Remembering My First Car

Americana, Automotive, Home & Family, Traditions
on June 1, 2008
Randy Piland Joan Hayes Lytle plans to drive her 1951 Ford to her 50th Fike High School class reunion in Wilson, N.C., next year.

Americans love their cars, and for many, reminiscing about their first set of wheels evokes memories of freedom, fun, fast engines and first-time fender-benders.

When American Profile asked readers to tell us about their first cars, we received hundreds of stories—and photos—of broken-down jalopies rescued from Depression-era chicken coops, second-hand family cars that provided reliable rides to school, and shiny, brand-spanking-new vehicles bought off showroom floors.

Along with detailed descriptions of every make and model imaginable—from a rickety 1920 Model T Ford purchased for $5 to a shiny 1994 Toyota Corolla, bought by a 70-year-old first-time driver—were humorous and heartwarming stories about nerve-wracking drivers’ examinations, unforgettable drive-in movie dates, cheap gasoline and quirky mechanical malfunctions.

“The funniest thing about my old car was that every time I turned right and had the turn signal on, the horn would honk,” recalls Jan Hutcheson, 50, of Texarkana, Texas, whose first car was a 1961 Chevrolet Bel Air. “I was so embarrassed by the honking, but I soon learned to just wave at people and pretend I was intentionally honking.”

Below are excerpts from other automotive recollections, including several from readers who still own, drive and cherish their first cars.

“My first car was a 1959 Ford Country Squire, a nine-passenger station wagon with the fake wood sides. My folks offered it to me as a high school graduation gift in 1968 and I accepted,” says Bob Schlenk of The Villages, Fla. “Forty years later I still own the car. Our 21-year-old son has grown up with the car and someday it will be his.”

“In June of 1974 I made my way back to Grand Forks (N.D.) to pick up my Dart, which had 92,000 miles on it,” recalls Carolyn King of Grand Rapids, Minn. “Thirty-four years later, its odometer reads 292,000 miles and it’s been coast to coast and border to border. Although now I only drive it in the summer, I intend for this first car to also be my last. I love my Dart!”

“My mother Lucille Mary McLaughlin said to me: ‘Buy the car you really love!’ I did, a ’68 candy apple red Mustang with a black vinyl top. It’s still in the garage, a reminder of my mother’s love,” says Kathy Herriage of Atchison, Kan.

“In 1979, I was 15 and looking for my first car/truck. I found a 1948 Willys Jeep pickup in very bad condition. After haggling over the price, I towed it home and restored it,” recalls Bruce Klepinger of Bradford, Ohio. “The Jeep has been a family friend over the years and I still have it and use it on a weekly basis. It has hauled sand for the sandbox, wood for the home repairs and gravel for the driveway; pulled cars from snow drifts; and provided hay rides for kids and lots of other memories.”

“In July 1966 I was 16 years old and my dad bought me my first car, a red 1953 Ford convertible. Even though it looked tired and had bald tires and a bale of hay in the back seat, it had potential. Hours of polishing revealed almost flawless original paint,” recalls Jim Helseth of Great Falls, Mont., who still owns and is restoring the car. “I cruised Main Street for hours with friends, parking at the local drive-in, listening to rock 'n’ roll radio, and sipping Zombies and cherry Cokes. The top stayed down all summer as I escorted my girlfriends to our family cabin at a nearby lake.”

“In January 1959, for my 16th birthday, my parents gave me a 1951 black Ford. My mama taught me to drive in the cemetery two blocks from my home,” says Joan Hayes Lytle of Wilson, N.C., who still owns the car. “My Ford gave me a great feeling of independence. I have fond memories of taking my girlfriends to the Creamery Drive-In restaurant; going to the beach; and carpooling to school my senior year. Next year, 2009, I plan to drive my girlfriends to our class reunion in my 1951 black Ford, like in the good old school days.”

“My first car was a 1966 Chevrolet Corvair,” recalls Martin J. Kalister of Pasadena, Md. “When I passed my driver’s license exam in June of ’74 my father turned me loose with that Corvair. He told me I had a full tank of gas ‘to get a job,’ and that after the tank was empty I was on my own. I found a job at our local Eddie’s grocery store, stocking shelves.”

