Like love, first cars are never forgotten

One of the most important rites of passage in any young person’s life is the purchase of that first car. For many it is the first big step towards freedom and independence.

In the late summer of 1969, I was barely past my teen years and itching — scratching furiously would be more correct — for a taste of my very own personal transportation. But it couldn’t be just any old jalopy. Being a car guy meant it had to possess a significant dose of built-in coolness. A car that would showcase my obvious good taste in automobiles. But most importantly it had to be a car that both my buddies and any prospective dates would respect and admire, and not something that would result in much derisive finger pointing and gales of uncontrollable laughter. That last point was to be avoided at all costs.

My father felt my pain and offered to help. He also, I believe, wished to see a bit less begging from me whenever I needed some wheels.

A few weeks later Dad arrived home from work with great news. He had been casually chatting to a man about my dilemma. This gentleman mentioned he had a car parked in his driveway he was no longer using. Because it was the first new car he ever owned, he was reluctant to part with it, but his wife was now bugging him in no uncertain terms to remove it from the driveway. Upon further cross-examination, my father revealed that the superfluous sedan in question was a 1955 Chevrolet.

Keep in mind that, in the fall of 1968, a 1955 Chevrolet lacked the classic-car-desirability quotient it enjoys today, and my initial thought was not overwhelmingly positive. But, without any viable alternatives, I agreed to inspect the Chevy before dismissing it out of hand.

The ’55 sat parked in a garageless driveway beside a tiny white bungalow not far from where we lived. The 13-year-old car was a black two-door midrange 210 model, right between the stripped-down 150 and the fancy-pants Bel-Air. The body was in decent enough shape, other than some bad rust-through on the fenders above each headlight.

Lifting the massive hood revealed Chevrolet’s 232 cubic-inch OHV ‘Stovebolt’ inline six-cylinder engine along with its massive oil-bath air cleaner. The motor produced 123 gross horsepower and was mated to a surprisingly smooth-shifting three-speed column-mounted manual transmission.

But the best part about the Chevy was the odometer reading. The 44,000 original miles showing translated into a usage rate of less than 3,500 miles per year.

“Geez, this car has had an easy life,” I thought as I quickly started warming up to the idea of owning this specimen.

A quick trip around the block revealed sticky brakes (probably from lack of use, I thought) and some front-end clunking noises that likely indicated some suspension parts needed to be replaced. But the car was otherwise sound, and, more importantly, felt perfect.

The asking price for this underused GM mainstay (around a quarter-million two-door 210s were built that year) was a whopping $200. The owner, his wife glaring beside him, reluctantly accepted my counter-offer of $150. The deal was done, new plates were bolted on, and I happily headed for home feeling, well, free. Plus, I still had a few dollars left over, which further widened the grin on my face.

I wasn’t sure how my buddies would react to my purchase, but, as it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Most of them were still stuck driving various parental loaners and all were envious that I could come and go as I pleased needing only a buck or two for gas and the occasional oil change.

Besides, driving an aging Chevy in decent shape that cost peanuts to buy was the ultimate in cool, they figured.

Back then, it was popular for people to give their cars nicknames. It sounds corny today, but my friends and I spent a great deal of time trying to come up with something suitable for my ’55. We kicked around plenty of titles, but nothing seemed to fit. Then I remembered I had seen a number of plain, black cars when I was a kid driven by members of the clergy as they visited parishioners on our street.

Someone suggested “The Reverend” would be the perfect monicker for the Chevy. The vote was unanimous.

During the next 21/2 years, The Reverend and I got to know each other rather well. As with most relationships we each had our good days and our bad. We tolerated each other’s quirky habits and survived a few annoying problems. But, mostly, we had fun. We drove everywhere together, even from coast to coast, over the course of a year with hardly a hiccup.

We eventually and reluctantly parted company after I purchased a very clean 1962 Volvo PV544 and my mother cruelly invoked the one-car-per-family-member house rule.

In late 1970 I virtually donated The Reverend to an impoverished university student in dire need of some wheels. It was for a worthy cause, I rationalized. But to this day, I miss that car. About two or three times a year I dream I still own it, and I promise myself that, sooner or later, I’ll buy another one.

But, like most of the meaningful things in life, the memories of that first car and all that it meant to me and — above all for a car guy — how it kept me mobile, are irreplaceable.

Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers and Web sites across North America.

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