The First Car.

I dunno about the rest of you, but I remember my first car. And there’s a huge difference between “the first car you drive regularly” and the first car that you buy, maintain, and insure for yourself.

The former was my mom’s 1988 Ford Tempo, which, when she bought her ’92 Camry, fell to my brother and I. As my brother didn’t have a license yet, it was basically mine. But it wasn’t REALLY mine. The folks could take it away as punishment, they could cancel the insurance, their name was on the registration, they could sell it if they wanted to. They didn’t, but they could have.

And then I went away to school in ’93, and couldn’t afford a car. I rented cars to get home, and sold seats for the Ottawa/Toronto/Ottawa run to defray my costs, but still, not my car.

In ’97 though, my best friend came to me with a proposition. That I buy his aunt’s car from her, because it was sitting in a parking garage in a Toronto condo, costing money by having the parking spot, never driven due to a bad starter. He was working at Canadian Tire at the time, and could get me some help with the safety, etc, and, well… the car had history. Because it’d been his family’s car when we were in high school, and there had been many roadtrips in that car. To this day, anyone of four people could tell you the circumstances of the phrase “WHERE THE FUCK IS THE ROAD??”.

The car?

A bronze-and-chrome 1980 Pontiac Parisienne. A 305cu.in engine (5.0L, for you modern types) V8. A 3 speed automatic transmission, shift-on-column. A beige cloth interior. The biggest slab of dashboard you have ever seen in your life, and a tinny, two-speaker am/fm stereo. When I got it, it had somewhere around a hundred and seventy-two thousand kilometers on the clock: somewhere around a hundred and five thousand miles. So, well-worn, but a long way from dead.

And I still remember the day I went to get it. It was one of those summers: I actually had won five grand on scratch’n’win Bingo earlier in the summer, and was pretty flush at the time. I was moving from the apartment I had in Ottawa into the first of the Bombshelter houses, which meant I would have a driveway and garage, and… Well, I love boats. And it was a boat.

We arrived, and made our way to the back of the parking garage, at a condo/apartment building just off Yonge. The car looked even more like a tank sitting in the shadows between concrete columns. It sat tall: the ride height was more than that of some modern SUV’s. It was long. Nearly twenty feet, and maybe more. It had the aerodynamics of a brick. It was, in fact, beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, understand that.

We’d already picked up a new starter, even though the deal wasn’t officially done: Jay’s aunt wanted it gone, I wanted it, and the price was right (Seven hundred bucks). Jay assured me that while the starter was a chronic problem on GM products (he was right, as always), it was an easy, cheap fix, and otherwise, the car was mint.

“Mint” being a relative term.

We spent about an hour with Jay’s tools, truck, and stereo, and got the starter in. This was a job I would do myself about once a year over the five years I’d own the car: the starter was right next to the exhaust manifold, and the heat burnt the solenoid out constantly. However, much like the fuel pump, it was an easy two-or-three bolt fix: just awkward.

We fired it up an hour later, after Jay did what Jay does.

It burbled and belched. It made every sound a V8 is supposed to.

I was in love.

I drove it to Canadian tire in Mississauga, where Jay worked. It was certified properly as safe (and it was!) and Jay did a few other tune-up jobs on it too: plugs, wires, filters, etc. He called me on a Thursday night in June, and said “it’s done, I’ll come get you”. We drove out in Madam Butterfly (there’s a story there too, but it’s not mine to tell) and I picked up my car.

My car.

The steering was light. Over boosted in fact, welcome to the GM B-Body. She listed in corners like a fishing boat in a typhoon. And the sound when the transmission kicked down, and the four-barrel carb opened wide was, in a word, sublime. That single sound has defined me as a car guy.

When I drove home that night, I held it at exactly eighty kilometers an hour. And I was still passing everyone and their dog. No idea why everyone was going so slow, but, hey, whatever, right? It was summer, I had what passed as a stereo turned up, the windows turned down, and I was motoring along in my own car. I was king of the world, and the road.

So, when we got home, Jay following me, we stopped at Timmies first. Why? Well, while I wasn’t specifically forbidden from buying a car, I had been discouraged. And I was living at my folks place still. And I wasn’t actually in a hurry to go show it off to ‘em.

Which meant that when Jay asked me why I was doing 100km/h+ the whole way home, I was perplexed. Turned out, the speedo, an old, linear type, wasn’t exactly well calibrated. It was, in fact, off by nearly twenty percent.