“I got my first car back in 1937 when I was 16 years old. It was a 1933 four-door Chevrolet purchased at Lapner Motors in Mason City, Iowa,” recalls Wayne Schmalle, 86, of Thornton, Iowa. “At the time, my school didn’t have school buses. Instead, pupils were carpooled in private cars, designated as buses. I was given a special permit to haul neighborhood students in my car. It had a sign on the back that said School Bus and I took seven or eight children, piled in like sardines. I did this for a couple of years until the school got regular buses.”

“Dad knew I was eager to purchase my first car, so he stopped to inquire about the forlorn, curbside coupe,” recalls David A. Will of Prescott, Ariz. “It turns out the lady owner was planning to have the local junkyard haul it off for the princely sum of $15. Dad wrote her a check for $15 for the 1933 Pontiac straight-8 coupe. We pushed the car around the block, poured Gumout in the carburetor, and it fired up, surrounding the area in pale blue smoke. What a proud 15 year old I was!”

“After several embarrassing episodes of parking with a date and not being able to start it, I took to parking on a steep incline,” recalls William D. Schmidt of Ellensburg, Wash., about his 1937 Ford couple, which had a faulty starter switch. “After ‘necking’ for a while, I only had to put it in gear, let it coast down the incline and let out the clutch. It always started. No more embarrassment!”

“My first car was a ’31 Model A Ford with a 1929 radiator. I was 16 years old and paid $15 for it at the junkyard in 1941,” recalls Albert A. LaFlamme of Nashua, N.H. “My two brothers towed it home for me. I painted it canary yellow and the mud guards green. The spokes of the wheels were painted fireman red, and I bought a horn that played ‘Mary had a Little Lamb,’ which I attached to the wheel.”

“My first car was a 1947 Ford. I met the girl of my dreams driving that car,” recalls Robert Thompson of Pryor, Okla. “Last November we celebrated 51 years of marriage. Still have the wife; wish I still had the car.”

“My first car was a 1958 Volkswagen Beetle that only had the driver’s seat because a Wisconsin farmer had used the car to transport his pigs,” says Marcia Koshollek of Green Valley, Ariz. “My father bought the car for me when I was 16 years old and paid $100 cash. I scrubbed and scrubbed but never got rid of the ‘pig smell.’”

“My first car, a gold ’64 Plymouth Barracuda, was a high school graduation gift from mother and dad,” recalls Paul L. Prough Jr. of Mount Union, Pa. “Having studied drivers’ ed in school, I thought I knew everything about driving. I was wrong! I had learned to drive a car with an automatic transmission, but the Barracuda had standard shift. My first experience using a clutch, along a quarter-mile strip of country road, required the patience of Job, jolted my insides like jelly on a shaky spoon and lasted nearly a full hour.”

“My mom taught me to drive when I was 12 years old,” recalls Jane Bondurant, of Durant, Okla., whose first “car” was a 1932 Ford Model T Express truck. “We went to the local cemetery. She said if I ran over anyone there, it wouldn’t hurt them.”

“My first car was a red 1987 Yugo. I heard all the jokes with that car, like ‘What do you call a four-door Yugo?’ A ‘we-go’; and stuff like that. I was made fun of a lot, but did manage to get 98,000 miles out of that car,” says Mary Thompson of Spring Hill, Fla. “When I took the car to trade in after four years, there wasn’t much left. Duct tape painted red held the rust together. I had one handle left to open both windows and one rearview mirror on the passenger side of the car. The woman in the finance office at the dealership asked me what I had left on the car. I knew she wanted to know how much I still owed, but deciding to have a little fun, I answered ‘I have one rearview mirror, one handle and two hubcaps.’ My dad still laughs about that.”

“My first car was given to me by my grandparents as a Christmas present just before I turned 16 and got my driver’s license,” recalls Kristi Collins of Del City, Okla. “The box that I opened had multiple layers of tissue paper. Under the first layer was a Texas driver’s handbook, the next layer had a really nice keychain, the next had a set of keys and a note to check the driveway. In it sat a 1966 Ford Mustang.”

“Our first car was a 1936 Ford Austin, which we bought in 1958,” recalls Floyd P. Jones of Brazil, Ind. “We were so proud of it. However, when it rained my wife Brenda had to hold an umbrella up to stop the rain that came in the roof, and also put her feet on the dash, as each puddle brought a foot washing ceremony. Rain or shine though, a drive in our old Ford was the only way to get our baby son to sleep each evening.”

