Cars I Have Known and Loved—Part 2, New Cars and Hand-Me-Downs, Cool or Functional

At the end of the summer 1973, Mom and Dad and I went to Billings to the Buick dealership. Mom and I walked by an Opel GT, the German auto maker’s small version of a Corvette coupe, and I heard mom say under her breath, “That would be a fun car for college.” Mom was always surprising me with her insights. Of course we settled on a practical two door Opel Sedan, white with red plastic interior. My folks gave me a gas credit card, and they kept the payment book, since they knew I didn’t have the money for car payments, let alone gas, no matter how cheap. That fall, I hit the road back to college, driving my cute little Opel. The Opel kept me in wheels through college. When I graduated and got my first job, my mom asked me if I wanted the coupon payment book. I didn’t get the hint—that she expected me to pay for the car now that I had a job… I told her, “No, thanks.” And she never asked me again. It only dawned on me what she was expecting until I had kids of my own. I was so clueless.

My dad died the week I started my first job out of college—1976. A few months later, my widowed mom got a canary yellow Cadillac Seville. She loved that car. And she looked the part—still attractive at 55, active, and a great driver. She and that Seville travelled to see me wherever I happened to have landed—Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake, Kansas City.

When I got my first job in sales, a company car was part of the package. My little Opel became my sister and brother-in-law’s second car. At Cargill, I inherited several company cars that previous sales people had driven. In that era, Dodge Dynasties, Chevy Citations and Malibus were popular company cars—the oil embargos had hit, and fuel economy became paramount. Looks and style were strictly secondary. No status cars for us. It was be beginning of the car depression for me. Company cars, while economically a boon to my paycheck, definitely did nothing for my Style Scale.

I lived through about five years of listless company cars until I went to work for a newly acquired company, Leslie Salt. I was the first Cargill employee into the new company. Their car policy was definitely on a different level. The salesman’s car I inherited going into the Leslie Salt territory was a baby blue, white landau top Thunderbird.

I loved that Thunderbird. It was a full sized two door coupe—large but stylish, with the Thunderbird panache. The Thunderbird may not have been my last company car, but it was close. I took an inside management job and the company car disappeared from my compensation package.

I didn’t have much cash, so I bought a used, small, Japanese-made fuel-efficient fastback. I was house poor, having purchased a house in Minneapolis in 1981 when interest rates were over 16%. This is no typo. My 30-year mortgage was 16%. I was so strapped for cash I had several renters that lived in my basement.

Somewhere in the mix was a hot little Chevy Monza—a small car in the era of the Dodge Colt and Ford Mustang. The Monza was a hatchback coupe with a V8 engine. It took the byways of the Colorado Rockies effortlessly. It was, as I dubbed it, a poor-man’s Corvette. 

I had been out of college and working for about ten years when I finally felt as though I was catching up financially. A few of my loans had matured and I got out from under some school debt. Mortgage rates were coming down and refinancing helped bring my payments inline. I was making more money. I decided to pop for a cool car—the 1983 Firebird.

To this day I still think the body style of the 83 Firebird is one of the best. Sleek, flip up headlights, hatch back. I was on the Hyland Ski Patrol at the time, and one evening as we were all walking out to our cars one of the other women saw my car and called it “Sex on a Stick.” I was laughing so hard I could barely stand. I was young, single, and not opposed to a little romance, so it really was the perfect car.

The car must have worked, because two years later I was married. I kept the Firebird, and inherited a Honda Prelude that my husband brought into the marriage.  We bought a Bronco II Eddie Bauer edition, a sporty short wheel based four wheel drive, which was a cool little car before kids came. But once the kids started, it was all cars headed downhill. We went from the Firebird to a four-door Honda Accord to, yes, a family van. The first family van spawned a slew of family vans over the course of 25 years. Chrysler Town & Country and Ford Aerostar vans comprised most of those vehicles. Our second car would always be a four-door sedan—one notable was an Infiniti I90, my first experience in the luxury car category. We began buying Lexus SUVs before SUVs were the thing. We had at least two of them.

Then came the day we bought our one and only “kids’ car”. OMG, the circle of life!! No fancy Marlin for my kids. They had to settle for a used Suzuki Grand Vitara with a manual transmission. My kids hated me for buying a manual transmission car. We used that vehicle to teach them how to drive. Many times we were stuck on a hill incline and we’d have to have a fire drill so that I could get them out of the pinch, but they eventually learned, and became very good drivers. And while they grumbled at the time, they thank me every time we go car shopping that they know how to drive a stick shift.

Coming soon, Part 3—The Fun Cars

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