Young men and their machines, near the intersection of Pelham Street, Highway 20, and Rebel Without a Cause Blvd., 1955. PHOTO COURTESY OF VILMA MORETTI

The machismo side effects of a kid’s first car

Special to the VOICE

For many males, likely one of their most cherished memories is their first car. Not the dad’s family sedan, but the first one with their name on the ownership. I’m not excluding females here, but it seems there were fewer car buffs within their ranks than in the other gender. Perhaps their most cherished memories were more altruistic and purposeful than those enamoured with motor vehicles.

That first car for many guys seemed unmistakably symbolic of their passage into some higher level of masculinity. Racing stripes, wheel covers, fender skirts, mud flaps, straight pipes, and a trunk full of other auto accessories were somehow equated with the traits of masculinity for some males.

Decorated and individualized from grill to tail pipe, these customized vehicles paraded the streets and lined up at the hamburger joints as glistening and colourful as peacocks.

I remember those days and how I envied the owners of these macho machines.

However, my first car experience wasn’t anything like the masculinity enhancements enjoyed by my counterparts.

My first car was an old wreck that was to provide transport between two summer jobs while I was in university. I came from a family of modest means and automobiles were beyond affordability. My father died when I was a young teenager, and after that dreadful misfortune money was a scarce commodity. I mention this not to elicit sympathy but rather to put into context my thinking and circumstances at that point in my life.

The same location as seen above, as of Monday, July 22 2019. VOICE PHOTO

I was home from college for the summer and fortunate enough to get two jobs that had different schedules. That meant I needed transport between the two worksites to make this arrangement work so that I might earn the money needed to continue my education.

My sister and her husband had an abandoned old wreck of a vehicle parked in their backyard and said I could have it if I could get it to work. I knew little about automotive mechanics but I bought a used battery, a fan belt, a bicycle pump and a can of gas to see if I could resurrect this 1940s beast of a vehicle. Remarkably, with an investment of 50 bucks, it came to life! So I reinflated the tires and was off to the races, so to speak.

This vehicle was a beastly four-door sedan. There was not one sparkle or glistening from any part of the body or trim inside or out. It had a six-cylinder flat-head engine that looked like it powered a sewing machine rather than this macadam-mastering monstrosity. It had a Dynaflow fluid transmission and, mysteriously to me, included a clutch on the floor and a gear shift on the steering column.

This fluid transmission was very smooth shifting, but oh so slow to accelerate this behemoth of a vehicle. I was often overtaken by fully loaded moving vans, funeral processions, and occasionally by a homeless person pushing a shopping cart overflowing with all of their worldly possessions.

Frankly, I had no idea what terms like flat-head and Dynaflow meant, other than these were crucial to the operation of the vehicle. The tires had mere traces of tread and, in retrospect, along with other deficiencies, this inanimate brute was not likely roadworthy by any sensible standard.

However, it was my first car, and I fervently hoped it wasn’t to be the omen of my entry into manhood. For that reason— and to preserve what was left of my marginalized self-worth—I didn’t join the ranks of the cruising aficionados on Friday and Saturday nights. I rationalized that mine was a utilitarian vehicle, far from being a show car. Better to keep it hidden than to display it openly.

There was one particular incident that stands taller than others among my memories of my first car. I lived in Niagara Falls and the girl I was dating lived in Wainfleet. Most remarkably and unlikely, in the context of this recollection, she became, and still is, my ever-loving wife. You can take from that whatever you like. However, I maintain that it was my charming character that impressed her most, and that my wreck of a car was of no consequence.

On one date-night I piloted my less-than-pride-and-joy from Niagara Falls to Wainfleet to pick her up for a social event taking place in Niagara Falls, NY. As I neared her home I felt a bit off kilter and pulled over to the shoulder. As I exited the car I involuntarily dropped to my knees. It turned out that there was a small leak coming from a broken manifold gasket, and on longer drives any occupants were slowly being gassed with carbon monoxide.

However, after a moment I recovered my mobility and cracked open the widows and thought that this natural ventilation would provide some protection from the gases leaking into the car through the rusted holes in the floor boards. Oh, the profane ignorance of youth!

When I got to my girlfriend’s house her father was tending the garden. He put down his rake, greeted me warmly and asked where we were off to that night. I told him about our intended event in New York, to which he quickly responded, “You don’t plan on driving my daughter there and home again in that, do you?” Pointing of course to my still slightly smoking, style-deficient beast from Detroit.

Then he said, handing me a set of keys, “Better take my car to be on the safe side and, be careful.”

Holy smokes, his car was a Buick hardtop! A beautiful new model that exuded the machismo my clunker so despairingly sucked from my image. I could hardly believe this generosity. Clearly, this offer was motivated by his great love for his only daughter and a fatherly concern for her safety. I suspect it also meant that his daughter had previously extolled my virtues and admirable qualities, leading him to not only trust me with his daughter but also allow me the loan of his top-of-the-line automobile.

And so it was, my entry into the macho state of being an owner of a set of wheels was a little opposite from others of my generation. But this oddly different experience likely helped me stock up on an element that I was probably somewhat short of in those young years—humility.

That car lasted me throughout the summer and I sold it to a scrapyard dealer for 50 bucks before returning to my studies. Regardless of those numbers, I more than broke even.



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