“I didn’t learn to drive until I was 70 years old, after my husband passed away. He thought that driving was a man thing. I traded in our old car for a brand new 1994 Toyota Corolla,” says Barbara King of Clarksburg, Mass. “I have been driving for 14 years and have no traffic violations. My car still runs beautifully and only has 50,097 miles on it. It is my first and only car I will ever have, and I hope it holds up until I have to quit driving.”


Some people name their cars. Here’s a list of nicknames gleaned from readers’ first car stories:

Ambrose, Baby, Big Green Monster, Black Beauty, Blue, Blue Angel, The Blue Bomb, Blue Goose, Blue Streak, Bow Bow, Coppertone, Daffodil, The Gray Ghost, Green Bean, Green Machine, The Heap, Leapin’ Lena, Mean Machine, Missy, Old Beulah, Old Betsy, Romeo, Sam, Spud, Sweet Caroline, The Tank, Ted, Tex and Titus.

“My first car was a 1947 Ford. I met the girl of my dreams driving that car,” recalls Robert Thompson of Pryor, Okla. “Last November we celebrated 51 years of marriage. Still have the wife; wish I still had the car.”

“From the first day I laid eyes on that car, it was something special,” says Eugene Montoya of Rio Rancho, N.M., about the 1962 Chevy Impala Super Sport he bought from his brother for $300. “I’m 52 years old now and I still own the car. It’s part of the family and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“My first car that was titled in my own name was a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible,” says David F. Graham of Pittsfield, Ill. “I still have the car and also the original title. I am 78 years old, and after 52 years of ownership, I still get a thrill from all the praise and thumbs up the car receives from total strangers when we take it out for a spin.”

“The date was July 26, 1956. A recent graduate of high school, I was 17 years old and had just purchased my first car, a 1933 Essex rumble seat coupe,” says Howard Krontz of Kendallville, Ind. “The Essex was a low-priced car made by Hudson Motor Car Co. I have since restored this car.”

“My first car was a 1951 Ford, which was a trade-in in 1958 at the Studebaker dealership where my father worked at the time,” says Stephen W. Forster of Mount Jackson, Va. “It had engine problems, and they considered it not worth fixing since it was nearly eight years old with over 100,000 miles on it, so my father got it for the junk car price of $25 and brought it home. I thought it was really something!”

“My first car was just what I had dreamed about as a teen-aged soda jerk growing up in Arkansas,” says Fred Bandy of Jefferson, Texas, who for five decades has carried a photo in his wallet of the 1941 fire-engine red Ford convertible he bought for $500 in 1949. “And as an old man in East Texas, I would give my Social Security check to own another one just like it.”

“When I wrote this story about my first car, I lost track of time,” wrote Lorrain Cullen Metz of Parkersburg, W.Va., about her 1947 Chevy coupe, nicknamed The Gray Mouse. “It was like the past returning to the present. I think I smiled the whole time.” (304) 422-6312

“My first car was a 1964 Chevy Malibu named Betsy. In 1969, my dad bought her for $500, and he rebuilt the engine for $250 in parts,” says Darlean Sanford-Dominguez of Grass Valley, Calif. “I paid him back over the years to come in small payments.”

“Boy! Did your request for first car pictures stir up some sweet memories,” says Sheila Buswell of Bigfork, Mont. “I was just smitten with my 1958 Vauxhall Victor, purchased used, of course, for $300. Wish I still had that car. Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane.”

“My grandfather told the car salesman: ‘I’m buying a new car this year to celebrate the birth of my first granddaughter,” says Gayle Worthy of College Station, Texas. “That car and I both rolled out into the world the same year and the brand-new, green 1951 Chevrolet would become my first car.”

“My first car was a big, black 1960 Chrysler Crown Imperial sedan,” says Ron Crabtree of Edinburg, Va. “It had push-button transmission, a ‘square’ steering wheel, fins with gun-sight taillights and two of everything else that had to be replaced before I could drive it.”

