A while back, people on Facebook were filling out the “Five Cars I’ve Had” survey. I started to fill it out too, but quickly gave up. It was for young drivers, not those of us who’ve been around for a while. It couldn’t come close to conveying our automotive history: Donna and I have owned way more than five cars, and most of them weren’t in the survey’s photo database. The solution? Find my own photos and write my own survey.
I’ll start with family cars, the cars my parents owned: the ones I learned to drive in and cruised around in during my teens.
When I was just 9 or 10, my father started teaching me to drive out in the woods behind base housing at Ramstein AB in Germany. He had a military-surplus Jeep, and that’s what we used. I learned to shift, though I doubt he ever let me get it out of first gear. When my own son was old enough to learn to drive, I made sure his first experience was with a standard transmission. Here’s a recently-unearthed photo of my sister and me standing on the hood of that Jeep in Germany.
Later, of course, there were pre-marriage cars from my high school and junior college days in Sacramento, California, 1961-1965.
My father bought a one-year-old Mercedes Benz sedan in 1956, when we were stationed in Germany. We shipped it back to the States and it was our family car until 1965. It was the car I really learned to drive in, starting at age 15. I wrecked it twice; my sister Sue (who learned to drive in it too) wrecked it once. It had a flathead four, four on the tree, and non-canceling turn signals you controlled with the horn ring on the steering wheel. Oh, and a Blaupunkt radio. It was big inside, and solid as a brick. Ours was blue but otherwise just like the one in the photo.
Dad bought a used 1958 Ford in ’62 or ’63, when we were living in Sacramento and I was in high school. It had a monster engine with a four-barrel carb but was otherwise pretty plain Jane. The car in the photo is, I think, Canadian; American Fords had different trim. Ours was red & white.
Dad went off to Pakistan on a remote tour in 1964 when I was a senior in high school, and my mother bought a clapped-out Henry J for me to use. It had the “big engine,” a Kaiser Supersonic Six, but the intake manifold was cracked and whistled when you gave it gas. My mother made seat covers for it from old bedsheets. It wasn’t quite the same color as the one in the photo, but like that one, it was greenish and puke-like. It lasted about six months.
When the Henry J went to meet its maker she bought a 1949 Mercury for me to drive. It was pink with brown tuck & roll upholstery. In 1965 I posted a note on the student union bulletin board at American River Junior College, looking for someone to ride to school with me and share gas expenses. That’s how I met Donna, my wife of 51 years. The first day I was to pick her up I rolled up in the Mercury. She rolled her eyes.
Now it’s time to move on to the cars Donna and I have actually owned, the ones we’ve bought and paid for on our own.
Upon our return to the States in 1967, the first car Donna and I bought with our own money was a used Chevy II. We picked it off a lot in downtown Detroit. Ours was a black two-door with red bench seats, a real stripper: no chrome strip on the side, no radio … reminiscent of the VW my folks would loan us in Germany.
We drove the Chevy to California, where we lived for the next several years. In 1968 the Chevy’s engine seized and we bought our first brand-new car, a Volkswagen convertible. Like the one in the photo, ours was a beautiful yellow.
When I finished work on my master’s degree at Sacramento State in 1972, we sold the convertible, replacing it with a used 1964 VW camper. Donna, our little boy Gregory, and I drove the bus all the way east to Detroit, visiting family and looking for work. We basically lived in the thing for three months, eventually driving it back to Sacramento, then on to Montana, where I’d found a teaching job.
We bought our second brand-new car in Montana, a 1972 Toyota Corona Mark II. Ours was blue. It was a really sweet car, built in the days when Toyotas were made with incredible levels of quality.
Perceiving my new teaching job in Montana to be a dead-ender, I joined the USAF in 1973 and went off to officer candidate school and pilot training. Some time during our first assignment in Oklahoma, we passed the Toyota to my sister Cecelia in Missouri and inherited my grandfather’s Olds Cutlass.
After Oklahoma the USAF took us to Holland, Alaska, Florida, Japan, Hawaii, and Nevada. During those years we owned several cars, most of them used. The best of all was the Datsun 280Z we bought in 1978 to celebrate my F-15 assignment. I had wanted a Corvette, but Donna found an almost-new Z with only 700 miles on it, and as with all of her decisions, it turned out to be the right one. We drove the Z for almost 16 years and never once got tired of it.
We shipped the Z to Holland, where, between 1978 and 1982, we also owned two used VW buses. Both were 1972 models: the first was a khaki ex-Dutch military van; its replacement was a white civilian van that had been converted into a camper.
Just before leaving Europe for Alaska we bought a new American-spec VW Quantum station wagon and shipped it and the Z off to Anchorage. Unlike the one in the photo, ours was a chocolate brown color. We drove our turd-colored Quantum, along with the Z, through assignments in Alaska and Florida, selling it in 1989 just before moving to Japan.
