Rubin: Our first cars, in loving (if rusty) memory

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Lamar Barnes’ first car was just like the winner of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix.

OK, not just like, but neither of them could go backward.

Barnes was 19 when he bought a 1981 Chevrolet Impala, 18 feet of rusty copperish-red freedom. It was 1996, and the car had fuzzy aftermarket speakers, questionable tires and about 190,000 miles on the odometer.

What it didn’t have was a reverse gear. How much can you expect for $300?

“We always had to park it facing out,” says Barnes, 39, of Taylor, “or on the street. We had to put it where the front was at the opening of a driveway. If anyone was in front of us, we were stuck.”

Barnes was among the throngs who came out to watch millions of dollars’ worth of brilliantly engineered and lovingly crafted vehicles careen around a race course in the middle of a river.

It seemed like the perfect place to ask a lot of people about the opposite end of the transportation spectrum:

What was your first car?

People might not remember their first washing machines. They might still be trying to forget their first marriages. But first cars?

They are a common bond and a right of passage, even if they couldn’t technically pass anything but skateboards. And they are burned into our memories — even if they didn’t die in a plume of smoke like Seth Greenberg’s 1993 Eagle Vision.

Greenberg, a 25-year-old from Roseville, was a lad of 17 when he inherited the hulking red sedan his grandmother had driven only 30,000 miles in 13 years.

A year or so later, he was headed to a concert with a carload of friends when thick black fumes began billowing from beneath the hood.

“It turns out,” he says, “cars need coolant.”

Who knew?

The hideous blue car

Grand Prix drivers’ first cars are hard to define. Most of them started racing go-karts when they were still wearing footie pajamas.

Frank Baker of Livonia recalls not only his first car but where he found it — and his wife of 41 years remembers it even more vividly than he does.

“That blue car?” says Paullette. “It was hideous.”

Baker, 64, had retrieved the 1960 Ford Galaxy from his uncle’s field up north. “Rust all over the place,” he says, but it started and he drove it home.

The Bakers were volunteering in an information and lost-and-found booth where the most interesting item turned in so far was a retractable dog leash in a red plastic case. It was probably for a child, they surmised, and heaven knows where he was.

Paullette’s first car was a used white 1965 Mustang. When the transmission started to slip after three or four years, she traded it in on a 1972 Dodge Dart Sport.

“I miss my Mustang,” she says. But we always have our first cars in our dreams, even if those dreams are nightmares.

Jeannine Daly of Rochester Hills, a 70-year-old retired teacher, was zipping around the racing grounds in a motorized chair. On the road, she pilots a 2012 Chevy Camaro convertible, a significant upgrade from the 1960 Rambler she bought in ’67 for $700.

“I’m from the UP,” she says, and in Newberry, “I think they only had two used cars to choose from.”

Prone to running badly if it started at all, “It was horrible — as bad as anything ever written about it.”

Second chance

Aisha Thurman of Detroit says she owes a debt of gratitude to her first car, even if she didn’t have to go into debt to buy it.

The forest green 1996 Pontiac Grand Prix she named Turtle carried her from downtown Detroit to Rochester back when she was cleaning banks for a living. Only $400, it was a mid-30s step into independence.

Now, at 38, she’s making grown-up payments on a Dodge Caliber and working as a writer and etiquette coach. She was test-sitting a blue Camaro in the Meijer Fun Zone, radiating optimism in huge orange earrings that formed a heart on the left ear and spelled out “Love” on the right.

Another Camaro, a black ’76, was the first car Martin Gawron of Madison Heights ever bought and the only one he ever mourned. It had chrome bumpers and a prototype T-top, and 16 years after he traded it in, he spotted it rolling down Woodward in the 1996 Dream Cruise.

“I chased it down on foot,” he says, and after the driver kindly pulled over, Gawron pried back the carpet in the trunk to reveal a treasure he’d forgotten to remove all those years ago: a pair of bricks from Olympia Stadium.

Some of us feel lucky to say good riddance to first cars. Gawron, 59, felt blessed to get a second chance to say goodbye.