“Owning my first car gave me independence; it also gave responsibility that made me watch my pennies,” recalls Philip Norman of Brookings, Ore. “The 1952 six-cylinder Chevrolet that I bought in 1964 was memorable for its solid construction and reliable engine. You could rap the fender and get a ring of real steel; the engine ran smooth as a sewing machine—always. The car’s only fault was in the steering; it had too much play. I was afraid to have it repaired because of the possible cost, so I struggled along trying to drive straight. One night a policeman pulled me over thinking I was drunk.”

“When I turned 16 I got a light blue Volkswagen,” recalls Kelly Cole of New Market, Tenn. “I don’t remember the year; it wasn’t important. I don’t remember the price; it wasn’t important. I do remember the fun.”

“My first car was a 1956 Buick Special convertible. I purchased it while I was home on leave from the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1960,” says Ronald DiPalma of Philadelphia, Miss. “I met my wife on a blind date because of the Buick. Owning a car in those days meant many invitees for double dates. After we married in 1963, the clutch proved too much for her, so we sold if for $500 and bought a 1963 Corvair.”

“My first mechanized mode of transport was a rattletrap, 1954 Ford one-ton flatbed,” says Ron R. Fischer of Elgin, Ore. “My father purchased it from a friend for hauling feed and freight around his cattle ranch. It had no radio, heat, air conditioning, power steering, seat belts, four-wheel drive or standard features that were customary in 1982. It was a huge iron behemoth that ran, brakes and headlights functioned, period.”

“My first car was actually our family’s second car. My brother and I used it most of the time,” says Luan Wells of Racine, Wis. “It was a Henry J that we purchased from a neighbor. It was blue with a white hood and white right fender because the neighbor had hit a deer and never had it repainted. The floor on the driver’s side was rusted out, so you had to be careful where you put your feet and what splashed up. We would place pieces of cardboard over the hole.”

“Dad was horrified that I won the car and clearly didn’t intend to let me keep it,” recalls Margene Leffin of West Bend, Wis., who won a 1940 Plymouth coupe in a radio station contest in 1958. “Since I didn’t have a job, I had no money for car insurance or 27-cent-a-gallon gas.”

“My car was not much to look at, but the little car would run,” says Eric Meranda of Saddonia, Mo., about his 1971 AMC Gremlin. “One of the things I remember most about the car was the windshield wipers. If I was going up a hill when it was raining the wipers would get real slow, maybe even stop! I no longer have the car, but I would like to find another one.”

“My first car was a 1984 AMC Jeep CJ-7 Renegade,” recalls Steven Grant of Indialantic, Fla. “I got it for Christmas the same year. It was a gift from my mom and dad who made the down payment for me. I suppose the real gift was the payment book; it ended up being a good lesson in responsibility.”

“They didn’t build cars back then as they do today, and this one was a typical American-made lemon,” recalls Wiley Higgins, of Cumming, Ga., about his 1953 Plymouth Belvidere. “It leaked water on my feet when it rained and I remember it used four quarts of oil on one 1,000-mile round trip shortly after I bought it.”

“My first car was a 1951 Crosley, Hotshot model, convertible. It was a tiny, bright red two-seater, and I was 22 years old,” says Barbara W. Votapka of Vestal, N.Y. “I bought the car brand new for $1,050, after borrowing $500 from my dad. I always did my own oil changes and lube jobs, as my father was a garage mechanic, and taught me how to do this.”

“Back in 1964, I bought a 1948 Willys Jeep from a friend of mine,” recalls Rick Vallana of LaTrobe, Pa. “I bugged him every day for a year to sell it to me. He finally gave in and said, ‘Rickey for $175 cash, it’s yours.’ I was so excited. I drove it around for a week when my dad said to me, ‘Don’t you think you should get a license plate for that thing?’ That’s something I never thought of.”

“I came home from camp in 1976 to find a 1969 American Motors Javelin in the driveway,” recalls Linda Broceus of Mount Vernon, Ohio. “The car was white, had a black top and red vinyl interior—how cool! My dad bought it for $100 and even added the ultimate 1970s ‘toy’—a CB radio.”

“My first car was a 1929 Model A Ford that I bought from Cousin Joey in 1946, shortly after being discharged from the Army,” recalls Dick Prosence of Meeker, Colo. “I paid Joey $60 for a wreck that should have been hauled to the dump, but cars had not been sold for five years during the war, so anything on four wheels that would roll down the road was worth fixing up.”