Backing up a bit: while we were in Alaska, sometime around 1983, we got our first pickup truck, a 1967 Chevrolet C10. I gave an old hermit a few hundred dollars for it, and expect he spent it on weed. I taught our son Gregory to drive in that truck. It was pretty beat up, not nearly as nice as the one in the photo. We sold it in 1985 when we left Alaska for our next assignment. Gregory stayed behind; I helped him buy a used VW Rabbit just before we left, but since it was never our car I’m not including it here.
Moving ahead to 1989 and our assignment to Okinawa: our status of forces agreement with the government there prohibits servicemen from shipping cars to Japan. We still had the Z, but since we couldn’t bring it with us we put it in storage at my father’s place in Missouri, reclaiming it a couple of years later. While in Okinawa we drove used Japanese cars. The first was a Nissan Skyline, the second a Toyota Corona, but not the Corona you see in the States. The domestic Japanese Corona was a large car, somewhere between a Cressida and a Crown. I was able to find a photo of a Skyline (ours was white), but regrettably cannot show you what that Japanese Corona looked like.
In 1992 we left Japan for Honolulu. We had the Z taken out of mothballs and shipped to Honolulu, but when it arrived we found that rust—which had probably been breeding ever since Europe—had begun to eat through the bodywork. The Z became my on-base beater, and we bought a used Lincoln Town Car as our primary ride. Ours was the same color as the one in this photo:
Shortly after arriving in Honolulu in 1982, we bought a red 1987 Nissan pickup truck. It was registered in our names but we rarely drove it: it was really for our daughter Polly. She drove it during her senior year of high school, and for the rest of her time in Hawaii.
I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point in our two years in Las Vegas we leased a new Nissan pickup truck for Polly, who had left a bad marriage in Hawaii and was living with us again. She totaled it a few months later and we were able to buy our way out of the lease.
When we gave the T-bird to our daughter in 2003 (she was living on her own in Las Vegas at the time) we bought another Town Car, a one-year-old former rental from Budget. This became Donna’s car, and she drove the snot out of it, running the mileage up to 140,000 … but it’s still going strong, now in the hands of our daughter Polly, who is living with us in Tucson once again. I probably have some photos of it but can’t put my hands on them now, so here’s a photo of someone else’s 2002: ours is more of a pearl white.
In 2008, when we decided to replace the Ford F150 with something more economical, we opted for a Chevy Trailblazer. It was my car for several years, but once the Lincoln passed from Donna’s hands to Polly’s, Donna took the Trailblazer: it’s perfect for grocery shopping and her sewing workshops, with tons of room in the back. We plan to keep it for many years.
The Trailblazer is truck-like and pulls a trailer without too much effort, but last fall I talked Donna into letting me buy another real truck, this time a 2014 GMC Sierra. The one thing we didn’t like about our Ford F150 was that it had a small cab and the only place to put luggage was in the bed, exposed to the weather. This time around we looked for a truck with an extended cab, and with the exception of heated seats, this one has all the bells & whistles. We also bought a new trailer to go with the truck, and it’s a great combination.
Until I started this scrapbook, I hadn’t realized what a couple of consummate consumers Donna and I have been. My God, all those cars … and we keep ours far longer than most people! That’s one thing I realized. Another is all the automotive support we’ve given our daughter Polly, who to my knowledge has yet to buy a car of her own … and she’s 42 now. Grrr.
Tell you what, if the automotive industry ever dries up, it surely won’t be our fault!
Update (6/29/16): Well, that didn’t take long. I finished this post just three weeks ago and here we are with one less Chevy Trailblazer and an almost-new Ford Escape.
Last weekend Donna ran off the road near the Sonora Desert Museum, hitting a boulder. There wasn’t any visible damage to speak of, but the front suspension, steering mechanism, and (it later turned out) the entire frame of the car was damaged beyond repair. Our insurance company totaled the Trailblazer and Donna bought a 2016 Ford Escape to replace it. It’s smaller than the Trailblazer, but it has a level floor in the back and room for the sewing machines Donna hauls to classes and workshops … and it’ll get far better mileage.
Update (6/27/18): The Lincoln Town Car, no longer able to pass Arizona emissions inspections, is gone. A friend in Las Vegas gave us a 2004 Saturn LS, which we in turn have bequeathed to Polly (now 43 and still getting cars from her parents, double-grr). Here’s our son Gregory at the Terrible Herbst station next to his house in Las Vegas, putting seat covers in his sister’s new ride.
Update (10/1/20): Now the Saturn is gone. Our mechanic said it wasn’t worth fixing after Polly ran over a raised traffic median and damaged the tires, wheels, and undercarriage; he just happened to have a nicely-cared for 1999 Lexus ES300. Please note that as with the Saturn, this is a car we bought for our daughter Polly, now 45, and it will be the last one we help her with. Riot act read, etc. Nice car, though, and better than she deserves!