Unsafe at Any Speed

At lunch today my husband and I talked about our first cars. His was a 1948 Chevy.

Knowing that he is not all that mechanical, my first question was, “How did you keep it running?”

“It never broke down,” he said.

Now, that’s just not right.

Growing up, I don’t remember a single car we possessed that didn’t break down. My earliest memory is of sitting next to Dad as we careened down a steep hill, all the while he was frantically trying to re-attach the steering wheel to the column.

Dad owned clunkers where the engine literally dropped out on the road as we were driving or overheated at the slightest incline. (One time I watched Dad resolve the problem by pouring a can of cola into the radiator, but that’s another story.) We once spent an entire month camping in the mountains because the car broke down as we pulled in the campground and we had no transportation, or money, to drive down to get a new part.

I remember riding with my older sister in the first car Dad bought for her. We were sitting at a stoplight. People started pointing and shouting and it took us a while to realize the car was on fire. In our defense the car had the engine in the rear, so it wouldn’t have been immediately obvious to us.  I mean, we didn’t have the radio cranked all the way up and we weren’t fighting over the rearview mirror to check our hair and make-up, if that’s what you’re thinking.

So, my first car was a slightly burnt, hand-me-down from my sister (as were all my clothes by the way – I mean they were hand-me-downs, not burnt – that would be weird.)

One problem was the heater. Heat was conveyed to the interior of the car by a system of ducts connected to the cylinder head. I don’t know much about cars, but I do know I often arrived at school slightly dizzy from inhaling exhaust fumes.

There was also no Park. The display read “R-N-D-L”. No “P.” I’m sure that originally the manufacturer installed some sort of system whereby the car stayed where you parked it but by the time it reached me, that portion of the car was no longer working. My only option was to find a level place to park. In my first week of driving I often came out of school to discover the car had rolled across the parking lot, jumped the curb and sat sweetly in the grass.

On a morning drive to school my love/hate meter shot from one side to the other several times.

“I love this car,” I’d say if I was lucky enough to get it started and out the drive. My love continued unabated, until I hit a bump.

“I hate this stupid car,” I’d yell when the motor shut off. As the car rolled onward I screamed and cursed it, until I’d hit another bump, which caused the motor to engage and I’d make my panicked way to school with the needle on my love/hate meter jumping wildly.

My first car?  It was a Corvair. The car declared by Ralph Nader to be”Unsafe at Any Speed.”

I have to agree with Ralph.

12 thoughts on “Unsafe at Any Speed

  1. Karin L. Frank

    You keep taking me back to the mechanics (otherwise referred to as maniacs) that I used to live with. The first car I owned by myself (not with a roommate) was an old Citroen. (t was California and foreign cars were the norm.) My mechanic husband (He was a hollywood husband – one of a pair) gave it to me. It always ran perfectly for him. Half the time I couldn’t even get it started. And the cola in the radiator – yup – he pissed into the brake cylinder one time to keep that working. the second car that I owned he also gave me. It was a Jaguar 120xl – British racing green. I used to split my paycheck between me and the car (and I mostly worked on it myself.) Then there was the TR3(a, I think) the other ‘husband’ gave me later. They were both race drivers. They and the one’s sister (also a race driver) taught me to drive – cars.
    Those beloved machines are why I still say ‘spanner’ instead of ‘wrench’ and ‘boot’ instead of ‘trunk’ and just nod when some mechanical wonk says, “Ah British sports cars. You spend all your time working on them.”
    But that was all ‘back in the day’. Now I’m so sedate I don’t even drive. It’s all memories of another life.

  2. carolyn tillotson

    Not at all my first car but the car i drove to topeka from leavenworth after we married and i continued to work in topeka was a faded red renault with no back seat. rats had eaten the backseat, torn it to shreds.tha’s what we were told when we bought it, cheap i might add. in the topeka statehouse parking lot i tried to leave work either before or after everyone else because i had to use a system to get it started. first i turned the key, then i ran around to the engine and stuffed a pair of john’s underwear into some pipe, and then started it. for some reason this worked. then i took the underwear out(i think) and drove home. and no, he didn’t wear that pair of underwear after this use. and no, i don’t know what i was doing. just trying to get from here to there.

  3. Cathy Robertson

    Ohhhhh, I REMEMBER that turqouise corvair. I also recall hitting it as I pulled out of the parking lot right beside it one day. (I believe the entire car crumbled as though someone had let the air out.) jk
    I was lucky enough to have a ’67 Mustang, red!!!! Drove great until I ran it headlong into the bridge overpass. We DID salvage the heater and backseat out of that car. Ahhhh, the memories, some good, some bad. Just glad you reminded me of that Corvair. It ALWAYS looked risky to me. lol

  4. Janet

    Dad rewired the lights in the station wagon so we could have lights on the camper. I was driving when I had to turn left and turned on the left blinker, smoke came pouring out of the steering column and I ditched the car, ran across the street to a gas station screaming, “MY CAR’S ON FIRE!” Turns out I had burned out the entire electrically system in the car by using the turn signal!

    I was driving one of the Corvairs (we had several) when the motor fell out. One of the reasons the Corvair was considered dangerous, there was only one bolt holding the engine in chassis and it was made of plastic. I think Dad just jacked up the motor put in a new bolt and it ran just fine.

    I remember Dad said when you turn left, be sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get through the intersection, in case the car dies in the middle of the road. Ah sweet memories!

  5. Kerry

    Ok, so my first car? Not worth mentioning. Rich’s first car, on the other hand, was a Gremlin. With big, wide tires, no less. Ahhhhhh. We had some serious fun in that car. Like the time I rode on his lap into town (really only about 1/2 a mile), while every few seconds covering his eyes with my hands and shouting “Look! No eyes!.” Jesus. Don’t ever share this with my kids.

    1. CrazieTown Post author

      Kerry, I remember sitting on the console in my boyfriend’s car as we drove 85 MPH to Kansas City. No seat belts. Crazie! But his car was a Mustang – nothing as fancy as a Gremlin. 🙂

  6. Bob

    My spelling was so bad in the post. We rode around with the windows open SO we wouldn’t die…and “owned” only has one “e” in it. Must be the cool temperatures after the wind and rain we had. It’s muddled my mind.

  7. Bob

    OMG, my first car was a Corvair. The heat came directly from the engine and we rode around with the windows open for we wouldn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning. That was the first car I drove and the last car my family owned because my dad had his stroke the year after he bought it and eventually my mother sold it because she didn’t drive. My first car I owened was a VW bug. Was that your car that burned? If so, we have another thing in common. My second VW caught fire and burned to a cinder.


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