“What I remember most about my first car is that the seat wouldn’t pull up closer to the steering wheel,” says Nita Butler of Pilot Grove, Mo., of the 1952 Chevrolet Powerglide purchased in 1974 for $35. “I had to sit on pillows to see over the hood. It had no radio or air conditioning, but I loved it.”

“My first car was a 1953 Ford Tudor V-8. I paid $25 for it,” says Bill Harper of Geneva, Ohio. “My buddies and I cruised the local hot spots at night, and on Saturday night I would take my girlfriend to a drive-in movie. Afterwards we went to a snack bar to hang out with friends. The parking lot was like a car show. Man, those were the days.”

“When I was 16 years old and living with my parents on a farm west of Britt, Iowa, I bought a sow for FFA,” says Donald J. Nelson of Clear Lake, Iowa. “The sow had 13 pigs. When they got ready for market I sold them and bought a 1930 Model A Ford for $82.50. The car was black with green wheels. I bought the car in 1941 and today it would be worth $30,000 to $40,000.”

“My first car was a Dodge Valiant. It had push buttons on the left side of the dashboard to change gears. I was permitted to drive to school every day, and my dad used it at night to drive where he needed to go,” recalls Debra Pass of Export, Pa. “I would put 50 cents worth of gas in the car on Monday. If it started to run low, we let the car sit for a day or so because we only had a budget for gas once a week. Boy, would I like to have that car today, along with the gas prices.”

“I became the owner of a brand new 1947 Kaiser after I returned from Europe where I fought in the Battle of the Bulge,” recalls Levi Belflower, 87, of Lake City, Fla. “I put in an order for the car with the new Kaiser dealership in Coral Gables, Fla., one of the 100,000 advance orders made for the post-World War II produced Kaisers. It was big as a tank and drove like a tank. There wasn’t much decoration to its design except for its massive chrome grille and bumper, which promptly rusted out in Miami’s humidity. But, the company immediately replaced it, and I happily drove the car until 1955 when I purchased a new sleek-design chartreuse green Kaiser.”

“My first car was a 1951 Crosley station wagon. I bought it for $100 when I was 16 years old on June 14, 1955. I got it from my neighbor who ran an Olds and International dealership. He saved it for three years until I was old enough to drive,” recalls Larry Schroeder of Sigourney, Iowa. “It got 50 miles per gallon. Gas was 19 cents per gallon them. I wish I still had the Crosley now with gas $3 a gallon.”

“My first car was a 1979 Ford Fairmont, two-door and silver in color. My husband bought it for me brand new. I was so excited when I saw it and he said ‘Here, this is yours’,” says Socorro L. Johnson of Powell, Tenn. “Needless to say, I almost cried because where I come from—the Philippines—you can’t have anything this expensive just like that. I didn’t have many problems with the car and I drove it for 10 years and gave it to my daughter when she turned 16.”

“My first car was a white, 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier. It wasn’t fancy, and it wasn’t fast, but I honestly believe that it is the finest piece of machinery to ever roll off the General Motors assembly line,” says Cathy Cresswell-Marts of Taylorville, Ill. “I owned it for 15 years, put 190,000 miles on it and only had minor problems. In the winter of 2006, I sold it to my best friend who is still driving it today.”

“In 1951, when I was 9 years old, my dad bought me my first car, a 1937 Willys for $35. He parked it in our backyard, made sure it wouldn’t run and it became my playhouse,” recalls Jim Duden of Clovis, N.M. “I brush painted it with green house paint, plastered the windows with travel stickers from faraway states that I imagined driving to, and many nights I camped out in it.”

“On Feb. 11th, 1989, my mom rewarded my hard work with my first car—a 1986 gray Camaro. I am happy to say that on the 19th anniversary of our ‘relationship,’ my first car is safely sitting in my garage for the winter,” says Anna Marie Lewis of Jackson, Ohio. “It is funny how a piece of metal with an engine and four wheels can mean so much to a person; every time I sit down into that driver’s seat I am transported back in time through the many years we have shared.”

“How could I ever forget my first car? It was freedom, it was adventure, it was a money pit,” recalls Marcia Barrow of Weed, Calif. “It was a present from my grandparents upon graduating from high school in 1953. It was a Studebaker they purchased brand new . . . in 1929.”