My First Car – Part 1: The Near Miss

Seven.

A whimsical, tender age in the development of a boy.  Too young to drink soda straight from the bottle, too old to drink milk straight out of the carton.  Old enough to make a sandwich from the fresh Italian bread and cold cuts my dad would bring home every Sunday after church, but not old enough to make a sandwich that anyone besides myself would want to eat.  We’ll ignore the fact that the milk came in a carton made of wax-coated paper in those days, and the soda bottle was much smaller than 2 liters in size, and made from glass of all things…ah, the good old days.

Seven was a magical age for me.  It was at the age of seven that I became a subscriber to Road & Track Magazine.  I was a small boy, a second grade student at Macy Elementary School, with thick, nylon-framed horn rim glasses not unlike those worn by Clark Kent.  I wasn’t popular, but I had friends.  We rode bikes and played football.  We all watched cartoons on Saturday mornings.

But while my friends were forced to read texts with such infamous names as “Janet and Mark” or “Fun With Dick and Jane,” and while they often tuned in to “The Brady Bunch” or “Charlie’s Angels” on television, I was in a much more voracious reader.  In THE world, which my friends inhabited, cars carried names like Hot Wheels and Matchbox.  In MY world, cars carried marques like Ferrari, Lotus, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Triumph and MG.  American Automobile enthusiasts, like myself, knew that the glory days of the Mustang were over.  We knew that any Corvette was cool beyond words.  We knew Cadillac would never be outdone by Lincoln, and when it came to luxury, neither would ever hold a candle to the mighty Germans, led by Mercedes-Benz.  Ferraris and Porsches were sacred, and only discussed by the well-informed in hushed, reverent tones.  As seductive as the English cars were, a positive-ground electrical system was to be avoided at all costs.  Especially if it was of the 6-volt variety, and especially if it was “engineered” by Lucas.

In the years that followed, names like Thos L. Bryant, Peter Egan, Phil Hill, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda came into my home and regaled me with tales from the ongoing epic battles between The Mechanically Interesting and The Fuel Efficient (which were mutually exclusive at the time).  I knew the name Brabham before I knew Unser or Earnhardt.

My library grew, month by month at first, and then much more quickly. Road & Track was Joined by Car and Driver, Motor Trend, Popular Mechanics, and Dune Buggies and Hot VW’s.  I read and re-read them cover to cover.  I fed my developing brain at a blistering pace  I simply could not get enough.  My dad tried to lecture me once about the virtues of General Patton and General MacArthur.  I countered with a well-reasoned discussion about the ongoing decline of General Motors.

When it came time for me to go off to college, because I was working two jobs, it was decided I would live at home and make the 60 mile round-trip commute for classes.  No matter.  I was a good driver, and I enjoyed the journey.  For months I drove my mom’s trusty Datsun 510 Station Wagon or my sister’s much less trusty Dodge Daytona.  But all the while I searched for something better attuned to my tastes.  I knew that the time had come for me to make my first car purchase.

This would be the first car I would ever shop for and purchase, period.  And I was doing it all on my own.  My income in those days was spent first to help my family, second to  pay for the portion of my tuition not covered by scholarships or other financial aid, and then on books, and maybe the occasional meal.  I actually had a girlfriend (I hope you were sitting down before I blurted that out…I know the shock might have been too much to bear!), but she was really not much of a financial drain.  Still, my income level, complete lack of any credit history whatsoever, and no funds to speak of available for a down payment meant that I would need to look at used cars.  And my budget for said used car would be very, very small…

Living in a sleepy little town called La Habra Heights, California at the time, The Los Angeles Times was our local newspaper.  And in the classified ad there seemed to be an infinite number of choices every day.  I could have plunked down my hard-earned money on any one of a number of Datsuns, Toyotas, or Hondas.  Budgetary considerations precluded me from having a Z-Car or a Mazda RX-7.  Instead, my budget steered me toward Chevettes and Gremlins, and Volkswagens…dozens and dozens of Volkswagens were available in my price range, but not the Karmann Ghias I’d had my eyes on as long as I could remember (Ah! those lines!).  I could have a sturdy, non-descript Ford, or any aging GM vehicle except the Corvette.  I rather enjoyed the open air feel and hotrod nature of my friend’s carefully-built Jeep CJ.  There were no mythical $500 Ferraris or Porsches on the horizon.  The Triumph TR7 and TVR Tazmin were beautiful, mechanically interesting and British, but the Spitfire and TR-6 and MG-B were closer to my budget (and usually in a condition that could charitably be described as “beat to hell”).  The tiny, similarly wedge shaped Fiat X1-9 seemed like a compromise I might make.  So, I answered an ad and went to Santa Monica to test drive one.  By myself. A trip of more than 40 miles. In my mom’s Datsun station wagon.  Without a second driver.  To look at and possibly purchase the least expensive Fiat I had ever seen.  Without a second driver.  As one might imagine, this was not a well-planned venture.

