., and there, on the showroom floor, was a powder-blue, 1967 two-door fastback Plymouth Barracuda with a 273-cubic-inch V-8 engine tucked under its hood. My dad walked around it like a nearsighted farmer inspecting a heifer and said. . .wait for it. . . “Well, this might do.”
Now, friends, as I stood there in front of that gorgeous hunk of steel, the finger of Providence gave me a little poke, as if to whisper, “Don’t. Say. Anything.” And I didn’t. I had to chew on my forearm until I drew blood, but I kept quiet. And two hours later, we drove that little beast off the lot.
I don’t remember if I ever confessed to my dad that our Barracuda was twice as sporty as a little six-banger ’Stang would have been, but it turned out to be a great car for us. The three of us drove it separately and severally all over creation for 13 years, and then I took it over in 1980. I drove it until the mid-80s when, while on the road in Wisconsin with singer Kate MacKenzie one fall night, I hit a deer. RIP, Barracuda.
As I reflect on my life, I remember when I could hardly wait to start driving. On my 16th birthday, I was at the Cleveland County courthouse at 8 a.m., and by 8:20, I was a legally licensed driver. My first car, bought shortly after that for $400, was a 1956 English Ford Consul two-door sedan. (To see a picture of the 1956 English Ford Consul two-door sedan, look up “lemon” in any dictionary). I bought it to use for a delivery job I had, and I poured all of my earnings and then some into it before finally selling it at a loss. Live and learn.
In the ensuing 53 years, I have had dozens of vehicles, including five Volkswagens, several Toyotas, a Mazda Miata (my “midlife crisismobile,” or so I was told by everyone I knew) and a behemoth 1971 Chevrolet Kingswood station wagon, which was the road vehicle for the Powdermilk Biscuit Band back in the ’70s. (Never heard of us? Ask your grandparents). I have owned one new car, a 2007 Honda Fit, which I still drive.
I came of age in the era when you inflated your tires based on how they looked and you adjusted your timing by loosening the distributor and rotating it until the engine sounded reasonably smooth. We didn’t have Check Engine lights, we had Check Engine noises. Up until roughly the turn of the millennium, I never traveled without tools, and more than a few times found myself on the shoulder of the highway on my back under my vehicle du jour fixing this or that. And, the repair was, of course, always underneath the car. And it always occurred in the rain, or in the snow, or in the dark, or all three.
I love driving. More likely than not, I will live to see the time when it will be illegal to touch the controls of your car as it drives itself down the street. I can’t say it won’t be safer, but I’m pretty sure it will be less fun.
Adam Granger has written for National Lampoon magazine, A Prairie Home Companion and Recycled Greeting Cards. He lives with his wife and his cat in St. Anthony Park, and makes his living as a guitar player.