Having a freshly minted driver’s license with only a single car in the drive way was not a happy thought for a sixteen year old. I knew I had to get my own car. Fortunately not long after that, I got an after-school job selling ladies shoes at a local department store. Now that I had a steady income, the next task was to pick out my first car. But what car should I pick?
I knew I couldn’t get an expensive car even though in 1973, a Corvette sold for about $6000, which was still expensive for someone in high school with just a part time job. My choices would be limited to the small, inexpensive cars available at the time: VW beetles, Ford Pintos, or AMC Gremlins. I remember thinking I was able to drive my sister’s Pinto, maybe I should get one of those. My dad had owned a number of Ramblers as I was growing up and I think his partiality towards American Motors came out when I mentioned to him that I was interested in getting a Ford Pinto. When he suggested we go look at AMC Gremlins, I jumped at the chance since he was the one that would have to drive me to buy a car.
Whenever you ask anyone what it was like buying a new car, most people will launch into some tirade about what a horrible experience it was. For me, it was exhilarating! I don’t recall if I had previously been in on the haggling and financial wrestling that I am sure my parents had gone through to purchase each of their cars. There was a sticker price on the car and I was ready to pay it. Only $2700 dollars for a medium blue (my favorite color) AMC Gremlin with an AM radio and three speed manual transmission. Its only option besides a new technology energy-absorbing front bumper was Levi’s denim bucket seats with orange Levi’s logo on the fenders. My dad, knowing he had to negotiate down the price, managed to get the salesman to knock $50 off the price. I was sold and I got it—my own car.
I don’t remember how much savings I had to put as a down payment but I do remember my monthly note being about $150 a month. My parents agreed to pay my car insurance since my dad wouldn’t have to be driving me around anymore. And since my mother didn’t drive, I could give her rides to wherever she needed to go so it was a fair deal for them as well. My only other expense was gas, which had recently skyrocketed to 50 cents a gallon during the 1973 oil embargo. That fall, the beginning of my senior year in high school, I was a hit with my friends since with senior privileges; I could drive us out for lunch every day. Sometime during my senior year, I got the idea of jacking up the rear end and putting big tires on it. It is a little embarrassing looking back on it now but what do you expect from a crazy 17-year old car lover.
In the fall of 1974, I started college. To pay off my car, I obviously continued to work part time while in college. But even just working weekends and an occasional night, I was able to keep up my payments. It was sometime after I paid off my three-year car loan that while still in college, I began to explore getting my first sports car.
This was no doubt spawned when I had the opportunity to borrow my brother-in-law’s Triumph TR-6 for a weekend. I borrowed it for a date I had probably because I wanted to impress her. I say that now but deep down, it was probably more for my own fun than to make any impression. This was my first experience to drive a convertible sports car. That one weekend sold me though; it was magical! I knew I had to get one some day.
For someone who is not a car lover, this may sound odd but I am always thinking about my next car and I always have. So even though I had what few college freshmen had—a paid for 1973 AMC Gremlin with ironed on denim patches where the seats had ripped, I wanted a real sports car. The TR-6 had proven that to me. At one point, I went so far as to visit a Chevy dealership where I explored trading in my car for a new Camaro. But in the end, I realized I couldn’t afford it and so gave up the idea for the rest of my college years. At least until I was close to graduating and had been accepted to graduate school with a free ride and a paid graduate assistantship.
With a steady stream of income assured throughout graduate school, I was able to trade in my little blue Gremlin for a black 1978 Pontiac Trans Am with T/A 6.6 liter engine and four speed Hurst shifter (think “Smoky and the Bandit”). It wasn’t a convertible—US car makers had discontinued them thinking the government would soon outlaw them due to the potential for fatal rollover crashes—but it was a sports car indeed. Unfortunately it should have been painted yellow as it broke down the day I drove it home from the dealership—twice. In spite of having to push it into the driveway after the second time it died, I still smiled ear to ear as this photo was taken.
When I drove it back to school the next day, it stopped running again and I had to push it onto campus. Eventually I was able to overcome the random stopping problem but a lingering issue was more vexing. Whenever I turned it off after driving for a while, the starter wouldn’t crank until the engine had cooled down. Since I was told this was a design flaw in the starter that couldn’t be repaired, I learned not to make multiple stops while running errands and to always park it in the shade. But it was the water pump going out within a hundred miles of the warranty expiring that convinced me that while I could afford the car note, I couldn’t afford the multitude of repair bills I was going to face. So after only having it for a year, I traded it in on a 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix. You will notice similarities between the two cars—black on black, honeycombed aluminum wheels—I wanted to keep some of the look of the Trans Am with hopefully a more reliable car. Only problem, they didn’t come with manual transmissions.