Shopping for My First Car - Lessons Learned Back in the Day

November 9, 2009


       It was 1975, I was twenty, and Albuquerque at that time offered up a plethora of used automotive opportunities. I had a budget of $ 1,500 or less, and not much experience to draw on. A Plymouth Gold Duster with an automatic was my Drivers Ed chariot in New York, and a white 3-speed 1974 Camaro was the trainer mule in my New Mexico classes. Other than that and an occasional outing with my folks black 62 Buick LeSabre around Queens, I was bereft of wheel time. 

Now, as you can imagine, I wanted something fun, cool, and fast. Safety and practicality were second, or even third in my mind.

For my parental benefactors, the opposite held true.

The list of car candidates I checked out covered quite a range:

There was the brown '68 Thunderbird for $ 500, which I passed up because it wasnt a '67. The dealer went into shock, probably having never lost a sale because something was newer than promised.  The interior dash layout on these was very cool, but it didnt feel like me somehow.

Then there was the real heartbreaker, an orange 1970 Opel GT, sort of a Honey Who Shrunk the Jag?  icon. Do I have to tell you how gorgeous these now very rare cars are?

In this case the Corvette wannabe had a clutch pedal action so brutal Hulk Hogan would have had trouble not stalling it out. The steering was direct - if not exactly assisted. If it rode any lower to the ground it would have caused sparks.If you want to get the idea, go drive a Lotus Elise.

The windshield was cracked, and that's just what I knew about it. For $ 1,200 it seemed iffy even to me. The seller swore that it just needed a couple of hundred bucks to be perfect. Sure it did.!

There would be two more candidates before I settled. One was a 1968 baby blue Volvo 122S. Gorgeous, with all the curves Volvos once had before their square period, it looked like it rolled out of the showroom yesterday. The handling was heavy, as was the car. Real metal which you could have jumped up and down on without causing a dent. It had 90,000 miles, and the asking price was $ 1,500.So what happened?

So, I offered $ 1,400 and was told the price was non-negotiable. I asked the classic question why are you selling it? and received an answer that threw me. Apparently it had been his brother's, who had died in an accident, and he couldnt stand to look at it. I was reassured that it had been a skiing not a car accident, but I figured every time I looked at the car I would be reminded of that. Combine that with the high mileage and firm price and I passed.

Finally, there was the silver 1970 Datsun 510. The car dealer explained that with its single overhead cam engine, it was really a poor mans BMW. Wow. And that it shared its re-circulating ball steering with Mercedes. But what was really impressed me was when he revved it up to 60 in less than a block and spun it around 180 degrees like it was nothing. He admitted to having done some racing, but still I was in love with the car.

Now, when I drove it, it was with the hesitant clumsiness of the unfamiliar and untrained.

When I looked at the 50,000 miles and the price of $1,200 it made sense to me. Not to my folks, who were footing the bill for their college kid. Sigh.

Ultimately, I located and test drove a 1971 Datsun 1200 with 40,000 miles and a $ 1,300 price tag. At only 1171 cc, it had two anemic hamsters under the hood, but the engine was simple, the seats folded back and it had an FM radio. It was a medium blue, with four on the floor (actually everything I looked at had a stick shift) and found its way into my parking space. 

Hearing later about Audi's problem with sudden acceleration issues on some of their cars I laughed to think that my Datsun 1200 wouldnt suddenly accelerate if you dropped it off a cliff. But I loved it. If it acted up, I popped the hood, wiggled the butterfly valve, pulled the choke, and voila!  While no mechanic, the simplicity of the engine allowed me delusions of grandeur.

The user-friendly nature of this Datsun B210 predecessor proved the old saw that it is often more fun to drive a modest car at 10/10ths than a great car at only a fraction of its potential.  

It served me faithfully, and its 0 to 60 time, which you could measure with a sundial, probably kept me out of trouble. The moral of the story is that fast cars may be wasted on brand new drivers. 

Although any of my other options might have held their value better, and offered up their own great experience, it was probably best that they went to someone who could actually do them justice.  Say, a less green version of that same young kid. 

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