I arrived at the home of the owner of the Fiat, and was immediately stunned.  To the eye of a college student, the house seemed impossibly decadent, if not terribly large.  To make matters worse, there were four cars in the driveway.  A black Mercedes 560SEC, a red Mercedes 560SL, and a silver Jaguar XJS sparkled in the afternoon sun like sentries waiting to fend off the assault of some punk kid who might approach.  And, under a dusty cover in the corner of the driveway, hidden from the view of the genteel people of Santa Monica, lest it offend their delicate sensitivities, sat the lowly Fiat X1-9.

At this point it becomes relevant that I went to college at little red brick schoolhouse in downtown Los Angeles known as the University of Southern California.  The NCAA abbreviates this with the initials USC.  There are those who would claim that USC stands for University of Spoiled Children.  I didn’t like the implications of this, but I could see their point.  It was the 1980’s, and we could clearly tell the students whose parents paid their tuition from those of us on financial aid.  For a free thinker from the distant suburb of La Habra Heights, being there on that day, surrounded by the million dollar homes of the beautiful people felt a lot like being at University.  It must have been easy to see that I did not belong.  I was uneasy.  I approached the front door with a hushed reverence.  I was young at the time, and if I’m going to be completely honest, I think I actually wanted the owner of the car to like me.  John Lydon of PIL, formerly known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, would have spat on me and cursed me up and down had he known about this.  (Those who know me now would get a real kick out of the idea that I would care at all if some stranger liked me.  I guess in some ways I’m more punk rock now than I was then…)

By the time I rang the doorbell, my attitude was not unlike the attitude of the waiter approaching the father of the beautiful billionaire heiress to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  I gently nudged the button, and the doorbell came to life with an absurdly loud rendition of some piece of classical music I could not identify.  It sounded like a pipe organ.  I fought the urge to run away out of intimidation.  This guy had such cars sitting in his driveway as I never thought I’d be able to imagine owning if I lived and worked until I was 100 years old.

Looking back, he was not overly friendly (this is an understatement), but through the eyes of the outclassed teenager, he seemed like a pompous, arrogant son-of-a-bitch.  He asked me to show him my money before removing the cover from the car.  I did, and he did.

fiat-x19-1300-1

If the car had looked like the one pictured here, this story might have a different outcome.  If the tires held air, like the ones pictured here, this story might have a different outcome.  But even in those days, a Fiat X1-9 that fit within my budget came with gifts and curses.  The engine displaced 1300 cc’s and produced 61 horsepower. Yes, that is a 2-digit number, and not a typo.

Among the gifts were the 880 kg curb weight, and the mid-engined, rear wheel drive platform. The Italian mystique and charming appearance were icing on the proverbial cake.

Among the curses were tires that would not hold air, faded and oxidized paint, visible rust in the rockers, fenders, wheel arches, and most other parts of the body.  The seats were cracked and torn to the extent that the vinyl upholstery itself, hardened by the sun, protruded in such a manner that it actually left visible scratches in the backs of my legs. The windshield was cracked, wiper blades were missing and wiper arms bent, and the instrument panel was sun faded, which didn’t really matter since most of the instruments did not operate.

It probably seems obvious at this point that I walked away from the car.  But to be honest, none of these curses that I have mentioned is the real reason that I did walk away.  I could have lived with all of these flaws.  I would have proudly driven my tiny, weather-beaten, rusted-to-hell prize to The University of Spoiled Children every day, and ignored the upturned noses of my well-heeled classmates.  But there was one problem that even I was not able to overlook.

The owner folded himself into the car and summoned the “fury” of those 61 horses to life with an anemic, wheezy sound reminiscent of a sick kitten’s sneeze.  After a minute or two of “warming up the engine,” he freed himself from the car, opened his garage door, and filled the tires from a compressor located inside.  He closed his garage door and announced that we were ready for our test drive.  I “hopped” into the driver’s seat, which for me at only 5 feet, 6 inches tall was still no easy task.  Then I learned a lesson in physiology. Italian physiology.  The Italians, apparently, had very long arms and very short legs.  The steering wheel is located in such a manner as to bee out of reach no matter where the seat is positioned.  Furthermore, it is angled forward, like a bus.  The pedals are freakishly close and one presses them downward, not forward and down like most cars.  This makes it impossible to rest one’s heel on the floor while operating the pedals.  If one hears that “Italian cars are only comfortable to drive with the pedal on the floor,” this is why.  The seat, meanwhile, must remain bolt upright due to the fact that this car is small enough that a U-Turn could be performed inside an ordinary 2-car garage.  Not to be outdone, the headrest pushed on the back of my neck to the point where my chin nearly rested on my chest.

In the end, it wasn’t the missing gearshift knob or the vagueness of the linkage that made the shifting of gears a trial and error proposition, it wasn’t the engine that smoked like a Russian assassin, or the shards of the sun-hardened vinyl seatcovers that drove me away (or saved me) from my one chance to own a Fiat X1-9.  I had to admit that I simply could not live with the Fiat Edition of the Italian Driving Position.  I left Santa Monica that day feeling deeply saddened, believing that no Italian, not even one of my beloved Ferrari’s would ever love me the way that I loved them.  But a surprise was just over the horizon for me, as you’ll see in Part 2…

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