My first car got about 20 miles to the gallon and about 200 miles to the quart. It was a subcompact coupe, a blue 1972 Chevy Vega with an aluminum engine that warped, as did most Vega engines, and therefore burned oil like crazy.
It had bucket seats in the front, bucket seats in the back, four cylinders under the hood, and several quarts of oil in the trunk.
It always made an impression on the ladies when I drove off in a cloud of black smoke.
They were also impressed by my car’s horsepower. I don’t think I ever passed anyone during the six years I drove it. When I tried to drive up any real incline, I had to turn off the air conditioner because it was such a drain on my speed. And I have a distinct memory of wondering if it was going to make it up a highway hill in Georgia when it was loaded with three nuns for whom I had just traded my brother John headed off to Catholic summer camp. I think we crested, with the accelerator pedal pressed hard to the floor, at 29 miles per hour.
Instead of grille work, the front end had slats, like you might expect to find in a bathroom closet door.
Most of the time I owned it, it also had a dent in the hood panel that I put there while looking back over my shoulder for merging cars at a yield sign instead of looking at the stopped car in front of me. I couldn’t afford a new replacement part, and when I went to a junk yard for the part, I found out I couldn’t afford that either. “The dent doesn’t really look all that bad,” I decided. “It’s really more of a dimple.”
Once while I was in graduate school, the Vega engine started knocking, gasping, and bucking like an unbalanced washing machine. It would hardly go. I thought, “This is it. It’s dead, or at least the whole engine is going to have to be replaced.” But I didn’t have money for an expensive repair, so I tried the cheapest option first. Without any real hope, I took it to the closest gas station. The mechanic opened the hood with the engine still running, stared for some moments, and then stuck an extremely thin rubber hose onto a metal nodule on the engine block, and the engine instantly smoothed out. He said, “Your vacuum hose came loose,” and he refused to take any money for the fast fix. I was thrilled-relieved, and since I had watched the mechanic, I knew what to do all of the other times this hose popped off afterward.
I’d tell my date, “Don’t worry; I’m sure I can fix this. Sounds like I just need to tweak the foraminal compression. And while I’m under the hood anyway, I’ll just give ‘er a quart of oil.”
My Vega got me through two college degrees, a courtship, a breakup, two big moves, and the start of a new job. I was doubly grateful for it. It not only got me places; it also kept me humble.
I traded it in after a year earning a real salary and bought my second car—a white Firebird Trans Am with a 6.6 liter V-8, a shift package, positraction rear wheels, and a red and black screaming eagle on the hood.
And learned what it was like to pass another car.
(Bill Spencer is author of Uranus Is Always Funny: Short Essays to Make You Laugh.)