By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
My first car was a powder blue Volkswagen bug, made sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. I don’t remember the exact year. At the time my dad brought it home, it was 1987 and I was 14 years old with a driver’s learning permit I could hardly wait to start using.
Dad said he got a good deal on the VW because the woman he bought it from was eager to see the old car go. Apparently, she’d been driving it one day when a wasp flew up her skirt and stung her in the nether regions. (I can see how that kind of incident could create some bad feelings.)
But I didn’t mind at all. From what I could see, the car was wasp-free and still cute as a bug – literally. It was the car I learned to drive in, so I thought it was thrilling and perfect.
Looking back on it now, I can also tell you it was not at all fancy. You’ve heard of a car being “stripped down,” right? This car was so stripped that it was practically streaking across town buck naked. Crank windows. No floor mats. Not even a tiny mirror on the inside flap of the sun visors.
The only option the car had that was somewhat of an “upgrade” was a little-known feature called “automatic stick shift.” What that meant was that the car had to be shifted into different gears, but there was no clutch pedal. The clutch engaged by pressing down on the gear shift when it was time to shift. To this day, I know how to shift but I have no idea how to use a standard clutch, which basically means I’m useless in anything except an automatic transmission.
Nevertheless, I still have a soft spot for that powder blue Volkswagen, and I hope it’s still out there somewhere, automatically shifting as it cruises a wide-open highway.
I’ve thought about that first car a lot lately because Tom and I recently bought a first car for our middle son, who turned 16 during this weird pandemic. He had already lined up a part-time summer job before the pandemic began, so he needed a car to get himself there once he was old enough. Tom loves all things car-related, so he was more than happy to scour the Internet and the local car lots to find the right one.
We set a budget for the car – something less than $25,000 – and my only prerequisite was that it had to have as many safety features as we could afford. I didn’t care if it was “cool” or not, as long as it received high safety ratings by the experts.
Tom and I were shocked at how far cars have come during our lifetime. We didn’t go over the budget but still found a car with a great safety rating, wasp-free seats that heat and cool your behind, sensors that tell you when someone is in your blind spot, backup cameras, automatic-everything, plus Apple CarPlay, which means our teenager can use his voice to send a text without ever touching his phone. Is there anything cars can’t do these days? Our son’s first car is a far cry from the pale blue Bug I first drove, or Tom’s rusted out GMC pickup, which had an 8-track player and busted speakers.
I hope these kids know how good they’ve got it. The only “blind spot sensor” I had in my first car was my dad, who’d yell and smack me on the arm if I forgot to look over my shoulder when changing lanes. If I wanted my seats cooled, I had to crank down the windows and hope for snow.
It makes me wonder what might change by the time our kids start buying first cars for their kids. Maybe one day thirty-something years from now, our son will say, “You know, back in my day, we had to drive cars with wheels. We didn’t have solar-powered hover crafts with facial recognition.” And he’ll look back on his little Mazda with fondness for how simple things used to be.
Just be safe out there, kid. And check your blind spots.