Tuesday, December 4, 2007

First cars: Beulah the Blonde Bombe

Almost since automotive history began, it’s been true that most people acquire their first cars as teenagers, and they rarely have a say in what cars they end up with. Teenagers usually dream of having cars that are glamorous or prestigious in some way, but their options are often limited due to things like cost, insurance, and paranoid parents.

For example, there are the teenagers who end up with oversized automotive monstrosities (also affectionately known as “boats”) because their parents are on a mission to keep their teens “safe.” Sure, the teens might be safer in boats than in other types of cars, but woe betide any other cars on the road when the teens are struggling to keep their boats under control -– and within traffic lanes.

Then there are the teenagers who end up with worn-out, broken-down vehicles because they're affordable (and most parents would rather have their teens wreck heaps than take the risk on nicer cars). Such cars usually make teens want to do nothing more than go into hiding so none of their friends (and enemies) can see them driving heaps (never mind that most of the friends and enemies are also driving heaps –- or boats).

Oh, how I wish I’d ended up with a boat.

When I was in college, Mom ventured out one summer to find me a car, which I thought was a very nice and generous thing for her to do. I was away working as a camp counselor at the time, so I wasn’t involved in the selection or purchase of the car. However, I wasn’t worried. My family had a long history of owning cool cars. After all, my very first car ride had been in my mom’s 1965 Plymouth Barracuda. Other family cars had included a 1966 Mustang and a 1972 Gran Torino. So, why worry? My first car was gonna be cool. I just knew it.

I was dead wrong.

When my stint as a camp counselor was over for the summer, my friends drove me home, and the first thing I saw was a strange car in the driveway. Well, I thought it was a car. It was strange, no doubt about it. It was a tan-colored 1969 Volkswagon Beetle Deluxe with so many holes rusted through the body that, from a distance, the car looked like a dirty Dalmatian -- or a really ugly ladybug. About the only thing “Deluxe” about the car, as far as I could tell, was the extra chrome on the rear vents (rusted) -– oh, and the sunroof, which had to be opened via a hand crank with a broken handle.

Surely this had to be someone else’s car, I thought. My mom couldn’t possibly have purchased this sad little machine for me!

At that moment, Mom stepped out of the house to welcome me home and give me a big hug. “So, whaddaya think?” she asked, grinning broadly and pointing at the car.

My friends, still in their immaculate 1979 Honda Prelude, yelled a hasty “WELL-G'BYE-SEE-YA!" They drove off, laughing. My heart sank.

“What do I think of what?” I blurted to my mom.

“The car!” she said. “It’s yours!”

“It ... needs a little work, doesn’t it?” I managed to squeak out. Mom started getting defensive.

“It’s a Herbie!” she insisted. “I got it for you because you always loved Herbie!” She was referring to the cute little VW Beetle from Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug film series.

“Mom,” I said very patiently, “I was five years old.”

No amount protesting was going to help, however. The car was mine whether I liked it or not. It was also the only vehicle available to me. My parents made it clear that the other family cars -– the cool cars -– were off limits to me from that moment onward. The Volkswagon was my car, and my responsibility.

It didn’t help when a friend of mine dubbed the car Beulah the Blonde Bombe. The car suddenly had a name, and it stuck. That made it part of the family. That meant that, as long as the car or I lived, I could never get rid of it. Family policy.

So, I drove Beulah because I had no choice, and I soon learned that the car had more in common with Mom’s “Herbie” tag than I'd initially thought. The car definitely had a mind of its own. Beulah ran when Beulah felt like running, and Beulah broke down when and where it felt like breaking down. Within three months, Beulah and I had been towed home from nearly every street within a 60 mile radius of my Indianapolis neighborhood. Mechanics that looked at the car scratched their heads and muttered that they couldn’t figure out why it ran so inconsistently. I went broke from paying towing and garage fees.

Then there was the problem of Beulah’s rusty floorboards. Beulah had so many gaping holes in the floor that whoever sold the car to Mom had covered the holes with strips of lumber. The lumber wasn’t attached to anything. During long drives (when Beulah felt like running), my feet often accidently shoved a board aside to reveal a large hole leading to bare, rushing pavement. My car, in effect, was a Flintstone-mobile. I was terrified I was going to fall through the floor of the car one day -– or one of my feet would fall through, and then good-bye foot.

The holes in the floor, and additional holes in the wheel wells, also made driving in the rain VERY interesting. Depending on how much rain there was, and how fast I was driving, Beulah’s interior could get flooded with up to an inch of water before the car came to a stop and the water leaked back out. During the rainy season, my feet were never dry. I really could have used a boat -– a REAL boat -– at that point.

Finally, the day came when Beulah refused to run ever again. The car gave up the ghost right in the middle of the driveway, and it had to be towed just one more time – this time to the local scrap yard. Without complaint, I took the meager $100 that the scrap guys offered me for Beulah.

I bummed rides from my friends for a while, until I could scrape together enough cash and credit to buy a car on my own, a car that I KNEW would run when needed. I ended up buying a Toyota Tercel. I know, I know ... Not a cool car. But it didn’t leak, and it ran.

My current car? It’s an old 1994 Saturn SC1 that I love very much. Is it cool? Not really. But it RUNS.


SallyP said...

EVERYONE needs to have owned a Volkswagen Beetle at least once in their lives. Just for the bragging rights. It is simultaneously, either the most awesome car EVER, or the worst piece of crap you ever had.

So speaks a woman who learned to drive in a 1970 VW bus.

I'm a car freak, I grew up like you, with COOL cars. My Dad collects antique cars, and we used to drive around on Sundays in a '36Packard. Lately, he's been on a Lincoln kick. Gotta love suicide doors.

My Husband is also a car nut, as is my son, who has a '69 red Beetle, nicknamed "Nads"

But my first car, was a '74 Datsun 260Z, with a four-speed and a manual choke. God, I loved it.

Sea_of_Green said...

Geez, I wish my first car had been a 260Z!

Nads? I like it. :-)

I am grateful to Beulah for one thing, though, which is that Beulah had a manual transmission so I had to learn stick in order to drive it. Since then, every car I've had (and every car my husband has had) has been a manual. Right now my hubby drives a PT Cruiser, and you wouldn't BELIEVE the trouble we went through trying to find a manual Cruiser.

Kills me, though, to think that at the time Beulah came along, my mom was driving a bright red Acura Integra and my dad was driving a Saab and an RX-7.

My stepdad used to "flip" old cars for extra cash. He restored and resold some gorgeous cars. My favorite was the tricked-out 1969 Plymouth Fury. Talk about an intimidating monster of muscle! He also did his fair share of MG Midgets and Brats.

FoldedSoup said...

Great story! Very, very familiar.

Mine? Datsun B2-10. I could make it backfire on command.

SallyP said...

That's a very handy power to have, Soup.

And yes, it IS handy to be able to drive a stick. It lets you sneer at all the young kids who don't know how.