When I got home, eventually, the folks were not exactly pleased. I think my brother was, although he wouldn’t have shown it much anyway. But it did mean the Tempo was, for all intents and purposes, his.

Mom was not happy. Of course, it wasn’t really until I’d gotten rid of the car five years later that I found out. She thought it was unsafe. See, when she backed out of the driveway in her Camry, she turned the wheel about one and a half turns, and that put her where she wanted to be in the street. When I did it, in the Land Yacht, it was nearly three and a half turns of the steering wheel. Like I said. Booooosted. She just assumed the steering was broken!

There are so many stories about that car. As I said, I drove it for the best part of five years, and, when I finally let it go (something I regret to this day, in fact: Jay: I should have taken your help in fixin’ it, there, are you HAPPY? I ADMITTED IT) it had somewhere around four hundred thousand kilometers on it. I say ‘around’ because with the speedo being off like that, the odometer was the same. And I rolled the clock twice (so, 200k km, and 300k km) and had nearly 80,000 showing when it left. A little math says I probably put almost 200,000km on that car in five years. Ottawa/Toronto/Ottawa. Niagara Falls. Jay’s cottage nearly every weekend for three summers. Any one of those trips is a thousand kilometers, give or take. A multitude of runs to Montreal. And the miles add up. Along the way, I added a decent (for the time) stereo.

And, of course, the night I got drunk, and decided it was a good idea to paint the big ol’ brown bastard. Black. With household exterior latex. And a roller.

It got the bombshelter crew to and from bars. Heavily overloaded, for sure (Five in the back, three or four, depending on how small the ladies were, on the front bench). It got me through weather you wouldn’t believe: One trip back from Toronto took nearly ten hours, and I thought the battery and alternator were giving out on me. Turns out, there was so much slush freezing to the front of the car (it was a slab-fronted brick, after all) that the headlights were icing over completely, and the front suspension had compacted with the weight of that snow and ice.

It was supposed to be the car that got me to my citizenship test, but the fuel pump cut out on the highway. It still saddens me that I ended up going to my citizen ship test in a PoS ’94 Dodge Neon. Much like the girl in question, that car was far more unreliable, and had less character than the Land Yacht did.

I learned how to use a six foot piece of pipe, slid over a ¾ ratchet, to loosen bolts out in the garage at -20oC, because of that car. For those who know the engine, I had to replace the damn waterpump.

All the major lessons I learned about cars, I learned from a 1980 Pontiac Parisienne dubbed “the Land Yacht”. I tried repeatedly to recreate that experience too: I had two (1987 and 1988) Parisienne Safari wagons, and then a ’94 Grand Marquis. The ’87 was to be a parts vehicle for the ’88, and the ’88 only cost me twelve-hundred bucks when I bought it. Even the Marquis, I had big plans for. The wagons though, I’d have one of them again in a second. And I may yet see another Panther platform. They’re affordable, parts are cheap, and they’re pretty bullet proof. I could really use a good winter car, and there is not much better than forty-two hundred pounds of RWD Detroit iron.

But I’ll always have a special place for the Pontiac Parisienne, in all its forms, over the years. If I had the opportunity to have one again, especially a wagon, from ’77 to ’88, I would, in a heartbeat. Dependant on somewhere to work on it, and somewhere to store it, I’d have one as a project for sure. Because all those ideas (and, whoo! So many ideas gleaned from HotRod magazines back in the day) are still there, still valid, and would still be insanely fun.

There’s a lot more to this story, I’ll be honest. But it needs to be told at a different time, in a different way. But I loved that old Pontiac, have no doubt. My first true car love. She caused me misery and pain, and joy, and complete terror, and provided hilarity (if you want funny, cruise through an old Italian neighbourhood, in a clapped-out, hand-painted-black, monster Pontiac, with Grateful Dead stickers in the windows, and blasting Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?”). That’s where the story really is. Yeah. That’s where that story is.

And they’re still out there. On Kijiji, and trader.ca

Maybe, one day, I’ll have one again. Maybe.

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3 Responses to The First Car.

  1. jumpingpolarbear says:

    Mine was a Ford Sierra 93. For some reason I still miss it 🙂

  2. markramsden says:

    Ahhh! Yeah, for us, that was the ill-fated Merkur XR4ti, I think. Awesome little car!

  3. Pingback: On HotRods, and NotRods. « Life, the Universe, and Everything

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